Who is really behind anti-Likud 'bots' report?

Amid push back against report of alleged Likud online smear campaign, some have cited report's ties to left-wing US group. Is it fake news?

David Rosenberg ,

Likud campaign ad in Jerusalem
Likud campaign ad in Jerusalem
Yonatan Sindel,/Flash90

A new report released Monday claiming that a shadowy network of fake Israeli social media accounts, many of them operated automatically by digital ‘bots’ spreading election misinformation in a concerted effort to alter the outcome of next week’s vote, has sparked controversy after some of the owners of the alleged ‘bot’ accounts went public to dispute the report.

Bot Farm Boom – or Bust?

On Monday, a new report suggesting similar bot activity on social media outlets may be part of another campaign to alter the outcome of an election – this time in Israel.

The report, produced by the Big Bots Project, claims that hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, are being used in a concerted effort to spread negative claims about rival candidates challenging Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of next week’s Knesset election.

The Big Bots Project report, which was covered by the New York Times and major Israeli outlets including Yediot Ahronot, claims that hundreds of social media accounts on outlets including Facebook and Twitter are linked to an organized smear campaign working to spread negative stories about rival candidates challenging Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party.

“The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors,” the report says of the online smear campaign. “On its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day.”

Chief among the targets, the report says, is former IDF chief of staff and current Blue and White party chairman, Benny Gantz.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s primary competitor in this year’s election, has led in most pre-election polls, with the Blue and White averaging between 30 to 31 seats in surveys over the past week, compared to an average of 29 seats for the Likud.

The report said that the accounts linked to the smear campaign’s network was “mobilized at climactic moments for Netanyahu, such as the announcement of the indictment against him.”

Big Bots Project said 154 accounts used by the network had been shown to be fake, with another 400 or so likely fake accounts tied to the network. The network’s reach, with thousands of social media posts put up since the election season began last December, has grown, with over 2.5 million hits.

The network has reportedly promoted uncorroborated accusations against Gantz, including an allegation of sexual abuse, claims Gantz had an extra-marital affair, and suggestions the former IDF chief is a closet homosexual.

The report further suggested that while Netanyahu and his son, Yair Netanyahu – who had retweeted some of the claims put forth by accounts linked to the network – were not involved in the bot campaign, the Likud party and Netanyahu’s re-election campaign did appear to be working to coordinate the network’s activities.

These allegations have raised concerns of possible campaign finance and electioneering laws violations.

The Likud pushed back Sunday, however, denying the party had anything to do with social media bots.

“All of the Likud’s digital activity is entirely authentic and is based on the great support of the citizens of Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the great achievements of the Likud,” Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich said, according to the NYT.

‘Smells Like a Defamation Lawsuit’

Some social media users were also quick to rebut claims their accounts were “bots” used as part of the alleged smear campaign network.

“All of the sudden a person wakes up in the morning and feels like a bot and starts to go. I smell a defamation lawsuit here against Yediot Ahronot. There is a limit to the level of lies we can tolerate,” tweeted Ziv Knobler, whose account had been cited as an example of an online bot working on behalf of the smear network. A screenshot of one of Knobler’s posts was publicized by Yediot Ahronot Monday morning.

“I’m not a Likud activist, I’m not a member of the Likud, I have no ties whatsoever to the Likud, and I don’t get any information from them – and definitely not any money,” Knobler told Kan.

“This morning I woke up and discovered that I’m not a real person, but a bot.”

Others also complained of being falsely identified as bots.

“Hey everybody, did you see, according to Yediot Ahronot I’m a bot,” tweeted Moshe Mahlev.

“It is a complete disgrace,” Mahlev told Kipa. “No one called me or sent me a message on Twitter. They saw that I have a picture of a model on my profile, so they decided that I’m a bot. What a disgrace.”

The report also drew criticism from some reporters who questioned the group behind the report and its sources of funding.

Ariel Plaskin, a journalist from Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, called the Big Bots Project report an ‘embarrassment’, and claimed the report had been funded by left-wing American financier, George Soros.

“The investigation which was published in Yediot Ahronot is one of the most embarrassing investigations in journalist in recent years. It was financed by the Tides Foundation (yes, Soros).”

But the Big Bots Project’s patron, the Tides Foundation-backed Israeli Alliance, denies it directly funded the project, saying it had only hosted the group’s fundraising campaign.

Who Are the ‘Big Bots’?

The Big Bots Project, a small group of techie volunteers, is led by open code activist Yuval Adam, a founder of the Israeli branch of the Cryptoparty movement; and Noam Rotem, a white-hat hacker and self-described human rights activist.

The project was shepherded along by the Israeli Alliance, a progressive-left movement established in 2017 by social justice activist Shai Cohen.

According to Cohen, the chairman of Israeli Alliance, the organization helps independent projects launch their activities and secure funding.

In the case of the Big Bots Project, the Israeli Alliance orchestrated the project’s fundraising campaign via the crowdfunding page ‘Drove’.

"The funding for the Bots project comes from a crowdsourcing campaign that we are only hosting. There are more than 500 Israelis that donated to the campaign,” Cohen told Arutz Sheva.

"Our relationship [with the Big Bots Project] is hosting the crowdsourcing of this volunteer group to let them have the basic funds."

The Israeli Alliance itself does rely at least in part on funding from the aforementioned Tides organization, however.

Along with “Jewish donors from across the world,” Alliance’s website acknowledges it relies in part on funding from the Tides Foundation – a progressive-left San Francisco-based “philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator dedicated to…social justice,” according to the Tides’ website.

Recent recipients of Tides donations include a variety of large, progressive-left groups focused on domestic issues, including the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the NAACP, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

But the Tides Foundation has also given to a smattering of openly anti-Israel organizations which often back the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS).

According to the Tides Foundation’s 2014 grant list and 2016 tax return, the fund gave more than $13,400 to the openly pro-BDS, anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace in 2014 and $10,000 in 2016.

In 2014, Tides also gave $5,000 to CodePink, another radical anti-Israel group which has endorsed BDS. Two years later, CodePink received a whopping $58,000 from Tides.

Another pro-BDS group, the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, received 20,000 in grants from Tides in 2014.

The pro-BDS Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice netted $5,000 in 2014 and $7,000 in 2016.

Tides even gave $5,000 to the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist Mondoweiss website – an outlet accused by George Mason University Law School professor David Bernstein of being an anti-Semitic “hate site”.

Even the Illinois-based Palestinian propaganda site, Electronic Intifada, benefitted from the Tides Foundation’s largesse, to the tune of $15,000 in 2014 and $25,000 in 2016.