Israel ran secret influence campaign targeting US lawmakers with fake social media accounts and news sites, investigation finds

Accounts shut down by Meta in May had “accumulated more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook, and Instagram,” but many followers appeared to be bots, failing to generate a significant audience. (AFP/File)
Accounts shut down by Meta in May had “accumulated more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook, and Instagram,” but many followers appeared to be bots, failing to generate a significant audience. (AFP/File)
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Updated 05 June 2024
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Israel ran secret influence campaign targeting US lawmakers with fake social media accounts and news sites, investigation finds

Israel ran secret influence campaign targeting US lawmakers with fake social media accounts and news sites, investigation finds
  • Campaign was organized and funded by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, documents reveal
  • Fake accounts have pushed AI-generated pro-Israeli comments under key US lawmakers’ posts

LONDON: Israel has been conducting a covert lobbying campaign aimed at influencing US lawmakers and the American public about the Gaza war, according to a report by The New York Times published on Wednesday.

The campaign, organized and funded by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, aimed to garner support for Israel’s actions in the conflict, as revealed by officials involved and related documents.

“Israel’s role in this is reckless and probably ineffective,” said Achiya Schatz, executive director of FakeReporter, an Israeli misinformation watchdog that identified the effort in March.

He added that running an operation that interferes in US politics is “extremely irresponsible.”

The documents cited by The New York Times indicate that the ministry allocated about $2 million for the operation and hired Stoic, a political marketing firm in Tel Aviv, to execute the campaign.

Launched in October, the campaign employed hundreds of fake social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and X to post AI-generated pro-Israeli comments targeting key American lawmakers.

Democrat Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader from New York, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, appeared to have been key targets.

Three fake English-language news sites featuring pro-Israel articles were also part of the influence campaign.

Despite these efforts, FakeReporter noted that the campaign did not achieve a “widespread impact.”

Accounts shut down by Meta in May had “accumulated more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook, and Instagram,” but many followers appeared to be bots, failing to generate a significant audience.

Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs denied involvement, stating it had no connection to Stoic. However, four current and former members of the ministry contradicted this claim, confirming the ministry’s involvement.

If verified, this would be the first known campaign by the Israeli government to directly influence US lawmakers.

Countries such as Iran, China, North Korea, Russia and the US have previously been linked to similar tactics aimed at influencing public opinion and creating controversy.

Israel has been striving to gain public support following its military invasion of Gaza last October, a response to the Hamas Oct. 7 attack.

With global support at minimal levels, Israel has resorted to such tactics to sway public opinion, particularly in the US, where the Biden administration’s support for Israeli actions has faced growing discontent.

Last October, an Arab News investigation revealed that an Israeli state advertising campaign appeared on many X users’ feeds, despite the platform’s ad policy guidelines prohibiting such content.


Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say

Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say
Updated 17 July 2024
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Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say

Trump shooting conspiracy theories flourish on X, researchers say
  • The conspiracy theories were viewed over 215 million times on X, the watchdog Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said

WASHINGTON: Conspiracy theories about the assassination attempt on Donald Trump received tens of millions of views on X, researchers said Tuesday, highlighting the potential for extreme falsehoods to go viral on the Elon Musk-owned platform.

The social media site, formerly named Twitter, was flooded with unsubstantiated claims soon after the shooting Saturday at a campaign rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, which left one spectator dead and a bloodied Trump injured in the ear.

Those included unfounded assertions that the assassination attempt had been “staged” or an “inside job,” while fingers were pointed at imaginary culprits such as Jews and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

The conspiracy theories were viewed over 215 million times on X, the watchdog Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said after analyzing a sample of 100 popular posts.

A majority of the posts did not carry a “Community Note,” a crowd-sourced moderation tool that Musk has promoted as the way for users to add context to the tweets, CCDH added.

In the first 24 hours alone, unsubstantiated narratives around the incident amassed more than 100 million views on X, according to the nonprofit research group Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

Internet hoaxers also falsely identified several people as the shooter — including Italian sports journalist Marco Violi, anti-Trump protester Maxwell Yearick and comedian Sam Hyde, AFP’s fact-checkers reported.

Federal investigators have identified the shooter, who was killed on the scene, as Thomas Matthew Crooks of Pennsylvania.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, several social media users voiced confusion as they scrambled to obtain accurate information in what appeared to be a sea of false or misleading posts, which rapidly gained traction.

The trend illustrates the ability of falsehoods to mutate into viral political discourse on tech platforms including X, which now offer fewer guardrails as they scale back content moderation.

Researchers say some clout-chasing accounts on the platform have a financial motive to post sensational falsehoods, as X’s ad revenue-sharing program incentivizes extreme content designed to boost engagement.

“In the marketplace of disinformation — which is effectively what a lot of social media platforms have now been reduced to, a marketplace for lies — extreme content is your currency,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive and founder of CCDH.

“The algorithms take the most outlandish content and amplify it exponentially until the entire digital world is flooded with conspiracism, disinformation and hate.”

Researchers have warned about a possible firehose of disinformation in the run up to the November election, which will take place in a deeply polarized political climate in the United States.

“Already, at an early stage in the US electoral cycle, we can see flashing warning signs that social media in the weeks and months ahead will be increasingly chaotic and rife with disinformation,” Ahmed said.


Algeria publisher closes over book controversy

Readers visit a book stall on a street  in the Algerian capital Algiers. (AFP file photo)
Readers visit a book stall on a street in the Algerian capital Algiers. (AFP file photo)
Updated 17 July 2024
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Algeria publisher closes over book controversy

Readers visit a book stall on a street  in the Algerian capital Algiers. (AFP file photo)
  • The announcement comes a week after “Houaria” won the prestigious Assia Djebar Grand Prize, an award in honor of the Algerian literary giant who died in 2015

ALGIERS: An Algerian publishing house said on Tuesday it was ceasing operations after an award-winning novel sparked uproar on social media because of its controversial themes.
“We announce that MIM Edition has closed its doors effective immediately in the face of the storm and fire,” the publisher posted on Facebook.
“Houaria,” by Inaam Bayoud, has sparked furor on social media, with many accusing it of being replete with sexual innuendo and using “coarse terms in Darija,” the Algerian dialect of Arabic.
The announcement comes a week after “Houaria” won the prestigious Assia Djebar Grand Prize, an award in honor of the Algerian literary giant who died in 2015.
“While reading the novel, we were no less concerned about values than those who claim to defend them without having read it,” said Amina Belaala, a member of the Assia Djebar Grand Prize jury that selected the book.
“We did not see in those few words any affront to morality, religion or modesty,” she added.
For literary critic Faycal Metaoui, the uproar caused by the novel is evidence of a double-standard for female writers in Algerian society.
“The author and the publisher are women. If it were written by a man, we would not have seen all this,” he told AFP.
 

 


Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns

Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns
Updated 16 July 2024
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Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns

Stabbed Iran International journalist flees to Israel over safety concerns
  • Pouria Zeraati said move was a “reluctant” but necessary decision

LONDON: Iran International journalist Pouria Zeraati has fled to Israel citing safety concerns after an assassination attempt in London in March.

In an interview with The Guardian, Zeraati revealed that his move from London to an undisclosed location in Israel was a “reluctant” but necessary decision.

“The place I live right now is a little safer,” he said in an interview published Tuesday.

“There have been communications between the UK police and the police here. They know about my situation and have taken extra measures to make sure I’m safe in Israel.”

Zeraati was attacked outside his home in Wimbledon, southwest London, by three unidentified men who reportedly fled the country immediately after the attack.

Police believe the attackers were part of a criminal gang from Eastern Europe acting on behalf of the Iranian government.

Suspicion increased following a series of foiled plots aimed at kidnapping or killing employees of Iran International, a London-based network that Tehran has classified as a terrorist organization.

Zeraati, who was hospitalized with a leg injury, criticized the UK’s approach to the threat posed by Iran on British soil, saying it could not guarantee his safety.

He called for the British government to impose more stringent sanctions against Iran.

The attack on Zeraati comes amid an “unprecedented” harassment campaign against Iranian journalists living abroad.

According to a report by Reporters Without Borders, almost 90 percent of Iranian journalists said they had experienced online threats or harassment in the past five years.

In December, ITV revealed that a double agent exposed a plot orchestrated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to assassinate two network anchors during the 2022 anti-government protests.

Similarly, journalists at the BBC’s Persian language news outlet reported being targeted with offensive messages and threats of sexual assault, with reports of family members in Iran being arbitrarily detained.

Zeraati’s move to a country at war, and at risk of further conflict, has also raised fresh questions over how safe the UK is for dissidents targeted by foreign states.


Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy

Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy
Updated 16 July 2024
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Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy

Video of driver lashing migrants in back of lorry sparks indignation in Italy
  • Video shows driver shouting at and hitting a group of Eritrean migrants with makeshift whip

LONDON: A video showing a driver lashing a group of migrants who hid in the back of his lorry to cross into France has sparked outrage in Italy.

The video, which went viral on social media, shows an unidentified driver, believed to be from Eastern Europe, shouting at and hitting a group of Eritrean migrants, mostly women, with a makeshift whip.

The incident was filmed by a passerby at a traffic center in Ventimiglia, in the Liguria region near the French border.

Police are investigating the incident but have not released further information.

The episode has ignited a nationwide debate, with Save the Children Italy condemning the images as “inhuman and demeaning.”

“Children, adolescents, and thousands of migrants arriving in Europe deserve a system that recognizes their needs, treats them with respect and dignity, and protects them from danger,” the association said in a statement, criticizing the EU’s recently approved Pact on Migration and Asylum.

According to the Italian newspaper Secolo XIX, the group had been welcomed the evening before the incident at a refugee center run by Catholic charity Caritas and spent the night at the “widespread reception point” in Ventimiglia.

Following the incident, the migrants returned to the center, where they recounted what had happened.


Russian-US journalist Gessen sentenced to 8 years jail in absentia

Russian-US journalist Gessen sentenced to 8 years jail in absentia
Updated 15 July 2024
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Russian-US journalist Gessen sentenced to 8 years jail in absentia

Russian-US journalist Gessen sentenced to 8 years jail in absentia
  • Masha Gessen is accused of spreading false information about the Russian military’s killing of civilians in Ukraine

MOSCOW: A Russian-American journalist who has accused the Russian army of carrying out crimes in Ukraine was sentenced in absentia to eight years jail by a Moscow court on Monday.
Masha Gessen, a regular contributor to the New Yorker, was declared wanted in Russia last year after alleging its military killed civilians in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in March 2022, an accusation the Kremlin denies.
The court sentenced Gessen to eight years jail for “knowingly spreading false information about the use of the Russian army,” according to a statement from the Moscow city court service.
Shortly after launching its offensive in Ukraine, Russia made independent reporting on the conflict illegal and outlawed criticism of its armed forces.
Gessen, who now lives in the United States, is a prominent LGBTQ activist and long-time critic of President Vladimir Putin, penning a scathing biography of the Russian leader in 2012.
A Moscow court also on Monday sentenced a former municipal deputy to seven and a half years in absentia for allegedly spreading “fakes” about the Russian army.
Elena Kotenochkina, who has fled Russia, was convicted after speaking out in defense of fellow deputy Alexei Gorinov, jailed for seven years after proposing a minute’s silence for the victims of the conflict in Ukraine during a council meeting.