JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli watchdog said Monday that it found a network of social media bots disseminating messages in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of next week’s elections.
Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, two researchers operating the Big Bots Project, said in a report that they uncovered hundreds of fake accounts spreading messages in support of Netanyahu’s Likud party and smearing his opponents.
Israelis head to the polls in eight days in a close race between Netanyahu and his main rival, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz. Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office under the shadow of corruption charges.
The campaign has focused largely on personal attacks between the two front-runners, with Gantz taking aim at Netanyahu’s alleged ethical lapses, and Netanyahu painting Gantz as a weak “leftist.” The prime minister’s Likud Party has also tried to portray Gantz as being mentally unstable.
Rotem, one of the researchers at the Big Bots Project, said it seems people were hired to open and run multiple Twitter profiles.
The accounts’ posts involve “a combination of spreading the narrative of the Likud party and attacking the opposition, mostly Gantz, but not only, and attacking anyone that is criticizing them,” Rotem said.
While the exact number of accounts was hard to pin down, Rotem said they had identified at least 400 accounts in the network, and a few hundred others suspected of association.
Rotem and Adam said they found no direct link between the network and Netanyahu or Likud. But Netanyahu’s son Yair, who has run into trouble in the past for his social media activity, has frequently liked posts by the network’s accounts. They said it was unclear who was operating the network.
The Likud party denied any connection to the network.
Gantz’s Blue and White party wrote on Twitter after the Big Bots Project’s report headlined Monday’s edition of Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth that “Netanyahu is trying to steal the elections” and called for a police investigation to determine the network’s funding.
The expose about the pro-Netanyahu network was the latest technology related incident in the tumultuous 2019 Israeli election campaign. Last month, news broke that Gantz’s personal telephone was infiltrated by Iranian hackers. While Gantz contends no sensitive information was compromised, Netanyahu leveraged the breach to argue that Gantz was unprepared to lead the country.