An Israeli watchdog group has uncovered a network of hundreds of fake social media accounts serving as a platform to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and smear his political opponents in the run-up to elections next week.
The watchdog group, the Big Bots Project, which is an independent organization aiming to expose the malicious use of social media networks, revealed in a report on Monday that over 500 fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were being used to sway the results of the upcoming elections in favor of Netanyahu and his Likud party.
The accounts coordinated among themselves and multiplied their activity to “echo the issues of debate of Likud and Netanyahu, and spread poisonous propaganda, lies and slander against some media and candidates running for the Knesset,” the report said.
Israeli researchers Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, the founders of the watchdog group, said in the report that the pro-Netanyahu network was being operated by real people, not automated “bots,” and that its posts, all in Hebrew, had received more than 2.5 million views.
The network’s messages were re-posted by individuals linked to the Likud campaign, including Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 27-year-old son, who is an unofficial adviser to the campaign, according to the report.
Opinion polls show that the Israeli premier and his main challenger, centrist candidate Benny Gantz, are involved in a close race ahead of the April 9 election.
The Israeli prime minister has, however, been facing calls to step down over bribery and other corruption charges. He is involved and has been investigated in at least three criminal cases.
So-called Case 1,000 involves allegations that Netanyahu received luxury gifts from international billionaires in exchange for favors. In Case 2,000, he is accused of conspiring with the owner of Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to undermine a critical daily. Case 4,000 also involves allegations that Netanyahu offered incentives to the Israeli telecom provider Bezeq in return for positive stories in Walla news website. Netanyahu has dismissed the accusations against himself.
It is the first time that a serving Israeli prime minister is facing criminal charges. Netanyahu has been prime minister for a total of around 13 years.