The Labour Party in Britain has been dogged by allegations of anti-Semitism ever since Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the 2015 leadership contest. The crisis has since threatened to tear the party apart. Now, though, what appears to be an organised campaign to fuel the row has been uncovered, raising concerns that the party is being targeted by a network of social media trolls with the intent of harming Britain's democratic process.
An investigation by the Electronic Intifada discovered fake online accounts being used when the crisis was at its peak. A report by the online publication documented 10 fake Twitter profiles posing as Corbyn supporters and issuing virulent anti-Semitic posts. The accounts are said to share sufficient similarities to indicate that the same person – or group – is running them, in what appears to be an organised campaign to discredit Corbyn and smear Labour as an anti-Semitic party.
The suspicious Twitter accounts use fake names and profile photos. All 10 have engaged in deception, presenting themselves as Labour activists while posting, for example, anti-Semitic incitement to violence, including death threats.
Six of the 10 fake profiles are ostensibly Muslims who, according to the report, posted some of the most disturbing anti-Semitism, including direct calls for violence against Jews. In one instance the fake twitter accounts responded to the targeting of the official Twitter accounts of Corbyn and his deputy, John McDonnell, by threating "Jihad" against "Jews" alongside a bloody graphic of a knife.
It was discovered that the fake accounts had stolen profile pictures from dating sites. One of them was called "Dean Brown" and claimed to be a "former Labour party staffer" and a member of Momentum, a group which emerged from the campaign to elect Corbyn as Labour leader. The owner of this fake account made one of the most hateful remarks following the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre where 11 Jews were killed. "Dean Brown" directed a tweet at Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, "YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELVES."
Labour sources, the Electronic Intifada reported, said that nobody called Dean Brown had ever worked for Corbyn. Momentum also confirmed that it had no membership record in that name. The profile photo was of someone totally innocent taken from a local press report. This was confirmed when the real person tweeted to confirm that his photo had been stolen and used to create the fake twitter account.
While posting anti-Semitic tweets, the fake accounts also put out pro-Palestine material including concern for Gaza and photos of anti-Israel demonstrations. The discovery of the troll network by the Electronic Intifada has highlighted once again the ease with which individuals or a small group of people are able to promote lies on social media, fuel crises and sow divisions in society.
Corbyn's many defenders have rejected the allegation that the Labour Party is unique with regard to anti-Semitism. The veteran MP himself is known as a committed anti-racist who insists that anti-Semites will find no haven within the Labour Party. His supporters within and outside the party also stress that the campaign against Labour has more to do with Corbyn's strong criticism of Israel than genuine anti-Semitism, a scourge which, they point out, in any case emanates more from the right wing than the left of politics.
Nonetheless, the fact that the twitter accounts date back to 2015 is of great significance. While Corbyn secured the backing of Labour members in 2015's leadership contest, there were dramatic developments in Israel and the US that had a detrimental impact on anti-Israel and pro-Palestine voices.
In Israel, Netanyahu won a General Election for the fourth time and cobbled together a right-wing coalition with partners who were open about their rejection of the Palestinian right to statehood. Ironically, the same people also described as anti-Semitic anyone who challenged Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
One of the top priorities of Netanyahu's government in 2015 was to deal with the global rise in pro-Palestine activism. His solution was a more aggressive response to, for example, the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Netanyahu appointed his Ministry of Strategic Affairs to marshal pro-Israel sympathisers and create covert, anonymous groups to target pro-Palestine activists, often with the help of professional political consultants.
Equally significant changes were underway in the US. In 2015, senior members of the Jewish American community also adopted a more aggressive stance. A report by a Jewish American newspaper found that in the same year that Corbyn became Labour Party leader, new pro-Israel groups were formed that favoured confrontation with critics of the Zionist state. In that year there was also a coming-together of Israel's spy culture and Jewish Americans like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, both of whom are serious donors to the state of Israel. It was reported that the two men felt that the work being carried out by mainstream Jewish organisations was unsatisfactory; what they called for was a movement described by its founders as online "guerrilla warriors" who could take the battle to social media in Israel's defence.
While it is impossible to say without further investigation by the police whether the groups set up to implement this aggressive policy are responsible for fuelling the anti-Semitism crisis within the Labour Party, the situation highlights the need for greater vigilance over social media misuse sowing discord and undermining the democratic process. Russia has been accused of meddling in US elections and the FBI is reported to have uncovered an industrial scale disinformation campaign run by Moscow on social media.
The scandal surrounding the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica further underlined the sophistication of these propaganda campaigns. Tactics normally employed in wartime to create confusion within enemy ranks were found to have been deployed against millions of ordinary people across the world in an effort to interfere with democracy.
Twitter, Facebook and You Tube have inter alia become key to the spreading of propaganda in order to influence elections, create disunity and maybe even sabotage democratic processes. Russian President Vladimir Putin is accused of doing this on such a scale that it is now feared that the result of the 2016 US presidential election may have been affected. Russia may be the first country to be facing an inquiry for this sort of disinformation campaign but it is not the only state to be doing this. We can say with certainty that pro-Israel groups backed by the state have been using the same tactics to fuel the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and undermine Jeremy Corbyn. It is time for the Labour Party and others smeared by these pro-Israel campaigns to get the police involved in future investigations.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.