An Israeli watchdog group has found a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next week's election and to amplify the messages of his Likud party, the New York Times reported citing an independent organisation known as the Big Bots Project.
The watchdog said that "the network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumours" and that "on its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day."
The network's activity is said to have intensified almost fivefold since the election was called in December, and "is mobilized at climactic moments for Netanyahu, such as the announcement of the indictment against him."
It's suspected that the network may have violated Israeli laws pertaining to elections, campaign finance, privacy and taxation.
Israel's Netanyahu could face new corruption charge in submarine affair
The Likud party denied running a network of fake accounts and the report also said that it had found no direct links between the network, Netanyahu or his son, Yair Netanyahu, though the 27-year-old -who was banned from Facebook for posting anti-Muslim content – had reposted messages from fake accounts.
Some 154 of the accounts in the network are said to be using fake names and another 400 accounts are suspected of being fake. According to the report obtained by the New York Times in advance of its publication, the accounts appear to be operated by people, not bots, making them much harder to detect. Their posts, all in Hebrew, have had over 2.5 million hits in a country with only 8.7 million citizens.
The members of the network are believed to be working in sync with each other. When one posted the false rumours about Netanyahu's main rival Benny Gantz, for example that he was a rapist, many of the others reposted it. Last week, many of the members almost simultaneously began tweeting that Gantz was mentally ill, echoing a video clip distributed by the Likud campaign.
An American women has alleged that Gantz had sexually harassed her when they were in high school. Gantz has denied the accusation, and no support for it has been forthcoming, but the fabricated accounts pushed the story with tweets like: "Gantz the rapist to jail" and "Lousy scum rapist."
All accounts in the network are said to be linked to that of a real person, Yitzhak Haddad, a resident of Ashdod.
Israel election: Leaked recordings reveal Gantz would sit in Netanyahu government