JERUSALEM — When Ziv Knobler arrived at work Monday, he said, he was surprised to find an image of his Twitter account featured in a dramatic front-page story in the main Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot.
“I was really surprised to see my account mentioned,” said Knobler, who added that he is a “private” father of four who works in a bank and isn’t a member of any party.
Yediot Aharonot’s story, which also was carried in part by the New York Times, was based on an advance copy of a 36-page report from the Big Bots Project, a nonprofit watchdog. It said the manipulative network of social media accounts was designed to “disrupt democratic elections and influence public awareness using improper means.”
But when Knobler and several other account holders named by the report contacted Israeli media outlets protesting that they were simply normal citizens and part of no such network, it turned around what had appeared to be a difficult day for Netanyahu’s campaign, just a week before a hard-fought election.
Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party quickly released a campaign video mocking the report, and Netanyahu brought a man he said was one of the bots — “Captain George,” whose real name he said was Giora — to a news conference in Jerusalem on Monday.
“Captain George, are you a bot?” asked a smirking Netanyahu. “It is unbelievable this thing — Giora is only saying what he thinks.”
The man took to the lectern to say that he was not a bot. “As you can see, I’m not a robot,” he said, adding that everything he writes is “from the heart.”
But Netanyahu’s main political rival, former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, filed a formal complaint against Likud with the Central Elections Committee, calling for a “cessation of this ugly fake news campaign.”
Speaking to The Washington Post, Yuval Adam, one of the report’s authors, said that specific accounts being real was not the issue.
“There are real accounts in that system, and there are real people. We did not say anywhere that there were bots, but that there are a group of accounts working together to promote an agenda,” he said.
Yuval said the Big Bot Project started eight months ago on a voluntary basis and was crowdfunded.
The report describes a “network made up of hundreds of accounts that have no identifying name or profile photograph.” These accounts, said the report, “manipulated, slandered, lied and spread rumors anonymously” and at their height wrote and shared thousands of tweets a day supporting Netanyahu and Likud. Many of the messages were shared by the prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu and Likud campaign officials, the report said.
Adam and his partner, Noam Rotem, estimated that more than 2.5 million Israeli citizens, in a country of just under 9 million, were exposed to the online messaging. They say at least some of the social media accounts received payment.
Though Giora, or Captain George, and Knobler denied receiving payment, the report identifies Yitzhak Haddad, an Israeli citizen, as being behind the network of social media accounts as well as a Twitter profile called “Bond.”
A message published from that account Monday threatened to sue Yediot Aharonot, accusing the newspaper of spreading lies. The account holder did not respond to a request for an interview.
In the new campaign video released by Likud, Netanyahu’s controversial line that Arabs are flocking to the polls — which some argue helped him win the 2015 election — is reworded to “Bots are flocking to the polls.”
“It turns out that those mentioned in the article are actually real people who have been interviewed on Israeli media,” Rachel Broyde, head of Likud’s English campaign, told The Washington Post.
Gantz and the other top candidates from his Blue and White party held a news conference Monday, highlighting what the former general referred to as Netanyahu’s house of cards. He said it was all about to come crashing down.
Tal Pavel, founder and CEO of the Cyber Empowerment Center, said the manipulation of information online is very problematic.
“When we read a newspaper or watch television news, we know how to judge the information we receive,” Pavel said. “But online, we don’t always know who is behind the accounts and can suddenly find ourselves taking part in something we think is legitimate, but which is really fake news.”