Israeli disinformation

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Fake accounts have proliferated on Facebook, Twitter and other major online platforms with the aim of swaying political opinion in many countries and leaving the companies scrambling to respond.

The latest source of these fake accounts: Israel. Facebook has said it detected dozens of its accounts that were engaging in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior”, another way of saying election interference and other forms of public manipulation via news and social media.

This is the first time Facebook says it’s detected such activity from Israel, and Facebook even names an Israeli commercial entity, Archimedes Group, that it says was behind the behavior. Facebook has now banned Archimedes Group, purging 65 Israeli accounts, 161 pages, dozens of groups and four Instagram accounts, and issued a cease and desist letter. Archimedes had reportedly spent some $800,000 on fake ads and its deceptive activity dated back to 2012. The pages have racked up 2.8 million followers and hundreds of thousands of views, and about 5,500 accounts joined at least one of the groups.

Facebook says it can’t determine the exact intentions of the group, but its work of fabrication centered on West African countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Niger. Facebook also detected activity aimed at users in Angola, Tunisia, and parts of Southeast Asia and South America. This points to a staggering diversity of regions and illustrates the group’s sophistication.

On its website, Archimedes, based in Tel Aviv, makes no attempt to hide itself as a consulting firm involved in campaigns for presidential elections. Its slogan is “winning campaigns worldwide” and it possesses software which it said enabled the operation of an unlimited number of online accounts. Most telling, it boasts of its social media skills and its ability to “take every advantage available to change reality according to our client’s wishes”.

Because Archimedes is primarily organized to conduct deceptive behavior, Facebook removed it from the platform and blocked it from coming back. Archimedes ran an influence campaign aimed at disrupting elections in various countries while spreading disinformation.

Facebook did not want to speculate about Archimedes’ motives, which it said may be commercial or political. What is clear is that given the geographical variety of Archimedes’ operations, it’s impossible to determine a single ideological thread. They weren’t pushing exclusively far-right or anti-globalist content. It appears to be simply a clear-cut case of spreading disinformation. Facebook discovered coordinated inauthentic behavior, with accounts posing as certain political candidates, smearing opponents or as local news organizations peddling supposedly leaked information, all probably for economic incentive. And while there was no indication that Archimedes was linked to the Israeli government, it’s not out of the question considering that the individuals behind this network attempted to conceal their identities.

Archimedes-linked pages took a page right out of the playbook of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Since the revelation that Russia used Facebook to sway that election, Facebook has come under pressure to more aggressively and transparently tackle misinformation aimed at sowing division and confusion around elections.

Beyond this one particular instance in Israel, most of Facebook’s efforts in combating election interference, foreign policy meddling, and state-and corporate-sponsored misinformation have been centered on Iran and Russia, and an increase of this type of behavior in the past couple of years coming from India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Archimedes’ goal ostensibly was to have some type of effect on local elections and the political atmosphere, but it appears that its commercialization of tactics was more commonly tied to governments, an emerging — and worrying — trend in the global spread of social media disinformation. Archimedes is a real Israeli communications firm making money through the dissemination of fake news. These efforts go well beyond what is acceptable in free and democratic societies.


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