Israeli influence campaign implicitly targets US lawmakers: NPR

A file photo of Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Sigli from May 2024. He took part in the “Europa Viva 24” rally of the Spanish far-right party Vox in Madrid. The New York Times Sigley’s ministry funded a covert online influence campaign targeting US lawmakers over the war in Gaza. Sigley denied the reports.

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Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images

Websites ostensibly targeting young, progressive Americans with a pro-Israel spin on the war in Gaza are linked to an organization paid by the Israeli government to sway lawmakers and public opinion in the United States, Israeli researchers and The New York Times.

A New report Published Wednesday by FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog group that tracks disinformation, it identified five specific websites linked to an Israeli political consultation form known as STOIC. The The Times reported At a time when many Democrats question continued U.S. military support for Israel amid mounting civilian casualties and suffering in Gaza, STOIC is being awarded $2 million by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to influence Democratic members of the U.S. Congress to maintain support for Israel. .

One site labels American universities as “safe” or “unsafe” for Jewish students; Another argues against the idea of ​​a Palestinian state: “Being part of a mass movement that supports some of the worst human-made [sic] Social structures are worse than standing with the oppressors”; A third focused on the historical slave trade in East Africa, where slaves included Muslims. Websites share the same IP address, suggesting common ownership.

While the campaign has not gained traction online, Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, responded to an Israeli inquiry, according to tech firms that have researched it. The Times’ Reporting. Oran wrote in a post on X that the campaign was “inappropriate interference in the internal politics of our most important ally,” adding that it “does strategic damage to the State of Israel in wartime.”

“To do that against the US is just stupid,” says FakeReporter CEO Achia Schatz. “The Israelis should be worried because we can be easily targeted with such tools. I don’t trust such tools in anyone’s hands.

The researchers found the websites’ source code in Git, a platform coders use to manage their work. The source code refers to a GitHub user whose name is the same as STOIC’s co-founder.

Amichai Sigley, Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Tweeted Wednesday’s denial about the alleged influence peddling. He accused FakeReporter of “slandering IDF soldiers and the State of Israel.” STOIC did not respond to NPR’s interview requests.

The websites’ publicly available source code makes an apparent reference to the company’s Internet domain name, “Stoiko,” the researchers wrote. A GitHub user’s profile is inaccessible, but as of Wednesday, online search results remain intact.

A sample of fake accounts

Over the past several months, several organizations have observed Israeli government-sponsored lobbying activities related to the Gaza war. In January, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz detected The Israeli government bought technology to run online influence campaigns. In February, a Open Source Intelligence Analyst Later on DFRLab It identified a network of bogus social media accounts that propagated content attacking staff of a United Nations agency working with Palestinian refugees. FakeReporter found that the network’s messages targeted black Democratic members of Congress. In March, the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, which studies misinformation around the world, identified a network targeting Canadian citizens with stories claiming Canadian Muslims were pushing for a stricter version of Islamic law.

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Fake accounts are often associated with other fake accounts, according to DFRLab. Meta said it deleted the accounts on Facebook and Instagram before they could attract real people.

Broadly, the campaigns aim to drive a wedge between Palestinians and black Americans, says Miriam Aurack, an anthropologist at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom.

“Different oppressed groups are re-examining the unity and kinship they felt in a shared sense of oppression,” Aurac said. Influence campaigns are “a desperate attempt to break that unity,” he says.

The anti-Islamic nature of some of the content published by STOIC sites is about fake reporter’s shots.

“It’s not our state’s business to frame Islam as a problem around the world,” Schatz said. “It’s promoting hate and promoting fear and promoting messages that at the end of the day I’m embarrassed about.”

This week’s fake reporter report follows similar reports last week by social media company Meta and artificial intelligence firm OpenAI. Both companies claimed to have removed fake accounts linked to STOIC. OpenAI said STOIC used their tools to create articles and comments, which fake accounts then used to distribute.

Past Israeli online influencer activities

Aurak said Israel has been trying to influence the American public through digital media for years, although it has not drawn attention to the influence activities of adversaries such as China, Iran and Russia. written about Israel’s public diplomacy efforts are called HasbaraOr “explain” in Hebrew.

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In 2009, an official in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told an Israeli newspaperThe department is establishing a group to promote Israel and mobilize international support specifically in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead. The department hired speakers of foreign languages ​​such as English to write messages on social media. The official cited the influence of the Americans as an example, and said the workers did not have to identify themselves as working on behalf of the Israeli government.

“People in Israel feel like they’re being attacked 24 hours a day on social media,” Schatz told Israelis Today, “so to many people it seems like the right thing to do is to shoot back.” He said his organization’s previous reports about Israeli influence campaigns had little impact.

“Major Countries Hasbara It has traditionally targeted Israel’s main financiers, the main supporter. So Europe and North America,” Aurac told NPR. Common narratives in Europe include anti-Semitism or Arab terrorist forces, “or in America — your 9/11 is our 9/11.”

In the Gulf states, Aurak says, Hasbara It calls for people to focus on their own affairs instead of Palestine. “Why don’t you worry about your own financial problems, your own conflicts, your own wars?”

Social media influencer campaigns are one of many ways Hasbara Works, but should not be used recklessly to spread disinformation in wartime, Schatz said.

“You’re giving legitimacy to an action that’s in many ways manipulative and anti-democratic because you’re taking people’s decision-making away from reality,” Schatz said. “They are done by undemocratic countries or non-democratic countries [such] Like Russia or Iran. I don’t see why we should participate in it.

Tel Aviv’s Ite Stern contributed to this story.

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