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Netanyahu's opponents 'slandered' by fake social media army: Report

The shadowy army has allegedly smeared leading election competitor Benny Gantz, according to a report
Benny Gantz has bore the brunt of the network's attacks (Reuters)

A mystery mistress and a supposed high school sexual harassment are just some of the rumours about Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest election competitor that have swirled through the online space thanks to a shadowy network of fake social media accounts, an Israeli social media watchdog has claimed.

Twitter and Facebook posts by hundreds of the accounts have had over 2.5 million hits, in a country of just 8.7 million, smearing Netanyahu’s opponents and amplifying the messages of his Likud party, according to a report by the Big Bots project reported in the New York Times.

The report further states that many of the posts have been reposted by the prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu, as well as prominent Likud campaign officials.

“The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumours,” the report said. “On its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day.”

The report comes days before Israel’s election, with Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud trailing in the polls to Blue and White, the party led by Benny Gantz, a retired army chief who has bore the brunt of the network’s attacks.

According to the report, the network’s attacks on him have spiked at times of key political events.

The evening before Netanyahu was indicted on charges of corruption, the network circulated a Facebook post by an American woman who alleged that Gantz had sexually harassed her when they were at high school together.

Gantz denied the accusations but the accounts still pushed the story, accusing him on Twitter of being a “Lousy scum rapist”.

The network has also described Gantz being both gay and having a mistress and has sought to portray him as being a  “leftist”.

Notem Rotem, the report’s co-author, said that the accounts’ post involve “a combination of spreading the narrative of the Likud party and attacking the opposition, mostly Gantz, but not only, and attacking anyone that is criticizing them.”

Accusing the prime minister of complicity in the campaign, Gantz this morning on Twitter said that “Netanyahu is trying to steal the elections” and called for a police investigation to determine the network’s funding.

Yet The Big Bots project, which aims to expose the malicious use of social media, found no direct links between the network and Netanyahu, his party or his son, but said they appeared to operate in tandem.

A spokesman for Likud denied any involvement in the activity. “All of the Likud’s digital activity is entirely authentic and is based on the great support of the citizens of Israel for Prime Minister Netanyahu and the great achievements of the Likud,” the spokesman, Jonathan Urich, said on Sunday to the New York TImes.

According to the report, Yair Netaynahu, Netanyahu's son and unofficial adviser, has retweeted the network’s posts 154 times, while the the network has “liked” and replied to his messages 1,481 times and shared his messages 429 times. 

The report makes clear that that accounts appear to be operated by people and not bots, with 154 accounts on the network using fake names and another 400 suspected of being fake.

The network has also allegedly attacked attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit. The network may violate Israeli election laws, the report says.

Gantz’s Blue and White Party has consistently led Likud by a matter of a few points in opinions polls since February.

The controversy is the latest technology-related incident in the 2019 Israel election campaign, with news breaking last month that Gantz’s personal telephone was infiltrated by Iranian hackers.

While Gantz has argued that no sensitive information was compromised, Netanyahu has cited the breach to argue that Gantz is unprepared to lead the country.