July 25, 2024

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Israel is secretly targeting US lawmakers with an influence campaign over the Gaza war

Israel is secretly targeting US lawmakers with an influence campaign over the Gaza war

Israel organized an influence campaign last year, targeting US lawmakers and the American public with pro-Israel messages, aimed at bolstering support for its actions in the war in Gaza, according to officials involved in the effort and documents related to the war. practical.

Four Israeli officials said the secret campaign was commissioned by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, a government body that links Jews around the world to the State of Israel. The ministry allocated about $2 million to the operation and hired Stoic, a political marketing firm in Tel Aviv, to carry it out, according to officials and documents.

The campaign began in October and remains active on the X platform. At its peak, hundreds of fake accounts posing as real Americans were used on X, Facebook, and Instagram to post pro-Israel comments. The accounts focused on American lawmakers, especially black and Democratic lawmakers, such as Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House Minority Leader from New York, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with posts urging them to continue funding the Israeli military.

ChatGPT, an AI-powered chatbot, was used to create many of the posts. The campaign also created three English-language fake news websites featuring pro-Israel articles.

The Israeli government’s connection to the influence operation, which The New York Times verified with four current and former members of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and documents about the campaign, has not been previously reported. FakeReporter, an Israeli disinformation monitoring organization, identified these efforts in March. Last week, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, said they had also found and disabled the process.

The secret campaign indicates the lengths to which Israel was willing to go to influence American public opinion about the war in Gaza. The United States has long been one of Israel’s staunchest allies, with President Biden recently signing a $15 billion military aid package for the country. But the conflict has been unpopular with many Americans, who have called on Mr. Biden to withdraw his support for Israel in the face of rising civilian deaths in Gaza.

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Social media experts said that the operation is the first documented case of the Israeli government organizing a campaign to influence the American government. While coordinated, government-backed campaigns are not uncommon, they are usually difficult to prove. Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and the United States are widely believed to support similar efforts around the world, but they often hide their involvement by outsourcing the work to private companies or managing it through a third country.

“Israel’s role in this matter is reckless and potentially ineffective,” said Achia Schatz, executive director of FakeReporter. For Israel to “run an operation that interferes in American politics is completely irresponsible.”

The Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs denied its involvement in the campaign and said it had no connection to Al-Rawaqi. Al-Rawaqi did not respond to requests for comment.

Meta and OpenAI said last week that the campaign had not had a widespread impact. FakeReporter found that the fake accounts had amassed more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook and Instagram. But Mita said many of those followers were probably bots and did not generate a large audience.

The operation began just weeks into the war in October, according to Israeli officials and documents related to the effort. Dozens of Israeli tech startups received emails and WhatsApp messages that month inviting them to join urgent meetings to become “digital soldiers” for Israel during the war, according to messages seen by The Times. Some of the emails and messages were sent from Israeli government officials, while others came from tech startups and incubators.

The first meeting was held in Tel Aviv in mid-October. Three attendees said it appeared to be an informal gathering where Israelis could volunteer their technical skills to help the country’s war effort. They added that members of several government ministries also participated.

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Participants were told that they could be “warriors for Israel” and that “digital campaigns” could be run on behalf of the country, according to recordings of the meetings.

Israeli officials said the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs ordered a campaign targeting the United States. A budget of about $2 million has been set, according to one letter seen by The Times.

Stoic was hired to manage the campaign. Stoic says on its website and LinkedIn that it was founded in 2017 by a team of political and business strategists, and calls itself a political marketing and business intelligence company. An Israeli official said that other companies may have been contracted to run additional campaigns.

Many of the campaign’s fake accounts on X, Instagram and Facebook appeared as fictional American students, concerned citizens and local voters. The accounts shared articles and statistics supporting Israel’s position in the war.

The operation focused on more than a dozen members of Congress, many of whom were Black and Democrats, according to an analysis by FakeReporter. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York who is outspoken about his pro-Israel views, was targeted, along with Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Warnock.

Some fake accounts responded to Mr. Torres’ posts on X by commenting on anti-Semitism on college campuses and in major American cities. In response to a December 8 post on Mr. Torres’ X website about fire safety, one fake account responded, saying: “Hamas is committing the conflict,” referring to the Armed Islamic Group. The post included a hashtag saying that Jews were being persecuted.

On Facebook, fake accounts posted on Mr. Jeffries’ public page asking whether he had seen a report about the United Nations employing members of the Hamas movement in Gaza.

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Mr. Torres, Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Warnock did not respond to requests for comment.

The campaign also created three fake news websites with names like Non-Agenda and UnFold Magazine, which plagiarized and rewrote material from media outlets including CNN and The Wall Street Journal to promote Israel’s position during the war, according to a FakeReporter analysis. The fake accounts on Reddit are then linked to articles on so-called news sites to help promote them.

The effort was sloppy. Sometimes the profile photos used on some accounts didn’t match the fictional characters they planted, and the language used in posts was stilted.

In at least two cases, she posted accounts containing selfies of black men about being a “middle-aged Jewish woman.” In 118 posts in which the fake accounts shared pro-Israel articles, the same sentence appeared: “I have to reevaluate my views because of this new information.”

Last week, Meta and OpenAI published reports attributing the influence campaign to Stoic. dead He said It removed 510 Facebook accounts, 11 Facebook pages, 32 Instagram accounts, and one Facebook group linked to the operation. OpenAI said Stoic created fictional personas and biographies intended to represent real people on social media services used in Israel, Canada and the United States to spread anti-Islamic messages. Many posts remain on X.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

On its LinkedIn page, Stoic has enhanced its ability to manage AI-powered campaigns. “As we look to the future, it is clear that the role of AI in political campaigns is set to take a transformative leap, reshaping the way campaign strategies are created, implemented and evaluated.” books.

By Friday, Stoick had removed those posts from LinkedIn.