Israeli Government Funded Covert Influence Campaign Targeting US Lawmakers: NYT

The head of an Israeli watchdog group called the operation “anti-democratic” and “extremely irresponsible.”

By Edward Carver

Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs organized and paid for a digital campaign to influence U.S. lawmakers, especially Democrats who are Black, The New York Times reported on Wednesday, June 3rd.

The ministry allotted $2 million to the operation in October and hired Stoic, a Tel Aviv-based political marketing firm, to carry it out. Stoic established fake news websites and hundreds of fake accounts on X, Instagram, and Facebook that posted pro-Israeli messages, trying to push lawmakers such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the House minority leader, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) to fund Israel’s military and support its war efforts, the Times reported.

The influence campaign had been reported by a few news and nonprofit organizations in recent months, but the Times article, which drew from operation documents and interviews with current and former diaspora ministry officials, was the first to show that Israel’s government was behind it. Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, published a related story one hour later on Wednesday.

Critics condemned the Israeli government for its role in the disinformation campaign.

“So in addition to the pro-Israel lobby spending tens of millions to defame and defeat progressives in Congress, we now learn that Israel creates fake media to target friends and opponents by inundating with fake news supporting Israeli positions,” James Zogby, co-founder of the Arab American Institute, wrote on social media.

The disinformation campaign comes amid other efforts by pro-Israel groups to influence U.S. politics during its assault on Gaza, notably the lobbying and campaign money spent by groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliates.

The Israeli disinformation campaign also drew comparisons to Russia’s well-known attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which was a central focus of the U.S. political commentariat in the years that followed. Ishmael Daro, an editor at Democracy Now!, made a tongue-in-cheek prediction that the reaction from the U.S. political establishment would be similar this time.

Last week, both Meta and OpenAI issued reports on Stoic’s disinformation campaign and said they had blocked the company’s network from further activity. Meta said it had closed more than 500 fake Facebook accounts and OpenAI called Stoic a “for-hire Israeli threat actor,” NBC News reported. Stoic’s users remain active on X, the Times reported.

Many of the fake social media posts were generated using ChatGPT, the AI-powered chatbot owned by OpenAI, and much of the language in the posts was “stilted” and repetitive, the Times reported.

The covert scheme has also been characterized as “sloppy” and “ineffective,” and it made little penetration with the general public or government figures. “We found and removed this network early in its audience building efforts, before they were able to gain engagement among authentic communities,” Meta wrote in its report.

The Times did not explain that the covert influence campaign was discovered in February by the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and by Marc Owen Jones, a professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, according to social media posts.

FakeReporter, an Israeli disinformation watchdog, followed up those initial discoveries with a March report on the campaign’s activities, including the fake social media accounts and creation of the online platforms—Non-Agenda, The Moral Alliance, and Unfold Magazine—that created or republished news from a pro-Israel perspective, focusing on, for example, purported links between the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and Hamas. The findings were reported in Haaretz at the time.

That Israel “ran an operation that interferes in U.S. politics is extremely irresponsible,” Achiya Schatz, the executive director of FakeReporter, told the Times. He characterized it to Haaretz as “amateurish” and “anti-democratic.”

FakeReporter in fact issued a second report on Wednesday showing that Stoic’s influence network may have gone further than the Times reporting shows. The watchdog group uncovered four additional websites, apparently Stoic-affiliated, that contain Islamophobic and anti-immigrant content. DFRLab had issued a report in March which also cited pro-Israeli disinformation and Islamophobic rhetoric, in that case targeted largely at Canadians.

The new report concluded that the influence network has “apparently developed into a large-scale effort to target various groups, some outside the U.S., using Islamophobic and anti-immigrant content.”

Edward Carver is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

This article was published on June 5, 2024 at Common Dreams.

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