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Israel Secretly Targets U.S. Lawmakers With Influence Campaign on Gaza War

Israel organized and financed an influence campaign last year targeting U.S. lawmakers and the American public with pro-Israel messages, aiming to drum up support for its actions in the war with Gaza, according to officials involved in effort and documents related to the operation. operation.

The covert campaign was commissioned by Israel’s Diaspora Ministry, a government agency that connects Jews around the world to the state of Israel, four Israeli officials said. The ministry allocated about $2 million for the operation and hired Stoic, a Tel Aviv political marketing firm, to carry it out, according to officials and documents.

The campaign began in October and remains active on the X platform. At its peak, it used hundreds of fake accounts posing as real Americans on X, Facebook and Instagram to post pro-Israel comments. The accounts focused on U.S. lawmakers, particularly those who are Black and Democratic, like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, New York’s House Minority Leader, and Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with messages urging them to continue finance the Israeli army.

ChatGPT, the AI-powered chatbot, has been used to generate many posts. The campaign also created three fake English-language news sites offering 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 Diaspora Ministry and campaign documents, has not been previously reported. FakeReporter, an Israeli disinformation monitoring organization, identified this effort in March. Last week, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, said they had also discovered and disrupted the operation.

This covert campaign shows how far Israel was willing to go to influence American opinion on 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 is unpopular with many Americans, who have called on Mr Biden to withdraw support for Israel over rising civilian deaths in Gaza.

The operation is the first documented case of a campaign organized by the Israeli government to influence the US government, social media experts said. Although coordinated government-backed campaigns are not uncommon, they are generally difficult to prove. Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and the United States generally support similar efforts around the world, but often mask their involvement by subcontracting the work to private companies or routing it through a third country.

“Israel’s role in this matter is reckless and likely ineffective,” said Achiya Schatz, executive director of FakeReporter. That Israel “carried out an operation that interfered in American politics is extremely irresponsible.”

Israel’s Diaspora Ministry denied any involvement in the campaign and said it had no connection with Stoic. Stoic did not respond to requests for comment.

The campaign did not have a widespread impact, Meta and OpenAI said last week. The fake accounts have amassed more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook and Instagram, FakeReporter found. But many of those subscribers may have been bots and hadn’t generated a large following, Meta said.

The operation began just weeks after the war began in October, according to Israeli officials and documents relating 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 emails and messages were sent by Israeli government officials, while others came from tech start-ups and incubators.

The first meeting was held in Tel Aviv in mid-October. It appeared to be an informal gathering where Israelis could offer their technical skills to help the country’s war effort, three participants said. Members of several government ministries also participated, they said.

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

The Diaspora Ministry commissioned a campaign aimed at the United States, Israeli officials said. A budget of about $2 million has been set, according to a message seen by the Times.

Stoic was hired to run the campaign. On its website and LinkedIn, Stoic says it was founded in 2017 by a team of political and business strategists and describes itself as a political marketing and business intelligence company. Other companies may have been hired to run additional campaigns, an Israeli official said.

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

The operation focused on more than a dozen members of Congress, many of whom are Black and Democratic, according to a FakeReporter analysis. Representative Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat who has been outspoken about his pro-Israel views, was targeted in addition to Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Warnock.

Some of the fake accounts responded to Mr. Torres’s posts on X by commenting on anti-Semitism on college campuses and in major American cities. In response to a Dec. 8 post on X by Mr. Torres about fire safety, a fake account responded: “Hamas perpetrates the conflict,” referring to the Islamist militant group. The post included a hashtag indicating that Jews were being persecuted.

On Facebook, the fake accounts posted to Mr. Jeffries’ public page asking if he had seen a report on the United Nations’ employment of Hamas operatives in Gaza.

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

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

The effort was botched. The profile pictures used in some accounts sometimes did not match the fictional characters they cultivated, and the language used in posts was stilted.

In at least two cases, accounts featuring profile photos of black men were posted about being a “middle-aged Jewish woman.” On 118 posts in which the fake accounts shared pro-Israel articles, the same sentence appeared: “I need to re-evaluate my opinions because of this new information. »

Last week, Meta and OpenAI released reports attributing the influence campaign to Stoic. Meta 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 characters and biographies intended to replace real people on social media services used in Israel, Canada and the United States to post anti-Islamic messages. Many messages remain on X.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

On its LinkedIn page, Stoic highlighted its ability to run AI-supported campaigns. “As we look to the future, it is clear that the role of AI in political campaigning is poised to take a transformative leap, reshaping the way campaigns are developed, executed and evaluated . ” wrote.

By Friday, Stoic had removed these posts from LinkedIn.

News Source : www.nytimes.com
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