What if you cried “Bots!” and a lot of real people showed up?
That’s what happened this week to a pair of Soros-funded Israeli analysts and media outlets Yediot Aharonot and the New York Times.
Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam of the Big Bots Project published a report claiming that “a network of hundreds of fake social media accounts” was behind online support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is waging his campaign for a 9 April national election as the long-time leader of the Likud Party. The report, picked up by Yediot Aharonot and the New York Times in an article by Ronen Bergman, identified several social media accounts individually by their user names, analyzing their profiles and behavior as that of bots.
The problem: the users in question are in fact real people. And they’ve been coming out of the woodwork to certify that to a waiting world.
Lahav Arkov and Alon Einhorn mention some of them in the Jerusalem Post article:
“What is this nonsense? I’m not allowed to support the Right?” Moshe Mahlev of Rishon Lezion told 103FM. Mahlev, who used a photo of a Greek male model for his Twitter account, was used as an example of a pro-Netanyahu bot in the article. He said he had not been called by anyone from Yediot or the Times for a reaction.
“Everything there is real, except for the photo,” Mahlev added. “What do they think, real people don’t vote for Likud in this country?”
Others weighed in:
Another account, called @tamnuniter with a photo of an octopus on his profile, tweeted the cover of Yediot with the message: “What a crazy April Fool’s joke! I tip my hat to you!”
He also tweeted to Bergman: “Hello Ronen, I may prefer to stay anonymous, but under that condition, I would be happy to speak on the phone and correct the infantile nonsense you wrote about me. Send me a private message!”
An account called Ziv Knobler, with a photo of Tom Cruise in the film Top Gun, wrote a reference to a Shlomo Arzi lyric: “Suddenly, a man wakes up in the morning and feels like a bot and starts walking.”
(If you understand Hebrew, you can listen to the 103FM segment here.)
Non-bots assert their human status in a Hebrew post at Israel Hayom, according to Ariel Kahana:
And not only one. Most of the accounts that were mentioned in the story are real people that me and other journalists know. Total failure. You have it here in Hebrew… https://t.co/cnt5VgjUOg
— Ariel Kahana אריאל כהנא (@arik3000) April 1, 2019
The pièce de résistance, however, was Netanyahu showing up at a press conference and greeting a non-bot named “Yoram, who goes by Captain George on Twitter, and whose account was called fake in the report.” (The Doran tweet has the video cued to the point at which Netanyahu identifies Yoram as Captain George, in the 10:00 segment. To see Yoram/Captain George actually get up and speak, go to about 17:45 for Bibi’s introduction, and watch from there.)
Waving, Yoram said: “I’m not a bot. I wasn’t paid… Whatever I write comes from the heart. I see the injustice done to our prime minister and I react… I am a father to three children, six grandchildren and a seventh on the way, and that’s it. I stand behind every word I tweet.”
This is hilarious! Yediot Aharonot & the NYT ran simultaneously a report claiming that the Likud was operating a network of fake bots to support Netanyahu on social media. Bibi appeared in a press conference with one of the bots, who is a real person. https://t.co/wTpbU9i32n
— Mike (@Doranimated) April 1, 2019
Mike Doran of the Hudson Institute also has the non-bot behind the Twitter account Yediot Ding on video announcing (in Hebrew) that he’s a human with opinions. The Yediot Aharonot/NYT account describes him as “a major node in the network of fake accounts.”
And meet "Yediot Ding," who is identified in the Yediot/NYT piece as a major node in the network of fake accounts. He comes forward here to reveal that he is just a guy with opinions, not a paid political operative. | pic.twitter.com/8MHGX90erH
— Mike (@Doranimated) April 1, 2019
As Doran says, this is hilarious.
Tamar Sternthal of the media watchdog organization CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) indicates that Ronen Bergman had not contacted the account holders discussed in his article before publication, to verify their status.
Interestingly, Yediot's big investigative scoop has been dropped from @ynetnews front-page after those behind reportedly fake accounts went on the air claiming their authenticity. @ronenbergman had not contacted account holders prior to publishing
— Tamar Sternthal (@TamarSternthal) April 1, 2019
Numerous media outlets have picked up the original Bergman story, meanwhile, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, Time, ABC News, Al Jazeera, and the Associated Press, whose story is now all over the place. As usual, the, er, reality-challenged assertion is doing laps around the Equator while truth is still putting its boots on.
Of course, putting human faces on most of the individual user accounts mentioned in the Bergman article doesn’t mean that none of the accounts analyzed by the Big Bots team was a fake account. But it inevitably puts a dent in the narrative that fake accounts are distorting – and driving – our national politics.
That’s a good thing. The “bot scare” has been retailed unchallenged for too long, and it’s well past time for it to have to face up to a wirebrushing and explain itself. Taking it apart in abstract terms would leave us all snoring open-mouthed on the couch; that’s an ineffective approach to forcing a better debate. But it’s hard to beat the impact of experts raising the “bot” alarm only to have a lot of humans show up – one of them sharing a good laugh with a prime minister at a press conference. That one’ll be indelible in the hippocampus.
It’s worth reiterating that Soros money is behind this bot-hunting effort, according to Arkov and Einhorn at JPost:
Bergman’s article was based on a report by the Big Bots Project, a research group backed by the left-wing Tides Foundation, of which American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros’s Open Societies Foundation is a major donor.
As The Federalist pointed out in March, Soros-backed Trump opponents have been caught partnering with a shadowy firm (New Knowledge) that created a fake bot campaign in order to frame Alabama Republican Roy Moore with it when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2017.
New Knowledge operatives created thousands of fake Russian Twitter accounts programmed to follow GOP candidate Roy Moore to make it appear he was backed by Moscow.
The scheme worked: a number of media stories reported Moore was being supported by Russians. Only, it was a high-tech frame-up.
Assuming at least some of the accounts Big Bots has identified are fake, it’s a legitimate question who actually created them. There’s no basis for accusing Big Bots of creating them. But we have very good reason at this point not to believe everything we hear – or even, perhaps, anything we hear – about fake social media accounts and the terrible things they are said to be doing to us.