Covert wars


By James M. Dorsey

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Gaza is not one but multiple wars.

Beyond the horrors of the kinetic war in the Strip, Israel, the Palestinians, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and multiple political groups, including pro-Palestinian students, supporters of Israel, and right-wing forces, are waging often inter-connected Gaza-related information wars.

To bolster US Congressional and public support in the United States and Canada, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the government agency responsible for managing relations with Jews around the world, organized and funded a US$2 million influence campaign to foster US backing of its Gaza war conduct.

Credit: Doha News

The campaign’s Islamophobic messaging mirrored long-standing efforts by the United Arab Emirates to counter perceived Islamists in the United States and Europe, in part by forging links to the far-right.

Dating to the 1960s, Israel’s countering of pro-Palestinian activism in the United States with allegations of anti-Semitism and frequent anti-Muslim tropes predates the UAE’s more recent anti-Islamist endeavour.

Past Israeli influence campaigns cast doubt on their effectiveness, even if Israel and its supporters have, with degrees of success, sought to curtail discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and impose an expansive definition of anti-Semitism.

The Israeli military conceded last year that it had made a “mistake” during the 2021 Gaza war by launching a secretive influence campaign on social media using fake accounts to bolster Israeli public support.

That did not stop Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from appointing in April Brig. Gen. Roman Gofman, one of the officers involved in influence campaigns, as his military secretary.

Israeli efforts to influence public opinion and lawmakers in the United States and Canada during the current war ran parallel to a stepped-up campaign to smear the  United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the main humanitarian group servicing Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere as well an almost one-decade-long undercover psychological warfare campaign aimed at thwarting an International Criminal Court investigation into alleged Israeli violations of international law.

The court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, has asked the court to issue arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for their conduct in the current Gaza war.

Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani meets Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh and Khalid Meshaal. Credit: Qatar Government

The Israeli campaign in the United States and Canada also paralleled a doubled-edged endeavour to sully Qatari mediation aimed at achieving a ceasefire, if not an end to the Gaza war, and exchange of Hamas-held hostages for Palestinians incarcerated in Israel.

The Israeli endeavour was as much about persuading Qatar to exert pressure on Hamas, which insists on a permanent ceasefire rather than a temporary halt to the fighting envisioned by Israel, and potentially Hamas’ expulsion from the Gulf state, as it was an effort to stall negotiations.

Israel’s targeting of Qatar garnered support from Republicans in the US Congress.

Finally, at the same time that Israel sought to influence public opinion and lawmakers in North America, counter the International Criminal Court, and undermine UNRWA and Qatar, Israel-linked bot farms in Morocco, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia kicked into high gear.

Created before the Gaza war, the bots highlighted and, at times, exaggerated the undeniable brutality of the October 7 attack that killed more than 1,100 primarily civilian Israelis and foreigners and led to the kidnapping of 250 people.

Using fake accounts, the bots argued that the attack violated Islamic law, accused Iran of seeking to obstruct US-led peace efforts, asserted Islam was a religion of violence, and promoted racist tropes.

A June Arab Barometer survey of Moroccan public opinion cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Israeli campaign.

A mere 22 per cent of Moroccans surveyed believed that Israel was committed to a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More alarmingly, support for normalisation of relations with Israel dropped from a 31 per cent high in 2022 to 13 per cent in the latest survey.

Morocco, together with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020.

Credit: New Arab

Israel is not alone in its online campaign. In numbers, Hindu nationalists were among its foremost online self-serving supporters.

With Islamophobia featuring prominently in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign, troll farms associated with his  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought to spread disinformation vilifying Muslims and Palestinians.

Hindu nationalists had Israel’s back from day one. On October 7, the day Hamas attacked Israel, the BJP compared the attack to India’s fight against Islamic militancy. "What Israel is facing today, India suffered between 2004-14. Never forgive, never forget,” the BJP tweeted, referring to the period before Mr. Modi’s ascendancy.

Millions of Indians shared the BJP’s sentiment on X, lacing their support of Israel with anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“The intent was clear. Accompanied by video depicting past militant attacks, the message promoted a narrative of Islamist terrorism in a country where the 220-million-strong Muslim population has been demonised by the Modi-led government,” said journalist Rana Ayoub.

Similarly, millions of Indians cheered on social media Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant’s assertion that "we are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly."

Israel never distanced itself from the Islamophobic rhetoric. On the contrary.

Israel launched its campaign in the US and Canada as the country’s war conduct took a heavy toll on innocent Palestinian lives and devastated Gaza, eroding initial empathy for Israel in the wake of the October 7 attack.

In contrast to India, a majority of Americans disapproved of Israel’s military actions in Gaza in a March 2024 Gallup poll. The survey revealed a pronounced shift from November 2023.

Fifty-five percent of US adult respondents said they disapproved of Israel’s military actions — a jump of 10 percentage points from four months earlier.

Americans’ approval of Israel’s war conduct dropped by an even starker margin, from 50 percent in November, a month after the war began, to 36 percent in March.

An AP-NORC poll conducted in late January found that half of US adults felt Israel’s military response in Gaza had “gone too far,” up from four in 10 in November. That poll also showed a rise in public disapproval across political parties, by some 15 percentage points for Republicans, 13 for independents, and five for Democrats.

Two British surveys in June 2024 produced even worse news for Israel. A majority of British Youth polled by Unherd said they do not believe Israel should exist. Fifty-four percent of 18-24-year-olds agreed with the statement that “the state of Israel should not exist.” Just 21 percent disagreed.

A mere 16 percent of the British public supported Israel in a YouGov survey.

Compounding the decline in public support, a Pew Research poll showed that more Jewish Americans aged 18-to-29 (51 per cent)  felt "much less connected to Israel" than those (48 per cent) who were "much more connected” to the Jewish state since October 7.

While Israel primarily waged its information war on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad found a home on Telegram, which has less stringent moderation, allowing the militants to broadcast graphic videos documenting their violent incursion into Israeli territory, the kidnapping of hostages, the deaths in Gaza of tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians, and the destruction of the Strip’s infrastructure.

The Telegram channel of Hamas's military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, has witnessed significant growth since the start of the war. The channel more than doubled the number of its subscribers from 205,000 before the war to 538,618 in June and tenfold increased views per post from 25,000 pre-October to 239,000 eight months into the war.

Hamas' Gaza Now media channel jumped from 350,000 subscribers to 1.8 million and experienced a tenfold hike per post views.

STOIC, a Tel Aviv-based political marketing firm that specializes in political technologies, audience mapping, information analysis, and volunteer and digital campaign management, managed the Israeli campaign.

Credit: STOIC

Disclosure of the campaign prompted STOIC to take down its LinkedIn page on which it boasted about its ability to run artificial intelligence-backed campaigns.

“As we look ahead, it’s clear that A.I.’s role in political campaigns is set for a transformative leap, reshaping the way campaigns are strategized, executed, and evaluated,” one of the posts said.

STOIC is part of a commercial network of Israeli companies, often founded by former military officers, that carry out influence operations. These companies provide governments with plausible deniability when waging information and propaganda campaigns.

STOIC reportedly operates software that allows the profiling of target audiences and the creation of tailored content for them. The software includes Ma’acher, an influence platform that enables the creation and activation of fictitious online accounts on social media.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz and Forbidden Stories, a journalists’ network, identified numerous companies in Israel that carry out influence operations, as well as a parallel industry that offers sophisticated tools to scrape data on users and individuals on social media platforms without being detected.

Independent researcher Marc Owen Jones, Israeli misinformation watchdog FakeReporter, and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab first reported on the Israeli campaign in March.

Two months later, Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and OpenAI, the ChatGPT operator, confirmed the operation and said it had disrupted it.

Meta’s quarterly adversarial threat report said the company had closed more than 510 Facebook accounts, 11 Facebook pages, 32 Instagram accounts, and one Facebook group linked to the campaign.

"This network originated in Israel and primarily targeted audiences in the United States and Canada," the report said, adding it included accounts "posing as Jewish students, African Americans and 'concerned' citizens.’ Meta said the campaign involved "creating fictitious news outlets."

The report asserted that “the campaign purchased inauthentic engagement (i.e. likes and followers) from Vietnam to make its content appear more popular than it was."

Meta said, "While the individuals behind it attempted to conceal their identity and co-ordination, we found links to STOIC, a political marketing and business intelligence firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is now banned from our platform."

FakeReporter reported that the site targeting Canadians was hosted on the same IP address that was home to numerous other accounts targeting pro-Palestinian activists.

Even so, the campaign may have had limited impact.

FakeReporter said the false accounts had some 40,000 followers across X, Facebook, and Instagram, while Meta suggested many may have been bots.

The New York Times reported that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry launched the campaign in the early days of the Gaza war as Israeli government officials and technology executives urged tech start-ups to become “digital soldiers.”

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry, headed by Amichai Chikli, a Netanyahu associate with close links to the European far-right, denied involvement in the campaign. STOIC did not respond to requests for comment.

The ministry oversees several companies, including Voices of Israel, which received half of its original funding from the Israeli government but was not tapped to execute the US campaign.

Voices of Israel, which is not subject to Israel's freedom of information law, was established to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and purportedly antisemitic discourse by enlisting pro-Israel activists and organizations in Israel's public diplomacy efforts.

Voices of Israel’s website says the company’s mission is "to enhance the image of Israel in the global arena and combat delegitimization and new antisemitism worldwide, using tools of public diplomacy."

“Israel’s role in this is reckless and probably ineffective. (That Israel) ran an operation that interferes in U.S. politics is extremely irresponsible,” said FakeReporter executive director Achiya Schatz.

At its peak, the campaign involved hundreds of fake accounts that posed as real Americans on X, Facebook, and Instagram to post pro-Israel comments.

The messaging, often generated by artificial intelligence ChatGBT, targeted Black and Democrat members of Congress, including House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries, New York Representative Ritchie Torres, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia. The posts urged them to maintain the funding of Israel’s military.

Credit: Haaretz

The campaign also created three fake English-language news sites with names like Non-Agenda and UnFold Magazine. They featured pro-Israel articles and used Islamophobic messaging.

Non Agenda often linked to content posted by Visegrád 24, an influential X account with one million followers that purveys pro-Israel narratives and has ties to an online persona known as Radio Genoa, which promotes anti-immigrant and far-right narratives in Europe.

FakeReporter said the sites plagiarized material from CNN and The Wall Street Journal to promote Israel’s war stance. Fake accounts on Reddit linked to the articles on the sites to help promote them.

FakeReporter described the campaign as "a large-scale, well-coordinated effort to attack and smear groups that are typically pro-Palestinian. These groups include citizens of Western countries (mainly the US and Canada) of Islamic origins, using deeply Islamophobic and anti-immigrant content.”

Credit: FakeReporters

In Canada, fake accounts bearing the name United Citizens for Canada portrayed Canadian Muslims as threatening Western values. They suggested pro-Palestinian protesters in Canada were seeking to implement Shariah law. The accounts urged Canadian journalists to report the alleged threat.

"The network, which included at least 50 accounts on Facebook, 18 on Instagram, and more than one hundred on X, boosted anti-Muslim and Islamophobic narratives directed at Canadian audiences," the Digital Forensic Research Lab said.

The Lab noted that the campaign employed artificial intelligence to change words being said by a bearded man wearing a Muslim skullcap at a rally. The Lab also said a photo of Muslims holding a banner had been digitally altered to read "Shariah for Canada." An Instagram posting warned the public to be wary "if anti-Liberal Islam wants to enter your hockey team."

The United Citizens for Canada account, which purported to represent concerned Canadian residents, called attention to what it described as “the increasing presence and support for anti-liberal, aggressive, and violent Islamic movements and organizations in Canada.” 

Other websites included Arab Slave Trade, which copied Wikipedia content to remind Black Americans that Arabs had been slave traders in Africa, and Serenity Now, which branded itself as anarchist and anti-establishment in a bid to convince young Americans to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state because "states are manmade structures" and a Palestinian state "would hurt the goals of the progressive movement."

In some ways, the Israeli campaign may have backfired.

“If you think I need to be ‘influenced’ to be pro-Israel, then please see a doctor because your brain might be rotting. The blithering idiots behind this embarrassing operation should be fired for gross incompetence. A foreign influence operation that singles out Black Congressional Democrats is racist. There’s no correlation at all between race and Israel in the United States Congress,” tweeted Mr. Torres, one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress, who was targeted by the campaign.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.


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