An Israeli firm that ran hundreds of fake social media accounts pushing political misinformation in African countries has been exposed and banned by Facebook.
It is the first time that Israelis have been implicated in the “fake news” phenomenon, using digital platforms to meddle in elections around the world.
World leaders have increasingly asked digital giants to come down hard on those pushing fake news, and in a blog this week, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher said they had removed 265 accounts originating in Israel.
“The people behind this network used fake accounts to run pages, disseminate their content and artificially increase engagement,” he said. “They also represented themselves as locals, including local news organisations, and published allegedly leaked information about politicians.”
Some of the fake Israeli accounts were linked to Israeli company Archimedes Group, Gleicher said, on focused on countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia, with “some activity” in Latin America and South East Asia.
He said the fake accounts, which reached 2.8 million Facebook users, “coordinated with one another to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing”.
Archimedes’ website strongly suggested its activities, once saying that it takes “every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes” through “unlimited online accounts operation.” Its tagline, before being reduced to a simple landing page in recent days, was “winning elections worldwide”.
One example posted by Facebook shows a fake account criticising Democratic Republic of Congo presidential challenger Martin Fayulu, who claims vote-rigging in the election to succeed Joseph Kabila. It was won by Felix Tshisekedi, who this month accepted an invite to visit Israel from Benjamin Netanyahu.
In French, it reads: “Faithful to only himself, Martin Fayulu criticises and rejects the results of the presidential election, which has unfolded transparently and in an exemplary calmness. It is time for him to admit his defeat to President Tshisekedi who has been elected in a democratic way.”
A recent report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab also found that Archimedes helped Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari win re-election in February by using its fake accounts to praise Buhari and smear his rival.
The Associated Press reported that Archimedes Group’s chief executive is Elinadav Heymann. His biography lists him as an ex-intelligence officer, and political spokesman, lobbyist and adviser who once headed European Friends of Israel.
There is no suggestion that the fake accounts were directed or influenced by Israeli officials, but Netanyahu has prioritised relations with sub-Saharan Africa, offering high-tech Israeli solutions in areas such as agriculture, healthcare and defence. At the most recent AIPAC policy conference in Washington, he said he had visited three times in the past 18 months.