Silencing dissidence: Israeli bots spam, report pro-Palestine accounts
Users, mostly Israeli, have been "mass-following" pro-Palestine users, which could lead to account suspension and thus censorship.
An article by MintPress News exposes how "Israel" uses intimidating tactics on the internet to silence its critics. Just how? Israeli bots.
By the end of April, Ines Abdel Razek woke up to find 80 new followers on Twitter.
“These accounts were following the exact same people that were tweeting about Palestine, but from France or Francophone accounts that work on Palestine,” Abdel Razek said, speaking about the demography of the new followers.
Abier Khateb, a grants manager at Open Society Foundations, also reported mass followings - in response, an advocacy director of Rabet, which is the digital platform for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, became wary of it.
Speaking to MintPress News, Razek started reporting every account as fake, however keeping her own account open. After a few days, she made her profile private. At the peak of the mass following, Razek saw 400 fake followers.
From the end of April through the first weeks of May, over 40 pro-Palestine accounts on Twitter have claimed mass followings. According to digital experts, when accounts acquire large numbers of fake followers, this triggers Twitter's algorithm and can lead to account suspension, forcing users to make their accounts private to avoid suspension - a censorship tactic.
Some of the human rights and activist organizations that have experienced this are Adalah, Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. They also included news publications and journalists, like The Palestine Chronicle, The Electronic Intifada director Ali Abunimah, and Hind Al-Eryani; and politicians, such as Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom.
An assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, Dr. Marc Owen Jones, said that he had conducted an analysis and found that there were more than 1,150 fake accounts in total, of which 1,090 Twitter deleted.
The accounts, according to Jones, were created using an automated process rather than the regular account creation time which takes up to 3 minutes. The profiles, furthermore, were in French, Spanish, German and English - but, very often, they also had Arabic bios with strange names, like Noble Betty Thomas, and zero followers.
“They had clearly made-up names,” said Sarah Lea Whitson, who has also experienced a similar phenomenon. “The vast majority of them had Israeli names and Israeli addresses. Some of them had made-up Arab names, which were mangled. It’s clear that they’re [using] stolen images of people.”
Whitson does not see the bot as censorship, but rather an attack on free speech: “It’s a form of targeted harassment and bullying,” she said. “It’s a targeted attack on people who are speaking freely, including journalists and human rights activists.”
Daniel Easterman, in response to the incident, created a free script that automatically reports and blocks bots.
“When you see such a dramatic increase in followers, it’s usually somebody manipulating the system for commercial gain,” Easterman said. “So that could trigger Twitter to automatically flag that as suspicious activity and suspend the activist’s account.”
This would not be the first time something like this happens: In 2017, Iona Craig, who was reporting on the war on Yemen, was spammed with thousands of fake followers - the fake followers came mainly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Jones says this is a form of suppression of free speech on social media; he wrote on Twitter:
"Some suggest it’s a means to degrade the algorithmic quality of a Twitter account so that it possibly gets suspended; some suggest it’s others trying to boost popularity of an account. When it’s unsolicited, as in this case, I tend to think it’s more of a targeting operation. I am naturally cynical, but most people who get a sudden influx of fake followers feel unnerved and uncomfortable. If that fact is widely known, it functions as a tool of surveillance and potentially intimidation (e.g., you are being watched). It also makes many people mute their accounts for a bit which has a censorship effect.”
The murder of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, furthermore, was not safe from the swarms of Israeli bots. In the last week, Jones detected 2,800 fake accounts on the prowl for pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist Twitter accounts. Most of the accounts' bios are written in English with a location: "Israel."
The reason for the influx of followers remains unclear. “Those who get followed understandably find it intimidating, as if a form of surveillance or a technique to try and degrade [the] quality of an account with low-quality follows,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “The fact remains, these are clearly fake accounts and ruin the experience of Twitter.”
Palestinian digital-rights experts have for a long time condemned the increasing censorship of Palestinian content on the internet.
During the May 2021 war on Gaza and the storming of the Al-Aqsa mosque, Palestinian activists also reported that social media platforms were removing their content on Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing in the name of violation of community guidelines. Last month, activists in Jordan reported that posts on Israeli violence in Al-Aqsa were taken down and the respective accounts were blocked. According to 7amleh, The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, the Israeli cyber unit in the government sends content-removal requests to Facebook, Google and Youtube, particularly against Palestinian content.
Cyber censorship and intimidation are just one of the many tacts used by the Israeli establishment to silence their critics, cyber cracking down on netizens exposing Israeli violence and colonial aggression.