Ben Gvir seems to fall for foreign country’s fake news campaign trying to sow discord

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Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir published a statement Saturday evening accusing anti-government protesters of leading a coordinated effort to publish the personal details of police officers and brand them “traitors,” but the Israel Police quickly made an unusual announcement, saying the campaign was in fact likely led by a foreign state in an attempt to increase societal divisions.

Despite the police statement and extensive evidence being unearthed that the online campaign bore multiple hallmarks of a misinformation effort, Ben Gvir did not delete his original post on the matter, sufficing with publishing a subsequent clarification.

Over the weekend, the photos, names and other personal details of at least 10 police officers were published in a Telegram group with around 2,500 subscribers, casting them as “traitors” and “criminals” for allegedly “betraying Israel’s ideals and dreams” by backing the government’s controversial push to overhaul the justice system.

Simultaneously, thousands of Twitter accounts posted similarly-worded posts linking to an online petition and writing, many of them in broken Hebrew: “We [are] a group [of citizens] asking the government to stop [the] regime coup and launch a reform in the defense establishment and the police. Until these demands are met, we will publish the identity details of these police forces betraying Israel’s ideals and dreams.”

On Saturday evening, Ben Gvir tweeted a screenshot from the Telegram group, alleging that “the opponents of the [judicial] reform are crossing another dangerous red line.”

“They are trying to intimidate cops and prevent them from doing their jobs,” said the minister in charge of the police, adding that this was aimed at “harassing and harming the officers and their families” and that he was giving them his “full backing.”

Shortly after Ben Gvir’s tweet, leaders of the weekly protests against the overhaul published a statement saying they weren’t behind the campaign and that it seemed to bear the signs of foreign misinformation, including stolen photos, foreign phone numbers and broken Hebrew.

Ben Gvir’s tweet, the protest leaders said, was “more false, wild and irresponsible incitement from the person who’s supposed to be in charge of security and to check himself before he disparages [others].” They also urged the public not to cooperate with the online campaign against the police.

Additionally, a watchdog that aims to fight “disinformation, hate speech and other malicious online activities,” called FakeReporter, published a detailed analysis of the fake news network just 30 minutes after Ben Gvir’s tweet.

The analysis showed that the network consisted of some 700 bots — some pretending to be protest leaders, stealing the identities of real people — and that it had posted tens of thousands of tweets on the matter.

As proof, FakeReporter said that thousands of the signatures on the petition — which used the Israeli campaign platform Drove — were created within several minutes on April 12, and thousands of Twitter accounts had posted the same content seconds apart. The details of the police officers published by the fake news network, it said, were taken from databases leaked online.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai at a special committee hearing in the Knesset, December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two hours after Ben Gvir’s tweet, the Israel Police published an official statement contradicting the police minister’s post.

“In the past few hours, thousands of tweets have been published on social media in which officers’ details were exposed alongside calls to harm them,” police said. “According to the examination of security officials, the suspicion is strengthening that this is, with high likelihood, a campaign by a foreign country aimed at causing friction among the public.”

Despite intense public criticism of Ben Gvir and calls for him to delete his tweet, the far-right minister declined to do so and instead published a follow-up tweet acknowledging the suspicion that the campaign was on behalf of a foreign nation.

“I am full of hope that these tweets are indeed not from among us (although the involvement of a foreign country is very severe) — I will always continue to back cops in the face of attacks on them,” he wrote.

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