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How Israel tried to use AI to covertly sway Americans about Gaza

A file photo of Minister of Diaspora Affairs of Israel Amichai Chikli from May 2024. He was taking part in the Spanish far-right wing party Vox's rally "Europa Viva 24" in Madrid. <em>The New York Times </em>reported that Chikli's ministry funded a covert online influence campaign targeting U.S. lawmakers over the war in Gaza. Chikli denied those reports.
Oscar del Pozo
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AFP via Getty Images
A file photo of Minister of Diaspora Affairs of Israel Amichai Chikli from May 2024. He was taking part in the Spanish far-right wing party Vox's rally "Europa Viva 24" in Madrid. The New York Times reported that Chikli's ministry funded a covert online influence campaign targeting U.S. lawmakers over the war in Gaza. Chikli denied those reports.

Websites that appear to covertly target mostly younger, progressive Americans with a pro-Israeli spin on the war in Gaza are linked to a company that’s being paid by the Israeli government to sway lawmakers and public opinion in the U.S., according to Israeli researchers and The New York Times.

A new report published Wednesday by FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog group that tracks misinformation, identified five specific websites tied to an Israeli political consulting firm called STOIC. The Times reported Wednesday that STOIC is being paid $2 million by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to influence Democratic members of the U.S. Congress to maintain support for Israel, at a time when many Democrats are questioning continued U.S. military support to Israel amid rising civilian casualties and suffering in Gaza.

One site labels American universities as “safe” or “unsafe” for Jewish students; another one argues against the idea of a Palestinian state, arguing: “Being a part of a mass movement that is advocating for some of the worst men-made [sic] social structures is even worse than standing with the oppressors”; a third focused on the historic slave trade in East Africa, where slavers included Muslims. The websites share the same IP address, suggesting common ownership.

Although the campaign did not appear to gain traction online, according to tech companies that also investigated it, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, called for an Israeli investigation in response to the Times’ reporting. The campaign is an “inappropriate interference in the internal politics of our most important ally,” Oren wrote in a post on X, saying it “causes strategic damage to the State of Israel in wartime.”

“Doing it against the U.S. is just simply stupid,” says Achiya Schatz, FakeReporter’s CEO. “Israelis should be worried because we can find ourselves easily targeted by these kinds of tools. I don't trust these kinds of tools in the hands of anyone.”

The researchers found the websites’ source code on Git, a platform coders use to manage their work. The source code refers to a GitHub user whose name is similar to a co-founder of STOIC.

Amichai Chickli, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, tweeted a denial Wednesday about the alleged influence campaign. He accused FakeReporter of “slander against IDF soldiers and the State of Israel.” STOIC did not respond to interview requests from NPR.

The publicly available source code of the websites also makes explicit reference to “stoico,” which is the internet domain name of the company, the researchers wrote. The GitHub user’s profile is no longer accessible, but as of Wednesday, online search results remain.

A pattern of fake accounts

For the past several months, multiple organizations have noticed possible Israeli government-sponsored influence activity related to the Gaza war. In January, Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that the Israeli government bought technology to conduct online influence campaigns. In February, an open source intelligence researcher and then DFRLab identified a network of inauthentic social media accounts that amplified content attacking the staff of the United Nations agency that works with Palestinian refugees. FakeReporter found that that network’s messages targeted Black Democratic members of Congress. In March, the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, which studies disinformation around the world, identified a network targeting Canadian citizens with narratives suggesting that Canadian Muslims are pushing for a strict version of Islamic law.

DFRLab said the fake accounts mostly interacted with other fake accounts. Meta said that it deleted accounts from Facebook and Instagram before they gained any traction with real people.

Broadly, the campaigns aimed to drive a wedge between Palestinians and Black Americans, says Miriyam Aouragh, an anthropologist at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom, currently a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.

“Different oppressed groups are reciprocating the solidarity and the affinity that they have felt in the shared sense of oppression,” said Aouragh. She says that the influence campaigns are “a desperate attempt to break that unity.”

The anti-Islamic nature of some of the content posted by the STOIC sites concerned Schatz of FakeReporter.

“Framing Islam around the world as the problem is not something that our state's supposed to be involved with,” said Schatz. “It's promoting hate and promoting fear and promoting messages that, at the end of the day, I'm embarrassed by.”

Fake Reporter’s report this week follows similar reports released last week by the social media company Meta and artificial intelligence company OpenAI. Both companies said they had taken down fake accounts tied to STOIC. OpenAI said STOIC used their tools to generate articles and comments that the fake accounts then used to distribute.

Past Israeli online Influence operations

While not as attention-grabbing as influence operations from adversaries such as China, Iran and Russia, Israel has been trying to influence the American public via digital media for years, said Aouragh, who has written about Israel’s public diplomacy efforts termed hasbara, or “to explain” in Hebrew.

Back in 2009, an official from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told an Israeli newspaper that the department was establishing a team to promote Israel and specifically to rally international support in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza that year, known as Operation Cast Lead. The department hired people who spoke foreign languages like English to write messages on social media. The official cited influencing Americans as an example, and also said those workers did not have to identify themselves as working on behalf of the Israeli government.

“People in Israel feel that they're being attacked around the clock on social media,” said Schatz of Israelis today, “So shooting back, to many, seems to be a reasonable thing.” He said his organization’s earlier reports about Israeli influence campaigns had little impact.

“The main countries that hasbara has traditionally been targeting are the main funders of Israel, the main supporter. So Europe and North America,” Aouragh told NPR. The common narratives in Europe, she says, include invoking anti-semitism or the trope of Arab terrorists, “or in America — your 9/11 is our 9/11.”

In the Gulf countries, Aouragh says, hasbara calls for people to focus on their own affairs instead of Palestine. “Why don't you worry about your own financial problems, your own conflicts, your own wars?”

Social media influence campaigns are just one of the many ways hasbara operates, but Schatz said spreading disinformation should not be used recklessly during wartime.

“You give legitimacy to an act that is at its core is manipulative and anti-democratic in many ways, because you're pushing people's decision-making away from reality,” Schatz said. “And they're being done by anti-democratic countries or non-democratic countries [such] as Russia or Iran. I don't know why we should take part in it.”

Itay Stern contributed to this story from Tel Aviv.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.