How An App Funded By Sheldon Adelson Is Covertly Influencing The Online Conversation About Israel - 2018-09-20
In early August, after months of heightened tension in the region, Israel carried out airstrikes in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for rocket and mortar attacks launched by the militant group Hamas. Meanwhile, another battle was just starting on social media.
On the Facebook page of the New York Times, under an article about the latest outbreak of violence, a user named Nancy Saada wrote that "over 150 missiles and mortar shells were fired at Israeli civilians and towns injuring 11 Israelis and sending over 1 million Israelis running to bomb shelters!" She said Israel had a right to defend itself against Hamas and appended the hashtags #FreeGazaFromHamas and #IsraelUnderFire. The same user left almost identical comments on the Facebook pages of CNN International, Canada's Global News, Iran's PressTV, and Nigeria's Channels Television. Hers were among the most-liked comments on all five news organizations' Facebook posts. While the engagement appeared organic to those on Facebook, the comments and resulting likes were in fact part of a coordinated campaign to flood social media with talking points defending Israel's actions in Gaza. The campaign, which targeted dozens of prominent international outlets, was organized through Act.IL, a smartphone app and website developed by former Israeli intelligence officers in collaboration with the Israeli government, and with financial backing from conservative American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Act.IL is a tool in the information war being waged over public perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies have become increasingly alert to manipulation campaigns on their platforms, Act.IL has managed to fly under the radar thanks to an army of thousands of volunteers who post comments and images, and follow commands to like or criticize other online content. "This is a unique case of advanced digital political astroturfing," said Katie Joseff, research manager of the Digital Intelligence Laboratory at the Institute for the Future, a think tank that studies the social impact of technology.
"This is a unique case of advanced digital political astroturfing."