Israel secretly targets US lawmakers with influence campaign over Gaza war

Israel organized and funded an influence campaign last year aimed at U.S. lawmakers and the American public with pro-Israel messages, as it aimed to foster support for its actions in the Gaza war, according to officials involved in the initiative and related documents to the war in Gaza. operation.

The covert campaign was commissioned by Israel's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, a government body that connects Jews around the world with the State of Israel, four Israeli officials said. According to officials and documents, the ministry allocated about $2 million for the operation and hired Stoic, a Tel Aviv political marketing firm, to carry it out.

The campaign began in October and remains active on Platform X. At its peak, it used hundreds of fake accounts posing as real Americans on X, Facebook and Instagram to post pro-Israel comments. The reports focused on US lawmakers, particularly black and Democratic ones, such as Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader of New York, and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with messages urging them to continue funding the military Israeli.

ChatGPT, the AI-based chatbot, has been used to generate many posts. The campaign also created three fake English-language news sites that contained pro-Israel articles.

The Israeli government's connection to the influence operation, which The New York Times verified with four current and former members of the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and campaign documents, has not been previously reported. FakeReporter, an Israeli disinformation watchdog, identified the attempt in March. Last week, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, also said they had found and stopped the operation.

The covert campaign signals how far Israel was willing to go to influence American opinion on the war in Gaza. The United States has long been one of Israel's staunchest allies, with President Biden recently signing a $15 billion military aid package for the country. But the conflict has been unpopular among many Americans, who have called on Biden to withdraw support for Israel in the face of rising civilian deaths in Gaza.

The operation is the first documented case of a campaign organized by the Israeli government to influence the US government, social media experts said. While government-backed coordinated campaigns are not uncommon, they are typically difficult to prove. Iran, North Korea, China, Russia and the United States are widely believed to support similar efforts around the world, but often disguise their involvement by outsourcing the work to private companies or managing the work through a third country.

“Israel's role in all of this is reckless and probably ineffective,” said Achiya Schatz, executive director of FakeReporter. That Israel “conducted an operation that interferes in US politics is extremely irresponsible.”

Israel's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs denied involvement in the campaign and said it had no connection to Stoic. Stoic did not respond to requests for comment.

The campaign did not have widespread impact, Meta and OpenAI said last week. The fake accounts have amassed more than 40,000 followers across X, Facebook and Instagram, FakeReporter has found. But many of those followers may have been bots and not generating large audiences, Meta said.

The operation began a few weeks after the war began in October, according to Israeli officials and documents about the operation. Dozens of Israeli tech start-ups received emails and WhatsApp messages that month inviting them to attend urgent meetings to become “digital soldiers” for Israel during the war, according to messages viewed by the Times. Some emails and messages were sent from Israeli government officials, while others came from startups and tech incubators.

The first meeting was held in Tel Aviv in mid-October. It appeared to be an informal meeting where Israelis could volunteer their technical expertise to help the country's war effort, three participants said. They said members of several ministries also took part.

According to recordings of the meetings, participants were told that they could be “warriors for Israel” and that “digital campaigns” could be conducted on behalf of the country.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs commissioned a campaign aimed at the United States, Israeli officials said. According to a message viewed by the Times, a budget of about $2 million has been set.

Stoic was hired to lead the campaign. On its website and LinkedIn, Stoic says it was founded in 2017 by a team of political and business strategists and describes itself as a political marketing and business intelligence firm. Other companies may have been hired to conduct additional campaigns, an Israeli official said.

Many of the campaign's fake accounts on X, Instagram and Facebook posed as fictitious American students, concerned citizens and local voters. The reports shared articles and statistics that supported Israel's position in the war.

The operation targeted more than a dozen members of Congress, many of whom are Black and Democrats, according to an analysis by FakeReporter. Rep. Ritchie Torres, a New York Democrat who has been vocal about his pro-Israel views, was targeted in addition to Jeffries and Warnock.

Some of the fake accounts responded to Torres' posts on X by commenting on anti-Semitism on college campuses and in major cities across the United States. In response to a Dec. 8 post on X by Torres about fire safety, a fake account responded: “Hamas is perpetrating the conflict,” referring to the Islamic militant group. The post included a hashtag that said Jews were being persecuted.

On Facebook, fake accounts posted on Mr. Jeffries' public page asking if he had seen a report on the United Nations' deployment of Hamas members in Gaza.

Mr. Torres, Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Warnock did not respond to requests for comment.

The campaign also created three fake news sites with names like Non-Agenda and UnFold Magazine, which stole and rewrote material from outlets including CNN and The Wall Street Journal to promote Israel's position during the war, according to the analysis by FakeReporter. Fake accounts on Reddit then linked to articles on so-called news sites to promote them.

The effort was overlooked. The profile pictures used in some accounts sometimes did not match the fictional characters cultivated, and the language used in the posts was stilted.

In at least two cases, accounts with profile photos of Black men posted information about being a “middle-aged Jewish woman.” Out of 118 posts in which the fake accounts shared pro-Israel articles, the same phrase appeared: “I have to reevaluate my opinions because of this new information.”

Last week, Meta and OpenAI published reports attributing the influence campaign to Stoic. Meta said it removed 510 Facebook accounts, 11 Facebook pages, 32 Instagram accounts and one Facebook group linked to the operation. OpenAI said Stoic created fictional characters and biographies intended to replace real people on social media services used in Israel, Canada and the United States to post anti-Islam messages. Many of the posts remain on X.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

On his LinkedIn page, Stoic promoted his ability to run AI-supported campaigns. “Looking ahead, it is clear that the role of AI in political campaigns is poised for a transformational leap, reshaping how campaigns are strategicized, executed, and evaluated,” she wrote.

By Friday, Stoic had removed those posts from LinkedIn.

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