The Big Bot Flop

Wednesday, April 03, 2019 |  Tsvi Sadan

Why respected journalist Ronen Bergman fell prey to social media trolling is any one's guess. His article, which appeared simultaneously in the New York Times and Israel's Ynet news portal, dealt with rumors that the Likud party was using fake social media accounts and robots, or bots, to trash-talk their political rivals.

It took only a few hours for right-wing radio talk show hosts Erel Segal and Yinon Magal to find some of the people mentioned by name in Bergman's article. The fakes and the bots turned out to be very real people using real or fake names for their Twitter accounts. To prove beyond doubt that Bergman's piece was fake news, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly shook hands with "Captain George," who turned out to be a real person named Giora Ezra. Captain George's tweets, which range from clever to nasty, are nothing unusual in the messy social media space.

But instead of dealing with Bergman's severe allegations, Netanyahu's opponents criticized him for embracing a revolting figure who regularly spews a racist ideology (Captain George is a proponent of Rabbi Meir Kahane's scheme to rid Israel of its Arab population). Netanyahu, for his part, turned to Ezra and asked him, "Are you a bot? Are you real?" The Likud party stated that it is probably the only party that does not use bots, or fake accounts.

Bergman's article is based on the "Big Bots Project" of two radical left-wing activists, Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, who since last November have embarked upon a campaign aimed at exposing the use of "bots" and "sock puppets," and teaching how to identify such fake social media accounts. Rotem and Adam's purpose, as they have stated, is to empower the despairing activist community that got swamped by armies of bots aimed at predetermining elections and overpowering social campaigns against those in power. According to these two, the massive use of bots has successfully thwarted the efforts of social activists who are resisting wicked governments and multi-billionaires, which in turn led to despair and apathy among those activists.

Now, while there's no doubt that governments use social media to their advantage in multiple ways, Rotem and Adam believe that the Israeli right is dark and sophisticated enough to dupe the public into voting for Netanyahu and the Likud. In other words, they take the patronizing attitude of labeling right-wing voters as an easily-manipulated group of sheep. Netanyahu fired back: "One million Likud voters are not bots ... in the past have been called rednecks, amulet-kissers, and now bots."

The Big Bots Project, which is trying to turn a real social media problem into some kind of global conspiracy, is the brainchild of a known radical, who speaks of circumcision as mutilation, sees the Jewish state as a Nazi-like racist entity, hopes for more aggressive Palestinian resistance to "occupation," and compares Israel's justice system to that of France during the Dreyfus affair. 

Bergman's reliance on such a dubious source for the kind of ground-shaking exposé that has the potential to tip the electoral scales is not only sloppy journalism, it literally destroys any remaining trust Israelis had in the mainstream news media. The irony is that this lack of trust will drive people to do the thing Bergman was trying to discourage–rely on social media for reliable information. Right-wing Israelis in particular are now going to question everything they hear on radio and television, even as they increasingly turn to new media outlets like Likud TV, which are certainly no less biased than the media outlets they are rejecting.

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