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With Israel and Hamas @war, algorithms and fake accounts fueled #hatred online

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In the 11 days in May during which Hamas launched rockets at Israel and Israel responded by bombing targets in the Gaza Strip, social media itself turned into a battlefield.

Around the world, social media influencers were successfully spreading the narrative that Israelis are “oppressors” and Palestinians “oppressed,” The New York Times reported last Tuesday, three days before a ceasefire went into effect. The narrative appeared to be gaining ground, the paper noted.

Social media and messaging apps reportedly also played a role in helping far-right Jewish extremists in Israel organize violent demonstrations against Arabs, and aided the spread of inciteful rumors that may have fueled Arab attacks on Jews and vice versa.

But while support for Palestinians on streets worldwide may have been real, Israeli researchers attempting to pierce the fog of war surrounding the conflict have raised doubts regarding how much of the supposed social media war was truly authentic. Experts say that we often don’t know why we’re exposed to a particular piece of content online, whether as a byproduct of an algorithm seeking to shock and outrage us or by bad actors hoping to do the same.

“The social media networks made it very easy for anyone to tweak the system,” said Elad Ratson, a former Israeli diplomat who now runs Vayehee, a Paris-based company that uses technology to counter misinformation online.

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Ratson said that while many social media users are behaving in ways that feel authentic to them, they are all constantly being manipulated by interested parties in ways they may not understand.

During the conflict, state and quasi-state actors were working covertly to steer online discussions surrounding the fighting between Israel and Hamas, he asserted.

“There are a lot of elements that finance the promotion of anti-Israeli content,” he said. “It’s actually more common than you think.”

Social media networks make it possible, he said, with varying degrees of ease, for a third party to pay for the promotion of content posted by someone they may not even know. Nor do social media companies require the identity of that third party to be disclosed.

Thus, pro-Israel actors might spend money to promote the tweet of a woman in Iowa who expressed views favorable to Israel but who had no relationship whatsoever to the country. At the same time pro-Palestinian operatives might pay to promote a social media post by a neighbor of hers who has no relationship to Gaza. Their promoted content, as a consequence, would go unexpectedly viral. The posts are authentic, said Ratson, but the only reason you would see them is because somebody paid to promote them, but you would not know who had done so.

Twitter did not respond on the record to the question of whether such paid promotions take place on its platform.

“Several governments I worked with or that have been the subject of my research, employ people who scout the social media landscape to identify narratives that they have, as a country, an interest in promoting,” Ratson said. “So for example, they will go on Twitter and identify voices that correspond with their worldview.”

More insidious, though, Ratson said, are covert accounts known as bots, sock puppets or fake-identity accounts whose purpose is to cause certain narratives to trend over others. This can be done through techniques such as “astroturfing, follower boosting or artificial hyper engagement,” he said.

Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas on May 10, Ratson discovered a network of several hundred Twitter accounts created in recent days that were tweeting in laughably incorrect Hebrew, likely the product of Google Translate, he said.

Most of these accounts were created on the same day, and followed each other, commented and retweeted each other’s messages, including the language errors, strongly suggesting that they were not authentic users but rather part of an orchestrated disinformation campaign.

One account, supposedly belonging to a woman named Esther from Tel Aviv, tweeted in Hebrew “my cousin works in the border guard. He says that there are many dead and the situation is very painful and scary. He said that Israel is keeping this information secret and preventing the world from knowing. Israel has been defeated!” Tweets by a suspected fake Twitter account under the name of an Israeli........

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