Much has been said about the cyberwar that has become the main battlefield in recent years in the war between the superpowers and between Israel and Iran. Still, this war has received a version update in the last two years, and foreign elements are encouraging the public to turn on each other and fight from within.
Iran has invested significant resources and accumulated vast experience in the conduct of digital influence efforts. These clandestine propaganda efforts have been used to complement Iranian foreign policy operations for the better part of a decade. In pursuit of foreign and domestic information dominance, Iran began operating Facebook and Twitter “sock puppets” (A fictitious online identity created for deception) as early as 2010. As a whole, Iran’s digital influence operations represent a continuation of public diplomacy, albeit conducted through misleading websites and social media “sock puppets”.
According to a survey by the Israeli Channel 13, 50% of the Israeli public claim that “Fake News” prevents them from understanding reality. 45% percent are worried about expressions of hatred online, which Israel’s enemies seem eager to exploit.
These days, the “models” network, as defined by the media, operates in Israel – hundreds of fictitious profiles of women, allegedly Israeli, run by a foreign political entity, apparently – Iran, whose goal is to divide, initiate conflict and influence the Israeli public politically. The “models” are very politically active on the net and aim at all directions, participating in discussions and forming groups. The main message is that everything is bad and corrupt, and it cannot be fixed. The “models” entice men primarily to do their bidding online.
One of the fake profiles, Noa Shamir, posted a cartoon and provocative content against Former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. These photos were uploaded again by Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair, blaming the post on ‘extreme leftists’., it was not leftists who created and distributed them but the fake profiles. The source for the cartoon was from a competition in Iran in 2016. These profiles operated during the Israeli elections to produce propaganda that will impair, as the propagandists saw it, the ability of the citizens to make conscious and intelligent decisions.
A year ago, the “models” preached keeping distance and wearing a mask and hating the ultra-Orthodox who “spread” the covid virus. In recent months the same profiles have changed attitudes: the covid is a lie and the vaccine is an international conspiracy. They are active daily, responding to hot topics, fueling conspiracy theories and penetrating dozens of political groups. They not only fit into the political groups, but they also form them, copy content from dubious sites, and mislead the members. They “snatch” groups, set up ones with a similar name, and take the logo.
The “models” try to be active wherever there is social sensitivity and especially in groups of soldiers.
As mentioned before, the main suspect in operating this network of fake profiles is Iran, which has recently increased its surveillance and involvement in social media networks in Israel. There are a number of key factors that have led investigators from the “Fake Reporter” NGO that has exposed the network, to suspect Iran as the operator of those pages.
While Iran is at the forefront of digital influence campaigns, no country has used its cyber capabilities as a weapon like Russia. The new version of the cold war is registered in its name. The most talked-about example was Russia’s use of social media to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2016, Russian trolls created fake accounts and memes that were uploaded to social media and attacked Hillary Clinton. The KGB and its Eastern European metamorphoses also used campaigns of influence through the people recruited in Western countries in the past. Nowadays, the internet has given the campaign a huge boost as there is no longer a need to recruit spies or key personnel in the target country.
The Iranians learned quickly, and both the “Shin Bet” (The Israeli General Security Service) and Facebook have confirmed that in the last Israeli election they identified an influence network in Israel operated by a foreign power.
One might think that social media platforms – where people cast their preferred persona to the world – are not the places one would intuitively search for terrorists and criminals. Yet in recent years, in light of terrorist organizations’ vast use of social media platforms, the discipline of gathering and analyzing intelligence from social media platforms – developed in the business world and colloquially called SOCMINT – has been increasingly useful in tracking terrorist activities.
Iranian networks like the Russian ones operate throughout the virtual space, on Twitter, Tiktok, but mostly on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook seems to recognize that this activity at the end of the day increases the company’s profitability and cannot be relied upon to forcefully act against it.
This article was written by Mayan Sarnat, a research fellow of the Alma Center. She has a master’s degree in diplomacy and security from Tel Aviv University. Today, she is a senior analyst in the security field in a company specializing in intelligence research and national security.