OCCUPIED EAST JERUSALEM — On April 29, Inès Abdel Razek woke up to 80 new Twitter followers.
“These accounts were following the exact same people that were tweeting about Palestine, but from France or Francophone accounts that work on Palestine,” Razek said of her new followers.
The advocacy director of Rābet, the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy’s digital platform, became wary of the issue after Abier Khateb, a grants manager at Open Society Foundations, reported mass followings as well.
Razek told MintPress News that she began individually reporting each account as fake but kept her own account open — lest she let the alleged bots win. But after a few days, Razek made her profile private. At the peak of the mass following, Razek had accumulated 400 fake followers.
From the end of April through the first few weeks of May, more than 40 pro-Palestine Twitter accounts reported mass followings. Digital-rights experts say acquiring huge amounts of fake followers triggers Twitter’s algorithm and can lead to the tech giant suspending an account, effectively censoring users by forcing them to make their accounts private.
These accounts included those belonging to human rights and activist organizations Adalah, Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, and Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. They also included news publications and journalists, like The Palestine Chronicle, Ali Abunimah and Hind Al-Eryani; and politicians, such as Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom. Twitter did not respond to MintPress inquiries on the source of the suspicious accounts.
Dr. Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University, conducted an analysis that found more than 1,150 fake accounts. Twitter deleted approximately 1,090 of these accounts, according to Jones. His analysis determined that the average account-creation time was one to three per minute, suggesting these accounts were created using an automated process.
The profiles were in various languages, including French, Spanish, English and German, but usually had Arabic bios. They often had strange names — like Noble Betty Thomas — and zero followers.
“They had clearly made-up names,” Sarah Leah Whitson, who also experienced a large influx of new followers, told MintPress. “The vast majority of them had Israeli names and Israeli addresses. Some of them had made-up Arab names, which were mangled. It’s clear that they’re [using] stolen images of people.”
In response to the bulk followings, software developer Daniel Easterman created a free script to automatically report and block hundreds of these bots for users.
Easterman said the spamming problem has a censorship effect by forcing users to make their accounts private. “This means they won’t be able to distribute their messages widely as they would normally,” Easterman told MintPress News.
Another area of particular concern is how a flood of fake followers may cause Twitter to shut down an account. “When you see such a dramatic increase in followers, it’s usually somebody manipulating the system for commercial gain,” Easterman said. “So that could trigger Twitter to automatically flag that as suspicious activity and suspend the activist’s account.”
Using Twitter to target human rights defenders and journalists isn’t unusual. In 2017, journalist Iona Craig and others who report on Yemen were spammed with thousands of fake followers. Many speculated the culprits were state entities belonging to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The reason behind this particular mass following campaign remains unknown. Jones hypothesized it’s acting as a form of social media suppression, writing on Twitter:
Some suggest it’s a means to degrade the algorithmic quality of a Twitter account so that it possibly gets suspended; some suggest it’s others trying to boost popularity of an account. When it’s unsolicited, as in this case, I tend to think it’s more of a targeting operation. I am naturally cynical, but most people who get a sudden influx of fake followers feel unnerved and uncomfortable. If that fact is widely known, it functions as a tool of surveillance and potentially intimidation (e.g., you are being watched). It also makes many people mute their accounts for a bit which has a censorship effect.”
Razek, Whitson, and others told MintPress that the flood of fake followers appears to be diminishing for them. However, a new operation has emerged.
In the past week, Jones found around 2,800 fake accounts following pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist accounts who have recently been tweeting on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh.
“This network is likely the same as the one found at [the] end of April, although now it is active,” Jones wrote on Twitter.
The accounts have between 0 to 20 followers, with the majority of bios written in English and simply stating the account location, which is Israel. Most accounts don’t have a banner picture and the profile pictures have purportedly been swiped from real people.
According to Jones, the accounts have begun liking and retweeting posts, without any real partisan regularity: they like both pro- and anti-Palestinian subject matter and follow both pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian accounts but appear to target the pro-Palestinian side more. Accounts targeted include The Jerusalem Post; the government of Israel’s official state account; activist organization Jewish Voice for Peace; the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; Israeli journalist Ilan Pappe; and former Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi.
Again, the reason for the bulk followers remains unclear. “Those who get followed understandably find it intimidating, as if a form of surveillance or a technique to try and degrade [the] quality of an account with low-quality follows,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “The fact remains, these are clearly fake accounts and ruin the experience of Twitter.”
censorship of Palestine, an ongoing problem
Palestinian digital-rights experts have long decried the increasing censorship of Palestinian content online. During Israel’s assault on Gaza and the upticks in Israeli attacks at Al-Aqsa Compound and in Sheikh Jarrah in May 2021, Palestinian activists reported social media companies were removing their content on Israeli violence and ethnic cleansing for violating community guidelines.
The social media censorship didn’t stop when tensions died down over the summer, though. Last month, social media users in Jordan said their posts related to Israeli violence at Al-Aqsa were taken down and their accounts blocked. Additionally, accounts belonging to Palestinian news publications covering the violence in occupied East Jerusalem and at Al-Aqsa were deactivated by Facebook.
In their recent monthly report on social media violations, Palestinian NGO Sada Social stated the deletion of Palestinian content “is in line with and in response to Israeli requests to tighten the screws on Palestinians and their media.”
Palestinian-American model Bella Hadid also accused Instagram of shadow-banning (having content viewership limited) her pro-Palestinian content during Ramadan.
Razek suggested the swarm of fake followers on Twitter may be an extension of Instagram’s alleged shadow-banning. “The purpose is to pollute our algorithms and make our accounts less visible. So in the way that Instagram is shadow-banning some content, this could be a way that Twitter shadow-bans our content,” she said.
While the identities behind the fake followers haven’t been revealed, many have pointed to Israel. The Israeli government’s targeting of Palestinian digital content is well-documented. According to 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, the Israeli Ministry of Justice Cyber Unit sends content-removal requests aimed at Palestinian content to social media companies such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube. The Justice Ministry has boasted these corporations comply with 95% of their requests. And Israeli governmental organizations and NGOs also encourage their citizens to flag Palestinian content for removal.
Attacking free speech
Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s pending purchase of Twitter came with a promise of securing free speech on the digital platform. “Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated,” the self-declared free-speech advocate said in a statement about his Twitter deal.
While digital-rights experts like Jones are wary of Musk’s potential Twitter takeover, Whitson, who’s experienced targeted attacks, harassment, and censorship threats for decades for speaking out against Israeli abuses, views the buyout positively. For the executive director of nonprofit Democracy for the Arab World (DAWN), the risk of corporate censorship is a bigger issue than online hate speech. Whitson said:
I’m hopeful that Elon Musk will be true to his word to protect and promote free speech and to end concerted efforts to target and cancel speech that we don’t like. Seeing how Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have launched systematic efforts to silence pro-Palestine activist voices, I’m very wary of corporate moderators deciding what speech is and isn’t acceptable.”
Whitson doesn’t agree the bots are a form of censorship, but she does see them as an assault on free speech. “It’s a form of targeted harassment and bullying,” she said. “It’s a targeted attack on people who are speaking freely, including journalists and human rights activists.”
Feature photo | MintPress News | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.