Jerusalem24 – A network of Facebook and Instagram accounts that was run by an Israeli PR firm and that sought to elicit “confessions” from Palestinians in Gaza and foment discontent with Hamas has been taken down by Meta.
The network posted about Palestinian, Angolan, and Nigerian politics, and was run by Israeli public relations firm Mind Force. It included 42 Pages, nine groups, 259 profiles, and 107 Instagram accounts.
Facebook’s parent company Meta announced the removal of the network on 4 August.
Meta shared details of the network’s activities with the Stanford Internet Observatory Cyber Policy Center, which conducted an investigation into what they call “an Inauthentic Facebook and Instagram Network Linked to an Israeli Public Relations Firm.”
The Stanford Internet Observatory researches abuse in information technologies with a focus on social media.
According to the Observatory, several of the profiles suspended as part of the network takedown belonged to real individuals employed by Israeli firm Mind Force PR and Media, which according to its website is “a Full-service communications agency specializing in public relations, Digital Marketing, Social Media, Content Marketing and more.” The website presents the firm as an above-board PR firm, listing their first value as “Honesty” and inviting customers to “build your dreams with us.”
At least one of Mind Force’s employees was directly employed by the Angolan Government, as stated on his LinkedIn profile.
According to the Observatory and to the information shared with them, while the portions of the network dedicated to Angola and Nigeria sought to promote one specific political party and one specific political candidate respectively, the one focused on Palestine, the Middle-East, and Islam, seemingly had broader objectives.
Consisting of 19 Pages, 66 profiles, six groups, and 42 Instagram accounts the network’s Palestine-focused accounts presented themselves as either legitimate news pages, cultural pages, or satirical pages. Some posts shared some light criticism of Israel, such as blaming the closure of the Beit Hanoun/Erez checkpoint in northern Gaza on the Israeli occupation, or blaming high unemployment rates on Israeli attacks on Gaza.
However, the bulk of the network’s accounts shared posts and articles focused on criticism of Hamas, claiming the government was ineffective, run by corrupt leaders, contributed to rising unemployment, and actively worked against the interests of civilians in Gaza including through the use of excessive policing force.
One particularly active cluster of accounts with a combined total of over 10,000 followers was for a so-called education platform calling itself “t3lem”. The page ran advertisements, and many posts on the t3lem Facebook Page received thousands of interactions.
While posts focused on educational subjects, they did so at the expense of Hamas, for example by criticizing them for failing to provide employment opportunity for graduates and failing to fund universities.
“Our sense is that t3lem gained an audience by claiming to be an education platform, and then used its reach to fuel frustration with the Hamas government,” says the Observatory in their report.
The network also focused on Hamas’ relationship with Iran, pushing the claim that Iran was the last remaining ally of the Palestinians and that other governments in the region had abandoned them.
The Observatory also reveals more disturbing and potentially dangerous activity from one specific set of accounts within the network.
“A low-follower but novel set of accounts within the Palestinian cluster linked out to a Google Form meant to elicit anonymous confessions from Gaza residents, which were then shared on the accounts.”
It seems unlikely that many Gazans would volunteer information which for one reason or another could be used against them, either by Hamas or by any other party. However, the Observatory report does not seem to note the very real danger that such a practice constitutes.
“By the time Meta suspended this network, the only supposed confessions posted were apolitical. It seems possible, however, that the ultimate purpose was to elicit (or pretend to elicit) political complaints,” concludes the report.
Israeli PR and marketing: A repeat Facebook offender
This is not the first time Meta has suspended a network run by an Israeli PR and marketing firm.
In 2019 Meta suspended a network linked to Archimedes Group for “election fakery”, which reporting by the Times of Israel suggested was linked to Grey Content Ltd., an Israeli advertising firm. Like the Mind Force network, the Archimedes network also created content about Angola and Nigeria – though the Observatory has found no evidence to suggest that the two firms have ties.
The Observatory notes that in the case involving Mind Force, Meta suspended the network not due to the content of the posts, but rather for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
“In many ways this network was typical of modern political disinformation campaigns: a digital marketing firm led the operation, narratives praised some politicians and criticized others, and there was evidence of inauthentic engagement,” concludes the Observatory. “Some of the Palestinian cluster tactics to foster discontent with the Hamas government were also novel.”