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The Forward is targeted by Russian disinformation campaign around Israel

Investigation finds fake articles aiming to discredit Biden and Netanyahu shared by thousands of bots on X

A disinformation campaign linked to Russia has intensified its activity in recent weeks, with fake news articles, dummy websites and videos using AI-generated voice-overs to spread false reports regarding the war in Gaza, protests in Israel and Israel’s relations abroad.

The campaign included web pages masquerading as articles from the Forward and Hamodia, a popular Haredi news site, that were shared by thousands of bot accounts on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter. It is the first known instance of these leading American Jewish news outlets being subject to such forgery by Russia.

As with previous instances of this Russian disinformation campaign — which has targeted the Israeli news sites Walla and Mako; the French Le Monde and Le Parisien; the German Die Welt and Bild and multiple Ukrainian news sites — the replicas mimicked the design and domain names of the authentic news sites.

There was increased activity in recent weeks around Europe’s election, with fake articles purporting to be from French outlets promoting the far-right party of Marine Le Pen over President Emmanuel Macron. Doppelganger accounts also sought to erode support for Ukraine in France with fake news regarding antisemitic actions committed by Moldovan nationals recruited by the Russian secret service, FSB.

For instance, two days after the Shoah Memorial in Paris was painted with blood-red hands graffiti, in what appeared to be an authentic antisemitic act, bots started criticizing Macron for not fighting antisemitism in France, where there has been a steep rise in hate crimes since Oct. 7.

Other fake articles seem to be trying to discredit President Joe Biden’s stance toward Israel and build support for former President Donald J. Trump among American Jews ahead of the fall election. One claimed that Washington would soon end its support for Israel and leave the Jewish state alone to face stronger opponents.

Bots sharing fake Hamodia articles on X. Photo by X screenshot

Shomrim, an Israeli investigative news organization that has been following such Russian disinformation campaigns, has found two fake Forward articles, one headlined “U.S. Democratic Party Plays Along With French Businessmen,” the other, “U.S. Democrats and Israeli Left Liberals Want to Permanently Set the U.S. and Israel at Variance.” Both carried the byline of Louis Keene, a Forward staff reporter based in Los Angeles, and used chaotic collage photo illustrations, one featuring heavy weaponry, the other megaphones and a book.

“Instead of supplying ammunition to the IDF as agreed, the Biden administration prefers to support the Ukrainian army,” declared the first article, which was shared thousands of times on X. The second one, dated June 25, said: “Americans are also being assiduously led to believe that a country allegedly violating international humanitarian norms and accused of genocide is definitely not worth doing business with.”

Both mirrored the top of Forward web pages, including its solicitation for donations, but they carried suspicious URLs that begin with “www.forward.pw,” and have a different capitalization style for headlines from the real publication.

Upon being alerted to the fakes by Shomrim, the Forward posted screenshots of the articles on its site with red lines through them and the label DISINFORMATION to ensure readers would know they did not represent the organization’s journalism.

“This type of misinformation and fake news has the potential to polarize public opinion and is a threat to democracy,” said Rachel Fishman Feddersen, CEO and publisher of the Forward.

A previous Shomrim investigation, published in December, detailed Russian hacks of Israeli sites along with the fake news articles, which are referred to as a “Doppelganger” campaign and which French authorities have linked to Russia.

In the current campaign, bots shared links on X that directed users to the fabricated Forward and Hamodia articles by passing through an intermediary domain that was also used to redirect in the Doppelganger campaign.

In addition to the forged news articles, these accounts also recently started to regularly share videos with AI voice-over in Russian regarding political developments in Israel. Dozens of bots on X engaged in this effort, Shomrim found, using popular hashtags to get traction. The bots at times managed to get reactions from genuine users, who shared the videos to their own audiences.

According to disinformation researchers who use the handle @Antibot4Navalny, the accounts sharing the videos have “previously posted content that was first published only by Doppelganger.”

One video shared by the bots claims that Israel will attack “the only Christian country in the Middle East if it decides to go to war with Lebanon under the pretext of fighting against Hezbollah.” The video used footage from a port explosion in Beirut and said it was caused by the Israeli air force dropping bombs on the Lebanese capital.

Other footage shared in recent weeks by the Russian-affiliated bots refers to the ongoing protests in Israel as “Maidan,” the name of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that was depicted by Russian propaganda as an illegal coup d’etat, and ask whether the “Ukrainization of Israel” is on the way.” These videos show close-ups of protesters lighting fires on a main road in Tel Aviv, with eerie music in the background and an AI voice-over creating an ominous vibe. Some of the videos also embedded news articles from Russian-language news outlets in Israel regarding acts of protest to suggest that the country is descending into chaos.

Some of these videos are still available on X more than a month after their publication, and the bots are continuing to share videos about Israel on a daily basis.

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