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April 01, 2019

Is a Fake Twitter Account Outed by NY Times Really Real?

In the New York Times and Israel's Yediot Ahronot, reporter Ronen Bergman relays charges that a network of fake accounts has been activated to support Benjamin Netanyahu's drive for reelection.

An Israeli watchdog group has found a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next week's election and to amplify the messages of his Likud party, according to a report to be released Monday.

But there's been some controversy about the claims Bergman makes, including because the single example of a fake account he names in the Times article has purportedly spoken out, and insists he is a real human tweeting his real thoughts under his real name

According to the Jerusalem Post's Lahav Harkov and Alon Einhorn,

The people behind other Twitter accounts named in the Yediot report outed themselves on Monday, saying that they are not bots or paid operatives.

“What is this nonsense? I’m not allowed to support the Right?” Moshe Mahlev of Rishon Lezion told 103FM. Mahlev, who used a photo of a Greek male model for his Twitter account, was used as an example of a pro-Netanyahu bot in the article. He said he had not been called by anyone from Yediot or the Times for a reaction.

“Everything there is real, except for the photo,” Mahlev added. “What do they think, real people don’t vote for Likud in this country?”

The Washington Post likewise mentions the emergence and protest of real Twitter users in the wake of Bergman's reports.

It is certainly possible that the report, of which Bergman received in advance of its release, exposes fake accounts that violate Twitter's rules or organized efforts to violate Israeli election laws. Still, the Times in its handbook of ethical journalism promises a right of reply as follows:

Few writers need to be reminded that we seek and publish a response from anyone criticized in our pages. But when the criticism is serious, we have a special obligation to describe the scope of the accusation and let the subject respond in detail. No subject should be taken by surprise when the paper appears, or feel that there was no chance to respond.

There is no indication that the Times sought out comment from the person behind the account with the mane Moshe. The need to seek out comment by those "criticized in our pages" isn't only for the sake of the accused, but also for the sake of readers and the pursuit of truth. It's certainly possible that Moshe isn't identifiable in the real world, and that his analog reputation is safe. It's also possible that his analog reputation is at risk — Bergman doesn't know whether a real-world Moshe told friends and colleagues about his online activities.

Regardless, the claims by people who say they were named in the report but are real people posting their real views on their own behalf are clearly relevant to the story. And they counter-claims would have been part of the Times story—scrutinized and either accepted or disproved—if editors took seriously the promises in their codes of ethics.

Posted by gi at April 1, 2019 05:02 PM


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