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Israel denies link to Islamophobic campaign in Canada that Meta says originated there

OTTAWA — The Israeli government is being accused in published reports of involvement in an operation aimed at reducing support for Palestinians in Canada that was flagged by artificial intelligence researchers.
The flags of Canada and Israel fly at half mast on Wednesday, October 11, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The Israeli government is being accused in published reports of involvement in an operation aimed at reducing support for Palestinians in Canada that was flagged by artificial intelligence researchers.

Israel rejects the claim, being reported by the New York Times and Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that it's behind the social-media influence campaign, in which researchers say North Americans are being targeted with Islamophobic content.

Accounts bearing the name United Citizens for Canada posted content portraying Canadian Muslims as threatening Western values, and suggesting pro-Palestinian protesters in Canada were seeking to implement Shariah law.

The Digital Forensic Research Lab, a project run by the Atlantic Council, a prominent Washington think tank, first called out the posts in a March analysis.

It noted that the campaign employed artificial intelligence to change words being said by a man with a beard and Muslim skullcap at a rally. It also noted a photo of Muslims holding a banner was digitally altered, making the poster read "Shariah for Canada."

"The network, which included at least 50 accounts on Facebook, 18 on Instagram and more than one hundred on X, boosted anti-Muslim and Islamophobic narratives directed at Canadian audiences," the March analysis reads.

The accounts used AI-generated profile pictures and repeatedly posted similar messages, often seeking to garner press coverage directly from individual Canadian journalists and media outlets. One post on Instagram warns people to be wary "if anti-Liberal Islam wants to enter your hockey team."

The group "possibly hijacked existing accounts," the think tank wrote. Meta said it decided to close down affiliated Facebook profiles after receiving queries from the think tank.

In its quarterly "adversarial threat report" released last month, Meta confirmed it closed down more than 500 accounts linked to the campaign.

"This network originated in Israel and primarily targeted audiences in the United States and Canada," the report reads, with Meta saying accounts were "posing as Jewish students, African Americans and 'concerned' citizens" and involved "creating fictitious news outlets."

"The campaign purchased inauthentic engagement (i.e. likes and followers) from Vietnam in an attempt to make its content appear more popular than it was," Meta's report reads.

"While the individuals behind it attempted to conceal their identity and co-ordination, we found links to STOIC, a political marketing and business intelligence firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. It is now banned from our platform."

The Israeli investigative site Fake Reporter reported Wednesday that the site targeting Canadians is hosted on the same IP address that has started numerous other accounts targeting pro-Palestinian activists, such as amplifying concerns about on-campus protests.

The New York Times and Haaretz said in reports Wednesday that STOIC's work was contracted for and paid for by the Israeli government. The Canadian Press has not independently verified the claims.

The company declined comment to both media outlets, and could not be reached by The Canadian Press. The company's LinkedIn page was recently taken down and its website lists no contact information.

Both outlets site sources and documents that they report show that Israel's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs paid for the campaign, including the Islamophobic postings.

Israel's embassy in Ottawa provided a statement from that ministry, as well as the government agency Voices of Israel, which was also accused of receiving funding for the influence campaign.

"The Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism and the Voices of Israel initiative categorically deny any involvement in disinformation campaigns," the statement reads.

"We would like to clarify that neither the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs nor the Voices of Israel have any connection or collaborative activities with the company STOIC. Any claims suggesting otherwise are completely unfounded and inaccurate."

The office of Democratic Institutions Minister Dominic LeBlanc did not have an immediate response when asked to comment on the reports.

Despite Facebook, Instagram and X suspending multiple accounts linked to the United Citizens of Canada, the campaign still has an active, sparse website that advocates against "overly liberal immigration policies." The website does not list contact information.

The site invites people to "join us in our endeavor to preserve and protect Canada's legacy as a beacon of liberty and tolerance," using the American spelling for the word "endeavour."

It includes sentences with obvious grammatical errors. "UCC founded by worried citizens who are concerned about the possible future Canada is heading and decided to actively change reality," reads the site.

The site Fake Reporter found the accounts targeting Canadians were amplifying other accounts with suspicious activity that were seeking to undermine the UN agency dedicated to Palestinians, known as UNRWA.

The Israeli ministry alleged to have commissioned the influence campaign is led by Amichai Chikli, who raised eyebrows a year ago when he visited Canada to speak with MPs and at private events without following typical diplomatic protocols.

Chikli was to speak at a private Christian college near Toronto run by controversial evangelical Christian leader Charles McVety and to address an unofficial interparliamentary group involving legislators from Canada and Israel, which operates separately from an official grouping that welcome delegates.

At the time, Haaretz reported that Ottawa raised concerns with the Israeli ambassador about the visit; the Israeli embassy and Global Affairs Canada did not deny that claim, instead saying both institutions shared information about the visit as they came to learn about it.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press