A now-defunct Israeli intelligence firm sought to shape public opinion in a Californian city with a massive influence campaign, but its efforts eventually backfired. This scoop nevertheless highlights the perils of largely unregulated social media at a time when multiple actors are trying to covertly sway electoral results at all levels.
In 2016, Israeli intelligence professionals pitched pay-to-smear services to a corrupt US physician to help him win a recall election and also courted Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to The New Yorker’s exposé.
The investigation tells a story about the city of Tulare in central California, where angry locals sought to oust Yorai Benzeevi, a physician who was suspected of indebting a local hospital.
Tulare activists are said to have launched a campaign to remove Benzeevi, who hired Psy-Group, a secretive intelligence firm which employed former Israeli spies, including those from Israel’s semi-legendary Mossad secret service.
Psy-Group launched “a coordinated intelligence operation and influence campaign” to help him win the hospital-board fight, searching for anything that could discredit the opposition candidate — for instance, her poor financial records and immigrant background.
They launched sites that contained discrediting stories about the activist, but eventually overreached themselves. The thinly-veiled smear campaign aroused the suspicions of the Tulare community, and the physician was defeated in the re-election.
However, Psy-Group’s ambitions expanded far beyond Tulare’s borders. The firm is said to have unsuccessfully pitched its services to the Trump campaign, saying that it could exploit social media to change the odds in Trump’s favour. On this note, the story echoes last year’s NYT report, according to which Psy-Group laid out a plan to amplify division among Trump’s opponents to his campaign official Rick Gates.
Psy-Group has apparently had more luck with wooing Jewish-American donors, who reportedly hired the former spies to target activists of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to boycott Israel and force it to end its alleged mistreatment of Palestinians.
The firm launched an operation, called Project Butterfly, which is said to have costed $2.5 million and sought to smear BDS activists, including students and faculty members.
According to The New Yorker, Psy-Group has rolled out a variety of campaigns outside the US: they have compiled a dossier on a religious organisation in the Netherlands and besmirched political opposition in Gabon.
Psy-Group’s activities came to an end after it appeared on Robert Mueller’s radar during his investigation into the alleged foreign interference in the 2016 election. According to a former company official, its owner, Israeli entrepreneur Joel Zamel, decided to close Psy-Group in February, 2018, just as Mueller’s team began questioning employees.
This scoop comes as an earlier leaked Al Jazeera documentary exposed various pro-Israeli advocacy groups waging influence campaigns in the United Sates, monitoring pro-Palestinian activists and buying the favour of US lawmakers.EU Ignoring Mideast Summit Shows Brussels Anger Over US Stance on Iran – Report