Somebody, or some organization, impersonated Max Kleinman, the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest (and a columnist for this newspaper) — possibly as part of a political operation in support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A Twitter account with Mr. Kleinman’s name and photo and a link to his LinkedIn account was recently discovered by an Israeli anti-disinformation project called Fake Reporter. The Israeli newspaper Haazaretz first reported the story.
While there was no evidence that the account had been used, someone using a similar forged account, set up in the name of Atlanta Jewish Times publisher Michael Morris, had reached out to activists in Israel’s ongoing protests against Netanyahu and offered them money.
Direct messages sent from the phony Morris reprinted in Haaretz were in crude English.
“Here in Atlanta some of my israeli top wealthy friends are going to support the movement against Bibi because the believe that Netanyahu is a corrupted guy,” one message began. “We can support you financially to overthrone him.”
Fake Reporter was formed by volunteers affiliated with the anti-Netanyahu protests to battle online disinformation being spread about them.
The phony Max Kleinman account was set up originally in 2016. But Twitter accounts can be renamed, so it is not clear when Mr. Kleinman’s identity first was borrowed. The account followed several of the protest activists, implying that it had been set up to get in touch with them eventually.
“It’s very scary that people can set up a false account,” Mr. Kleinman said.
He first was informed of the forgery by Amir Shacham, who runs the Greater MetroWest federation’s Israel office. Mr. Shacham told Mr. Kleinman to expect and accept a phone call from Ori Kol, an Israeli liberal activist who is one of the founders of Fake Reporter.
Then he heard from Robert Wilson, the federation’s chief security officer.
“He was very supportive,” Mr. Kleinman said. “He had that false Twitter account cancelled. He also spoke with the FBI to see if they could investigate it.
“To have my identity stolen and my good name in effect stolen was very distressing,” he continued. “They were trying to use my good name and the influence I have as a director of the federation for many many years.
“It’s bad enough to have your identity stolen for fraud. To have it stolen for a political purpose I may or may not agree with is totally disconcerting. Hopefully there will be initiatives to prevent this from happening.”
Mr. Kol, 28, lives in Tel Aviv. He was one of the founders of Mechazkim, which he described as “a very digitally based liberal democratic organization. We’re an advocacy group that started as little Facebook group to promote lefty values in Israel, and we grew and grew.”
He said Mr. Kleinman’s fake accounts — there also was a fake Facebook account — were discovered by combing through the people who were following the fake Michael Morris account and who that account was following.
“The second we saw the fake Max profile, we realized it fit the fake Michael template, so we started looking into it,” Mr. Kol said. “In 15 minutes you can tell that it’s fake. In 30 minutes, through a friend of a friend, we found someone who knew Max. A few hours later we talked to him.
“It was not a very sophisticated effort,” he said of the fake accounts. But it was part of a series of responses to the protest organizers that has included “doxxing , verbal attacks, and bombarding of people’s phones.”
Offline, the demonstrators have been greeted by counterprotestors and some violent attacks, he said.
Mr. Kol said the Fake Reporter site has received other reports of networks of fake social media accounts. “We’ve had so much covid deniers and anti-vax people. So much fake news being thrown around about covid and the vaccine.
“Much of Israeli political life is taken from American political trends, and one of the trends is a sprawling wave of right-wing populism that tries to disintegrate the levels of trust in our democratic processes and in the election.
“Like in the U.S. it comes from the head of state and his son,” namely Yair Netanyahu, who is particularly active on Twitter. “They don’t go as far as the Q-anon people, but they do try to delegitimize the results of the election,” Mr. Kol said.
“Mainly they’re trying to turn down the voting rates with minority groups, which here means Israeli Arabs.” Mechazkim has been highlighting efforts by the political right to suppress minority votes amid unproven allegations of voter fraud.
“It’s the same right wing populism as in the U.S.”
As for Mr. Kleinman, does he regret not having had an actual Twitter account, which might have precluded the forgery?
“Not for a minute,” he said. “I’m enjoying life to much to be sidetracked by these Twitter accounts.”