Did Russian Trolls Have Company?: New Evidence on Israel-based PSY-Group’s Possible Social Media Efforts in 2016 US Election

Much ink has been spilled on the role of the Russia-backed Internet Research Agency’s engaging in disinformation tactics to help the Trump campaign. The intelligence firm and thirteen individuals connected to it are the targets of an indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February. The indictment finds fault with the IRA for “posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences” and then using those assets to spread disinformation designed to interfere in the election. But a little known private Israeli intelligence firm may well have done precisely the same thing, according to new information by an independent organization that tracks such efforts.

The New York Times was the first to report on a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Erik Prince and George Nader in August 2016 that included Joel Zamel, the founder of PSY-Group, an Israel-based private intelligence firm that sold social-media manipulation services. The meeting was in part to pitch PSY-Group’s proposal to use “thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.”

Without much more than raising the question whether the plan pitched to the Trump campaign was ever adopted, the New York Times’ story does hint that PSY-Group may have undertaken these efforts. Don Jr. reportedly “responded approvingly” to the proposal, Nader paid Zamel $2 million after the election, and in Dec. 2016 Nader turned to another Zamel-linked company “to purchase a presentation demonstrating the impact of social media campaigns on Mr. Trump’s electoral victory,” the Times reported.

Following the New York Times story, Bloomberg reported that the special counsel is investigating flows of money into PSY-Group’s Cyprus bank account. The Wall Street Journal then reported that PSY-Group “formed a strategic partnership” with the data firm that worked with the Trump campaign”–Cambridge Analytica–“in a joint bid to win business from the U.S. government and other clients after the 2016 election.” The agreement was apparently also inked in Dec. 2016–suggesting the companies may have already established a line of communication before the election. Then, the Wall Street Journal published a nine-slide presentation from PSY-Group outlining how fake accounts helped Donald Trump win the 2016 election.

These various news reports lead to bigger questions: what role, if any, did PSY-Group play in the 2016 US election, and what was its relationship if any to other key players and firms participating in misinformation campaigns to elect Donald Trump? A startup in Texas may have unearthed new evidence in the matter.

The research comes from New Knowledge AI, an Austin-based company with a team of highly respected technologists that sells products and services to fight disinformation and to identify fake social media accounts and propaganda campaigns. The organization posted a Twitter thread that poses some serious questions about who is behind PSY-Group, and whether the company coordinated an election interference campaign similar to the Russian Internet Research Agency.

First, New Knowledge points to job descriptions posted by PSY-Group employees in 2016 seeking to hire American English speakers with political science backgrounds. This suggests “they intended to target Americans for political objectives,” the company asserts.

Such job posts continued into 2017, when one PSY-Group employee, Eitan Charnoff, posted an ad similar to those placed in 2016. According to LinkedIn and other sites, Charnoff was previously the IDF Commander of the Social Media Productions Desk, and is also the National Director of iVoteIsrael, a Republican-aligned Israeli-American voter registration group criticized for its “flimsy façade of non-partisanship.”

Charnoff represents one link to the Israeli defense and intelligence community. The firm’s possible ties specifically to the Israeli intelligence community are even more compelling. In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said Zamel is “linked to Israeli intelligence and the Emirati royal court.” Archived versions of the PSY-Group website also vaunt ties to “elite intelligence services,” while Vanity Fair’s Maya Kosoff points to Alexander Nix’s claims in the Channel 4 expose on Cambridge Analytica. “We use some British companies, we use some Israeli companies,” Nix said in the video. “From Israel. Very effective in intelligence gathering.”

Then, New Knowledge looked at accounts mentioned in the PSY-Group slide deck published by the Wall Street Journal, focusing in on “Joey Brooklyn,” a bot account mentioned on a slide about using Twitter for “Controlling the Conversation Strategy.” Why did PSY-Group showcase these fake accounts and describe their effectiveness in influencing voters? It was to demonstrate the very services that the firm provides. “The PSY-Group said it had the capability of leveraging fake social-media accounts, which they call avatars, on behalf of political campaigns,” the Wall Street Journal explained. While it’s possible PSY-Group stumbled across these accounts, Jonathon Morgan, Founder and CEO of New Knowledge thinks that is difficult to believe. “Maybe PSY Group was only using these accounts as an example of how social media conversation can be manipulated, but it’s hard to imagine why they would promote someone else’s work in a sales presentation for their company’s services,” he noted in a phone conversation.

As New Knowledge points out, “@Joe_America1776 is still active, and has posted over 563,000 times since the account was created in July of 2015. That’s an average of around 514 tweets *per day*, every day, for three years.”

New Knowledge then searched for accounts regularly amplifying @Joe_America1776’s posts on other social media platforms, which led to a likely fake Facebook account created by an impostor. “Looks like fake Mari friended the real Mari, stole Mari’s photos, and used those photos to make the fake account seem more legitimate,” New Knowledge concludes.

New Knowledge also looks closely at “Kris Crawford,” another Facebook account PSY-Group used in the pitch material obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

While he appears to be an American man, Crawford’s URL suggests his Facebook page used to belong to a “Martina Jakimovska.” “Looking through the ‘Kris Crawford’s’ account history it’s still possible to see when Martina updated her profile photo and used Facebook to check in at a location in Macedonia,” New Knowledge notes.

It must be noted that the Kris Crawford account was previously identified by BuzzFeed journalists reporting on Macedonian spammers in November 2016. In a tweet, BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman points out that some details about the Trump campaign’s social media tactics in the PSY-Group proposal obtained by the Wall Street Journal appear to be lifted from his reporting. It is possible the slides do not reflect work that PSY-Group performed. 

Ultimately, very little is known about PSY-Group, its relationship to Cambridge Analytica and other figures in the Trump orbit. Evidence such as that presented by New Knowledge is neither proof nor anything close to conclusive, but it raises the question–should there be an investigation into Joel Zamel, PSY-Group and efforts by the company on behalf of Donald Trump, before and after the 2016 election? Mark Zuckerberg and the other technology company chiefs should publicly provide evidence about any use of their platforms by PSY Group to spread disinformation. “All the content promoted by accounts we found related to the PSY Group sales presentation is aggressively pro-Trump. It’s very similar to the content published by accounts that Facebook and Twitter have publicly acknowledged were operated by the Internet Research Agency,” said Morgan.

Certainly, more information will come to light as journalists and researchers such as New Knowledge follow the digital paper trail of the company, even though Zamel immediately closed the company down after the initial New York Times report. Only one thing is clear- as another election looms, Americans still don’t even know the real extent of foreign interference in the last one.

 

This article has been updated to include a reference to Craig Silverman’s previous reporting and his comment on the New Knowledge research.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Justin Hendrix

Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. Opinions expressed here are entirely his own. Follow him on Twitter (@justinhendrix).