Two Muslim US congresswomen have been targeted by a vast international operation that exploits far-right pages on Facebook to inflame Islamophobia for profit, a Guardian investigation has found.
A mysterious Israeli-based group uses 21 Facebook pages to churn out more than a thousand coordinated fake news posts per week to more than a million followers around the world. It milks the traffic for revenue from digital advertising.
Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who earlier this year became the first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress, have been singled out for vicious attacks by the coordinated effort.
Somali-born Omar is the most frequent target. She has been mentioned in more than 1,400 posts since the network began two years ago. Tlaib has been mentioned nearly 1,200 times. Both totals are far higher than any other member of Congress.
Omar and Tlaib are members of a group of progressive women of color known as “the squad” that also includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. They have been subject to racist insults from Donald Trump.
The Guardian uncovered contacts between a group of mysterious Israel-based accounts and 21 far-right Facebook pages across the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, Austria, Israel and Nigeria.
The posts exacerbate Islamophobia by amplifying far-right parties and vilifying Muslim and leftwing politicians. Their content is a blend of distorted news and pure fabrication.
An analysis by Queensland University of Technology’s digital media research centre indicated a single entity is coordinating the publication of content across the Facebook pages.
Using web archiving services and domain registry information, the Guardian has been able to confirm a key figure in the network is Ariel Elkaras, a thirty something jewelry salesman and online operator living on the outskirts of the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.