Who is behind Israel’s Archimedes Group, banned by Facebook for election fakery?

On May 16, social media giant Facebook announced that it had removed 265 Facebook and Instagram accounts, pages, groups and events linked to the Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based firm, and that it was banning Archimedes from its platform. It said the company, which boasted on its website that it could “change reality according to our client’s wishes,” was involved in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” targeting users in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia in an apparent effort to influence political discourse in these regions.

Among the countries allegedly targeted by Archimedes were Malaysia, Congo, Tunisia and Togo. A report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab also found that Archimedes stumped for the winning candidate in February’s Nigerian presidential elections, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari. One of the pages that Facebook took down appeared filled with viral misinformation attacking Atiku Abubakar, the former vice president and Buhari’s main rival. The page’s banner image showed Abubakar as Darth Vader, the Star Wars villain, holding up a sign reading, “Make Nigeria Worse Again.”

Facebook banned Archimedes for its “coordinated and deceptive behavior” and conducted a sweeping takedown of accounts and pages primarily aimed at disrupting elections in African countries. Overall, the misleading accounts had reached some 2.8 million users, and the pages had engaged over 5,000 followers, according to Facebook’s estimates. Facebook said Archimedes had spent some $800,000 on fake ads and that its deceptive activity dated back to 2012.

While news outlets all over the world have speculated about the Archimedes Group, who is behind it, and its motives, publicly available data sheds some light on these questions.

The Archimedes Group’s website

Until May 16, when Facebook outed Archimedes, the company’s own website, selling its services, declared that it had taken “significant roles in many political campaigns, among them presidential campaigns and other social media projects all over the world” and that it utilizes “every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”

The website did not give the name of any individuals associated with the company, but did feature an address: 98 Yigal Alon St in Tel Aviv, the site of the well-known 45-story Electra Tower.

Once Facebook went public, however, Archimedes radically changed its website — ar-gr.com — which at time of writing only features a home page with no further content whatsoever.

The site was registered on January 26, 2016, by someone using the address harel.eldan@g-c.co.il. The domain g-c.co.il belongs to Adler Chomski Communication Marketing Ltd, one of Israel’s largest advertising firms, and the individual who registered the site, Harel Eldan, is listed in the directory of the Association of Israeli Advertising Agencies. Eldan is also the contact person for an advertising company known as “Grey Content Ltd,” which is a subsidiary of Adler Chomski Communications. Both companies are located at Yigal Alon 98 — the address until recently specified on Archimedes Group’s website as its location.

When The Times of Israel called Grey Content Ltd, Harel Eldan herself answered the phone. She said she is the office manager at Grey Content, and that she had been asked as part of her duties to acquire the ar-gr.com domain name back in 2016, but insisted that she did not know anything further about Archimedes Group. Asked whether anybody else at Grey Content could provide further information and answer further questions, she said nobody else at Grey Content was available for any further comment.

Grey Content Ltd. has been the subject of controversy in Israel in recent years, although the company itself has not been accused of wrongdoing.

In February 2018, the advertising industry news site ice.co.il was able to obtain data, through a freedom of information request, on how the Israeli government had spent its advertising budget in the previous 18 months.

It discovered that Grey Content had received a third of the government’s entire television advertising budget in 2016 — twice as much money as its next most-hired competitor — and had received a total of NIS 31.1 million (some $8.7 million) of taxpayer money in 2016 and the first half of 2017, without any tender being issued.

Grey Content had created professional public service television spots for various government ministries and public companies — informing the public about healthy eating on behalf of the Health Ministry, for instance, or interesting places to visit on behalf of the Tourism Ministry, or simply promoting the good work ministries believed themselves to be doing. Below is one such clip highlighting an initiative promoting women in sports under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture and Sport.

When Ice.co.il asked the government advertising office how it justified spending so much money on just one advertising company, the office replied, in Hebrew, that Grey Content has an effective monopoly on an advertising slot called “a minute to eight,” which is a one-minute TV slot immediately preceding Israel’s two most popular prime-time news broadcasts.

“The ‘minute to eight’ slot is an important component of our media campaigns because we can transmit complex messages to a public that is interested in current events,” the government advertising office said.

A few months earlier, Grey Content and the “minute to eight” advertising slot had featured in a criminal indictment in the Yisrael Beytenu scandal, a series of prosecutions against politicians and senior advisers from Avigdor Liberman’s party for allegedly taking bribes in exchange for directing government money toward certain entities. (Liberman was not a suspect in the affair.)

In November 2017, Tali Keidar, a senior adviser to former Yisrael Beytenu tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov (who recently served a 15-month prison term in a separate case), was indicted for taking bribes in exchange for advertising with Grey Content in the “minute to eight” slot.

According to the indictment, Grey Content had hired Ronen Moshe, a former adviser to multiple Knesset members, to drum up business for it. Moshe allegedly persuaded Keidar and another Yisrael Beytenu political adviser to persuade the government advertising office to sign a NIS 4 million contract with Grey Content to promote the Tourism Ministry. Grey Content paid Moshe a commission of NIS 300,000 for the contract and Moshe proceeded to pay some of this commission in bribes to the advisers, who passed some of the money up the chain of command, the indictment claimed.

Grey Content is not accused of any wrongdoing in the case; Moshe has been charged with bribery.

Keidar and Moshe deny the allegations. The case is ongoing.

Grey Content is owned by Eyal Chomski, Omer Shimoni and Rami Rushkeviz, all veterans of Israel’s advertising industry.

The Archimedes Group’s CEO?

Elsewhere online, the website Negotiations.ch, which calls itself “your experts for difficult negotiations,” until recently identified Elinadav Heymann as the CEO of Archimedes Group, presenting Heymann as one of its experts. It said he was previously director of the European Friends of Israel in Brussels. (A short video of Heymann, identified in that job, appears online here.) Prior to that, he was a spokesman and adviser in the Knesset, and before that a “Senior Intelligence Agent” for the Israeli air force, Negotiations.ch said.

As of this writing, the entry for Heymann was no longer available on the Negotiations.ch website.

The Times of Israel called, texted and emailed Heymann but did not hear back from him prior to publication.

Harel Eldan told The Times of Israel she had never heard of Elinadav Heymann and she was not aware of anyone with that name working for Grey Content.

The European Friends of Israel lobbies the European Parliament on behalf of Israel-related causes. It is not affiliated with the Israeli government and its sources of funding are difficult to determine, but two Jewish charities, the Matanel Foundation and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, have mentioned in reports and on websites affiliated with them that they provided funding the group.

Other Grey Content interests

Harel Eldan, the office manager at Grey Content, also registered the domain name Get-sat.com. GetSat is an Israeli company that has developed lightweight satellite communication terminals for ground, airborne, and maritime applications, making it possible to have high-quality internet and phone communications anywhere on earth or in the air.

In January, the company announced that it had been awarded a multi-million dollar contract by a US government agency for “command, control, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications in support of missions during dire and emergent situations in the continental United States.”

In 2016, former IDF chief of staff and new Knesset opposition leader Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, joined GetSat as a strategic adviser.

Documents from Israel’s corporate registry confirm that Grey Content Ltd. is a shareholder of GetSat. But the company’s biggest and earliest investor is a Cayman Islands-registered venture capital firm called Alumot Ltd, which has an Israeli website.

Information about Alumot Ltd. in Israeli public records is sparse. There is no indication of who owns the fund or the origins of its money. The company’s website shows that its two partners and co-founders are an Israeli man by the name of Eli Bachar and a Russian man by the name of Stanislav Berlizov.

In 2011, then-Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin announced the establishment of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives, an organization whose purpose was to promote entrepreneurship among young Russians. Stanislav Berlizov, who was CEO of Russia’s Strategy Bank at the time, wrote a letter to the Russian prime minister offering to help fund the initiative, primarily by helping to create knowledge-intensive enterprises and fintech enterprises, according to Russia’s Izvestia newspaper.

Two years later, Strategy Bank, whose chairman is Yakov Urinson, a former Russian economy minister and deputy chairman of the government-owned Rusnano investment company, announced it was creating a “kosher bank” called Menora Bank, with an investment arm called Menora Invest that would provide venture capital for Israeli startups. At the same time, Stanislav Berlizov, the CEO of Strategy Bank, founded Alumot. So far, Menora Invest has announced an investment in one Israeli startup, Silentium. Alumot lists seven Israeli startups in its portfolio, including Silentium, 6over6, XJet, StreetSmart, ViewersLogic, Wearable Devices and GetSat, the company it co-owns with Grey Content.

AP contributed to this report.

Source Article from https://www.timesofisrael.com/who-is-behind-israels-archimedes-group-banned-by-facebook-for-election-fakery/

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