Twitter has suspended dozens of suspicious Hebrew-language accounts run by a controversial Chinese religious group ahead of Israel’s national elections, BuzzFeed News has learned. It’s at least the second such suspension in the run-up to the elections, but the company is saying little about what actions it took or why. Nor is it clear what the religious group’s goals were before Twitter’s enforcement actions.
The accounts are affiliated with the Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Christian sect that’s banned in China and which believes that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman currently living in Queens, New York.
In the months leading up to the April 9 election, Twitter suspended dozens of CAG-affiliated accounts, some of which were amplifying political messages for right-wing politicians, according to a source with knowledge of the removals. None of the profiles promoted any messages favoring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The vast majority of the content from the accounts, which posted in Hebrew and appeared to use fake names, was focused on religion.
The CAG-affiliated Twitter accounts were among hundreds flagged as suspicious, based on initial work done by Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, two Israeli researchers who study social media manipulation. Other volunteer hacktivists did a more in-depth analysis of the profiles to determine the organization responsible for coordinating the accounts’ activities.
The accounts were flagged due to what appeared to be coordinated amplification of content, according to the source, who is familiar with how the CAG accounts were brought to Twitter’s attention, and asked for anonymity to protect ongoing research.
The source said in a message that the accounts caught the attention of researchers after they turned up in searches “programmed to look for tweets in Hebrew (to influence Hebrew speakers) generated by account clusters outside Israel.”
“Essentially, a queen bee generates the narrative and worker bees generate interactions with those narratives to spread it further or to give it greater credibility,” the source said.
A Twitter spokesperson declined to speak on the record, and would not comment on how the accounts were flagged to the company or say how many accounts were removed. The spokesperson would only say the accounts were suspended due to spam violations.
This is the second time Twitter has refused to disclose details about accounts it suspended in Israel ahead of the election, which raises questions about the company’s commitment to transparency around removing accounts during global political events.
On March 31, the New York Times and Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Rotem and Adam, the independent social media researchers, had identified a network of hundreds of accounts working together to spread disinformation about Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition Blue and White Party, and to promote Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Gantz is Netanyahu's main challenger.
Netanyahu said he and his party were not controlling the accounts, and that they were not "fake" or bots. Rotem and Adam's report didn't claim the network was using bots.
“There are real accounts in that system, and there are real people. We did not say anywhere that there were bots, but that there are a group of accounts working together to promote an agenda,” Adam told the Washington Post.
Netanyahu soon appeared at a press conference with Giora Ezra, an Israeli real estate agent who runs a pro-Netanyahu Twitter account, "Captain George," cited in the report about the pro-Likud network. “As you can see, I’m not a bot,” Ezra said.
His account is still online, but Twitter suspended others in the network identified by Rotem and Adam. The company would not confirm the suspensions to journalists, and it has not publicly disclosed the total number of accounts it has suspended ahead of Israel’s election.
In contrast, Facebook has begun to disclose details about the pages, accounts, and groups it removes when they are found to be involved in “coordinated inauthentic activity,” or when they are linked to efforts during elections.
Ronen Bergman, a prominent Israeli investigative journalist who wrote the article for the New York Times and coauthored the story for Yedioth Ahronoth, told BuzzFeed News that Twitter removed accounts in the pro-Likud network after his stories appeared.
“After the story was published, one of the NGOs fighting against misuse of social media gave the list of accounts to Twitter. As far as I understand, Twitter has taken down the accounts connected to this network,” he said.
Roughly 600 accounts have been removed by Twitter as a result of Rotem and Adam’s research, according to the source with knowledge of account removals in Israel.
Twitter continues to suspend Hebrew-language CAG accounts long after it was initially notified about their activity on its platform. BuzzFeed News also found at least one active CAG account that was created after the initial suspensions, and which has amplified messages from Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. That account follows "Captain George" as well as Danny Yatom, a former head of Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence service.
It’s unclear why CAG accounts have mixed political messaging into their activity, but this is likely why an obscure Chinese religious sect was reported to Twitter during the Israeli election.
BuzzFeed News did not identify any Hebrew-language CAG accounts spreading false or misleading information. Given the group’s acrimonious relationship with the Chinese government, its online activity is clearly not state-linked.
The Israeli Elections Committee, National Cyber Directorate, and Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News.
The Church of Almighty God
It’s not surprising that the CAG would operate Twitter and other social media accounts in Hebrew, according to Holly Folk, an associate professor at Western Washington University who has been studying the CAG since 2016.
“The CAG, a lot of their international ministry functions as an internet religion,” she told BuzzFeed News.
CAG is also known as Eastern Lightning and has roughly 1 million members around the world, according to Folk.
It practices an offshoot of Christianity that holds at its core that Yang Xiangbin, the wife of its founder, is the woman incarnation of Christ. She lives in Queens after being granted asylum in the US in 2001 as a result of persecution in China. CAG followers believe her word is the word of God.
“They have their own narrative for how the apocalypse is going to happen, and they have their own scripture. They don’t see the Bible as the literal word of God but as a human document that has flaws in its teaching,” Folk said. “The literal word of God is the recorded recitations of Almighty God, their leader who lives in Flushing, Queens.”
The Chinese government has labeled the group an “evil cult” and banned it. CAG members have been put on trial in China multiple times, and in one case were accused of committing a murder in a McDonald’s in China as part of their missionary activity. (Some scholars believe that those who committed the murder were actually part of a different group.)
As a result of being outlawed and persecuted in China, CAG members have sought asylum in countries around the world. This diaspora has established an online presence in many languages and locations. Some of the active and suspended CAG accounts in Hebrew reviewed by BuzzFeed News were found sharing religious images and messages that are also available in other languages, suggesting a central operation that churns out images and messages for translation and distribution.
The use of political messaging, however, is outside the pattern of CAG’s typical behavior, Folk said.
The CAG has in fact been the victim of propaganda and impersonation at the hands of the Chinese government, according to Folk.
“Part of the Chinese government’s efforts to undermine this group has sometimes been to create alternative and fake websites,” she said.
“In the UK, there was a separate CAG that was doing demonstrations and having photos [taken] and posting the photos online. Those photos were then being used in website articles as part of a disinformation campaign.”
CAG did not respond to an emailed request for comment.