“Antisemitic Influencers, Fake Journalists: Inside an Israeli Factory for Online Deception”


Percepto International, which is owned by media consultant Lior Chorev and Royi Burstien (a retired lieutenant colonel from the Israeli army’s intelligence corps), is in large measure a continuation of Psy Group – the business Burstien used to run. Among other activities, Burstien’s previous business ran a sophisticated mass-deception system on social media and came to public attention mainly over an FBI investigation, after which it shut down.

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Psy Group, its founder Joel Zamel and CEO Burstien were investigated by the U.S. bureau on suspicion of offering their services to Donald Trump’s campaign headquarters on his first run for the presidency in 2016. The suspicion was that a foreign player, and not Trump, had offered to pay for the services. The investigation did not result in indictments, but did lead to the demise of Psy Group – which had been facing financial difficulties even before the investigation.

A 2020 report from the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on foreign involvement in the 2016 election contained quotes from internal company emails regarding negotiations between people from the firm and Trump’s people. It included remarks by a company employee, Arnon Epstein, regarding “intel on the Lady and her team” – a reference to Hillary Clinton. It noted that intelligence gathering regarding 10 targets associated with Clinton would cost about $250,000. In another email, an offer was made to deploy avatars (complex fake digital personae with a presence across social media platforms) in support of Trump’s election campaign.

Following the collapse of Psy Group, Burstien and Epstein established a new deception enterprise based less on technology and more on target-oriented influence operations. The organization, which was initially called Athiri, worked in collaboration with Chorev. In 2021, the team that was running it began operating under a new name: Percepto International. Burstien is Percepto’s CEO, Chorev is company chairman and Epstein acts as a senior salesperson. One of the new mudslinging enterprise’s biggest initial wins was against the ICRC.

The details reported here were uncovered as part of the Story Killers project initiated by Forbidden Stories, an NGO dedicated to following up on the work of other journalists facing threats, prison or murder. Most of the details were obtained through an undercover investigation making use of false identities, and was led by TheMarker, Radio France and Haaretz.

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