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(Wissam Nassar / Maan Images)

More evidence corroborates that Israeli Ofer Engel faked Palestinian activists online

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Ofer Engel speaks to Ali Abunimah by Skype from London on 15 October 2012.

Benjamin Doherty and Ali Abunimah write:

On 10 October, Benjamin Doherty published a post presenting evidence that Ofer Engel (@engelo on Twitter), an Israeli graduate student at the London School of Economics, had impersonated Palestinian activists online using the fake personas Maissam Nablussi (@Nablussi on Twitter) and Walid Jabari (@oBethlehem on Twitter).

Moreover, as Doherty explained, Engel used these fake personas to gain entry into a “secret” Facebook group that is at the center of the Free Gaza movement controversy, a form of deceptive social engineering. Engel and the fake Walid Jabari persona both signed a statement supporting Greta Berlin.

Ofer Engel’s denials

In lengthy Skype conversations with Ali Abunimah on 14 and 15 October, Engel denied he had created and operated these fake personas. He offered additional explanations for who Nablussi and Jabari are and how he knew them.

Attempts to verify the stories told by Engel proved fruitless and merely highlighted further contradictions.

Significantly, technical data analyzed by Doherty of the tweets from the @engelo, @Nablussi and @oBethlehem accounts indicates that many links were shortened using the same bitly account belonging to @engelo. This is conclusive evidence that these tweets were made by Ofer Engel.

Based on this evidence and our inability to find any information corroborating Engel’s verbal claims, added to the evidence in Doherty’s previous post that was collected since April, we affirm that Engel’s denials cannot be believed.

We reaffirm that Ofer Engel has deceptively operated social media accounts impersonating Palestinians and has insinuated himself into activist networks with unknown motives and for unknown purposes. We have seen no evidence that Engel did this on behalf of anyone else.

However, we assume, because he has continued to provide us with false information, that Ofer Engel may still be engaged in similar activities using other personas.

This behavior – whatever its motivation – is deceptive and unethical, and this episode should serve as an additional warning to activists to focus on real-life relationships and to be extremely vigilant in forming relationships online with persons they do not know in real life, let alone sharing information with such online personas.

Engel’s connection to Nablussi and Jabari

As Doherty reported in his 10 October post, @Nablussi sent Doherty the following message on 11 April 2012 at 9:24 PM Central time:

here are a couple of people who met me in person, such as @engelo and @oBethlehem. I come from Sheikh Jarah but live in Boston

This established the direct link between the Nablussi and Jabari personas and Engel.

Engel’s claims about how he met Walid Jabari

In a 14 October Skype call, Abunimah asked Engel to describe how he had met and knew Walid Jabari. Engel made the following claims:

  • Engel said Jabari is from Bethlehem;
  • Engel met Jabari in London where Jabari was studying at Goldsmiths College, University of London;
  • Engel said he met Jabari at a seminar at Goldsmiths but could not provide the date, topic or names of the speakers at this seminar (Engel promised to search his emails for details about the seminar but failed to follow through);
  • Engel said that Jabari is currently in Bethlehem “to the best of my knowledge.”

Engel said his last contact with Jabari was “just before this erupted and he was saying he wants to deactivate his accounts.”

Engel also claimed that he and Jabari “were in good contact on Skype and everything but since this whole thing erupted,” Jabari had deactivated some of his social media accounts and “is not responding.” Engel asserted that “I know that several people tried to contact him but he’s not responding.” Engel claimed “there is a real serious privacy issue in the case of Walid.”

He said that well-known Palestinian activist Mazin Qumsiyeh who lives in the Bethlehem area and, who is in at least one Facebook group with Engel and the Jabari persona, had tried to contact Jabari to meet him without success.

Engel told Abunimah, “I can give you his email and Skype and everything,” but failed to follow through on that promise even though Abunimah reassured Engel that The Electronic Intifada’s purpose would only be to verify Jabari’s existence and that we would protect his privacy.

The Electronic Intifada contacted Mazin Qumsiyeh who confirmed that he had never met and did not know a Walid Jabari and that he had tried to contact the Walid Jabari persona via Facebook following the Free Gaza controversy, but had received no response.

In an attempt to verify Engel’s claims regarding Jabari being a student at Goldsmiths, Abunimah spoke with James Haywood, a student leader and activist at Goldsmiths since 2007.

Haywood has just completed a term as president of the Goldsmiths Student Union, a position that he said meant, “I was probably the person who knew the students the most.”

Haywood, who is active in Palestine solidarity and led a UK student delegation to Gaza last year, said that he had no knowledge of any student who fit Jabari’s description. The only recollection Haywood said he had of a Palestinian student from Bethlehem was of a woman who attended in 2009-2010.

Engel’s claims about how he met Maissam Nablussi

In the 14 October Skype call with Abunimah, Engel made the following claims:

  • Engel met Nablussi at the law library of Harvard University, where he was visiting and she was studying;
  • Engel could not recall and would not estimate the date of this meeting (he promised to look it up but failed to follow through);
  • Nablussi was with a friend at the time, but he could provide no description of the friend;
  • Nablussi wore a headscarf;
  • Nablussi said she was from Jerusalem but Engel believed she had grown up most of her life in the US and had an American accent.
  • Nablussi expressed an interest in joining Twitter and said “that she would enter Twitter but not with her real name”;
  • Engel did not know what Nablussi’s real name is;
  • Engel said he only ever met Nablussi again once or twice in casual, public settings such as Crema Café in Cambridge, MA;
  • Engel said that Nablussi’s research focused on social networks, but was very different from his own.
  • He did not know her academic department or affiliation;

Engel claimed that shortly before Nablussi stopped tweeting on 26 July 2012, she had contacted him to say that “she wasn’t feeling mentally well, and she sent me a message that all this activism was draining her and she wanted to stop and she was deactivating her Facebook and her Twitter account. From then I never heard from her.”

Engel could not explain why Nablussi – if she were a real person – would provide his name to Doherty as a reference, when Engel was not even a fellow student at Harvard and had only met her casually and cursorily while he was visiting.

Engel claimed that he had communicated with Nablussi via email and agreed to provide The Electronic Intifada with examples of such communications, but failed to do so.

Following the publication of Doherty’s 10 October post, Engel claims he made repeated attempts to contact Nablussi, but that she did not reply. Engel also claimed to know other people who had tried and failed to contact Nablussi, but he could not name anyone who knew her.

Engel did not offer the names of any real-life person at Harvard who could corroborate any element of his story.

Conversations with current and former graduate students at Harvard, familiar with the Palestinian student and activist communities, turned up no leads for a real person that fit Nablussi’s description or who was engaged in activism at Harvard.

Ofer Engel’s bitly.com account

Working from data gathered before 15 October 2012, Doherty analyzed tweets published between 28 November 2011 and 3 April 2012 by @engelo, @oBethlehem and @Nablussi.

Of 4,808 tweets in this period, his analysis excluded retweets and tweets without any links.

User Tweets Non-RTs Non-RTs with links
@engelo 1,874 1,494 365
@oBethlehem 568 528 150
@Nablussi 2,366 2,120 351

Twitter status metadata shows that most of the tweets containing links were made with TweetDeck, a Twitter client that allows users to manage multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts from a single user interface. TweetDeck also integrates with bitly so that users can collect and track information about the links they share.

However, TweetDeck’s bitly integration is application-wide and not specific to the Twitter account that is publishing the shortened link. Therefore, when a TweetDeck user chooses bitly as their preferred URL shortener and inputs API credentials, every Twitter account attached to that user’s TweetDeck will use the same API credentials.

User Tweets with engelo bitly links Unique engelo bitly links Duplicate engelo bitly links
@engelo 124 73 51
@oBethlehem 109 23 86
@Nablussi 103 45 58

In order for @Nablussi’s and @oBethlehem’s tweets to contain URLs shortened with engelo’s bitly account, they must have used engelo’s bitly API credentials or he must have given them URLs he had already shortened. However, 12% of the links tweeted by @Nablussi were not tweeted by @engelo but were shortened using his account. Likewise, 15% of the links tweeted by @oBethlehem were not tweeted by @engelo but were shortened using his account.

There is also a significant number of bitly links that are common to the three Twitter accounts. When bitly shortens a URL that the bitly user has already shortened, it just returns the same short code for that URL.

The only plausible explanation for these findings is that all three accounts, @engelo, @Nablussi and @oBethlehem, were posting tweets from the same TweetDeck.

This oversight by Engel is exactly the same one that allowed the discovery of the identity behind the satirical @MayorEmanuel Twitter account famously operated by Dan Sinker in the run up to the February 2011 Chicago mayoral election. For weeks, pundits had tried to uncover the identity of the person behind the account spoofing then mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel.

As reporter Alexis Madrigal explained in The Atlantic:

What’s stunning is that Sinker managed to preside over @MayorEmanuel without ever getting caught. Or at least outed. His secret was known only by his wife, a small circle of friends, and one Chicago Public Schools teacher, Seth Lavin, who figured out Sinker’s identity when Sinker used his personal bitly account to shorten a link that @MayorEmanuel later tweeted. Lavin kept it mum.

The tweets and bitly data used in this analysis can be found on GitHub.

Confronting Engel with the evidence

Abunimah presented Engel with this evidence in a Skype call on 15 October, and offered Engel the opportunity to publish a statement taking responsibility for his actions, and agreed on an overnight deadline for Engel to take that opportunity. The deadline passed without any word from Ofer Engel.

Comments

That you cannot prove or disprove a claim does not make it "believable" or "definitive". You need a serious course on evidence gathering and interpretation. You have lost all legitimacy. This is a piece of slander, a mere piece of journalistic polemic. It reads like the Daily Mail...What a shame that the Palestinian cause has to end in such incompetent hands. Are you out of topics? One wonders.

“Slander” (you actually mean “libel”) would mean that the content of this post is untrue, and moreover that we knew it to be untrue when we published it. However, that is not the case. The technical data we used is publicly available and incontrovertible. Engel’s statements are summarized accurately. Our conclusions are drawn directly from the evidence, and are true. So there is no slander or libel here. If there were, we’d possibly be vulnerable to legal action or threats thereof by Mr. Engel. But since the claims in this post are true, there will be no such threats or legal action.

"In order for @Nablussi’s and @oBethlehem’s tweets to contain URLs shortened with engelo’s bitly account, they must have used engelo’s bitly API credentials or he must have given them URLs he had already shortened."

what about if they copy pasted his bitlys!??!??!?!? is everyone now accused of impersonating someone by merely sharing the same bitly?? what a joke ...frankly very sad that this reads , smells and feels like revenge and defamation...I cannot see the purpose of all of this ridiculous piece and its addendum which is even more absurd. Good luck Palestine if these are the advocates of the cause. I feel ashamed of being an Arab today.

Engel gave a different explanation, and it was also totally implausible.

"implausible" according to whom? Why should he hit the plausible explanation if he's being accused of a crime he didn't commit?! Imagine - just imagine - you are innocent but accused of a crime you didn't commit. Say, you are a passerby, the culprit took advantage that no-one was there when he knocks you down and drags you to that murder scene --and the jury asks you to explain how you ended up there and you're unable to provide a "plausible" explanation: either you didn't do it (!!!) OR you give an "implausible" but perhaps still TRUTHFUL explanation (well I happened to pass by when someone must have knocked me down and brought me there!!)... Frankly I am not at all convinced. Why don't you give him the benefit of the doubt? it is his right after all. You move from one accusation to the other (agent to impersonation!?) based on very dubious and questionable assumptions, speculations, evidence and conclusions (not to say plenty of logical fallacies). Very very worrisome journalistic practice (not to say twisted way of thinking). And what is more worrisome is that you condone what you condemn: not only did you spy on Engel and perhaps even distorted his answers, you took a picture of him seemingly without his knowledge and posted it - again seemingly - without his explicit permission (did you think of the legality of your actions??).....Very disappointing.

You write: "In order for @Nablussi’s and @oBethlehem’s tweets to contain URLs shortened with engelo’s bitly account, they must have used engelo’s bitly API credentials or he must have given them URLs he had already shortened."

How do we know that all three accounts did not use engelo's bitly API credentials? If they were all using the same credentials, it would seem as if all accounts are using the same bitly account. Would it not?

I find this and similar comments laughable in their insistence on denying the plain conclusions from the evidence. Our evidence is absolutely sound and we have reached the logical conclusions from it. Engel’s stories hold no water and whoever continues to defend his lies makes themselves a liar. We have not speculated on his motives, but we don’t like people tricking us or our community by pretending to be something they are not.

Ofer Engel should do the decent thing and take responsibility for his actions. If you’re in touch with him, Sara, I suggest you let him know that. Had he done so, he would have more quickly put this behind him with much less fuss and attention.

You say that he gave another explanation. Why didn't you publish it?
This whole thing is a storm in a teacup.

Lost my respect for Electronic Intifada :-(

This is good work, thanks for being persistent, I've been occasionally following along. It is problematic when people engage in this kind of dishonest practice, as it can sew mistrust within a movement. This is not needed, even if it was well-intentioned, and probably ultimately not beneficial to Palestinians either, in the long run - much like the Facebook/conspiracy crank episode. People need to remember why they're doing it, and if it's just to feel good about themselves, it's not the best of reasons.
Trust is important, and with so much happening online now, it's good to know who you're dealing with.
Remains to be determined what his motivations were, this is what bugs me.

Thank you!

Excellent work on Ofer Engel. Confirmed by drawing the usual Hasbara worms from the woodwork. Next reveal "Adam" and "Sarah"!

As either he is polite and charming so what. I hope they are different people as we like both. We won't be dumping him we don't dump good people.

like the air strikes on Gaza just a few hours ago? Or are you going to continue a witch hunt against someone for *allegedly* having multiple accounts? I really couldn't care less whether or not Ofer is using multiple accounts or fake profiles; do you want to know why?

Because it doesn't matter. Ofer is Ofer - and he's a good guy. That's all that matters. You've got some kind of tingle running up your leg at the thought of "exposing" someone, which leads me to believe all of this nonsense is more about stroking your own ego than it is getting to the "truth" (as you, and only you can determine, evidently, O Arbiter of Plausibility.)

I don’t know if Ofer is a good guy or a bad guy and that doesn’t concern me. What I do know is that he deceptively impersonates people online then when confronted with incontrovertible evidence about it, lies. I don’t have a lot of respect for that. A much better outcome would be if Engel had taken responsibility and put this behind him. I still hope he will for his own sake.

Since yesterday you tweeted that Gaza Boat Convoy does not exist and the domain name never existed, I would not trust a word you say.

I dont Know what you are achieving by posting such things ??

All 3 Profiles were fighting for the same cause .. were fighting for Palestinian People and this is what counts .. Whether he's one person or a hundred it doesnt matter, look at the Quality of their posts and what they were causing to the Zionist Main Stream Media ..

For a magazine Named Electronic Intifida .. you surely are concentrating on everything but what matters to the Palestinian people and its cause ...

I want everyone here to go check the posts made by all three profiles, the tweets you are bashing him and them for are tweets that were pro Palestine and Once again this is what matters !!!

There is no depth that remains unplumbed by those that seek to further their attempts at Hasbara. I discovered this when I happened across a website named News Palestine at www.news-palestine.com. Its byline, astonishingly, is The Truth, Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth. Sadly its contents couldn't be further from the truth. Utterly depraved and twisted!

Perhaps Ofer was used by someone and didn't do this maliciously? Who is Ofer exactly - why would he even respond to a skype request for details? What kind of activism has he done and what is the underlying suspicion about his behavior? I don't really get the back story here.

EI is turning into the National Enquirer. You are wasting time on non-issues. I have zero respect for your blog.

Well, the National Inquirer tends to print stories that are completely baseless. This one is completely true, so that’s nothing like the National Inquirer at all.

The whole story is contrived silliness and ei should be ashamed of themselves! so far the expose of greta like this was an excercise in doing the zionists work for them and after a longtime of admiring ei, I now find myself ashamed ever to have considered this site valuable to the struggle.

The fact that you don’t take online security seriously — especially at a time when Palestine solidarity activists are vulnerable — does not mean the rest of us shouldn’t. For me, exposing frauds and warning activists about how their networks can be socially engineered and infiltrated — for whatever purpose — is important. Each time we expose such a fraud I hope people will be a little bit more aware of how they can change their practices to make themselves less vulnerable and keep themselves and their friends safe. I’m really proud to have done this work.

Ali You really have lost the plot and made this place Trivial! well done, I cant believe how many people are disapointed in this? what a home goal for you. I sent this out to about 60 Palestine supporting friends and so far the overwhelming response has been that you are looking like part of the problem now not the solution. Learn from this Ali or just accept what you now are? A Zionist enforcer..

Ali,

The disparagement you've received in these comments is a direct response to the efficacy of your investigation. Thank you for being persistent. I'm certain that Khulood Badawi, Greta Berlin, Anne Wright, and others who dedicate their lives to seeing a free Palestine also appreciate your persistence. Plus, I think its great that you divulge details as they emerge, so as to invite others in to your investigation, and to follow the story with intrigue.

Folks need to realize that people are literally saving lives through coordinated efforts, and when those people are slandered and they are forced to reconfigure associations, then their efforts are severely hampered. Thus, what may seem to reside in the purely rhetorical Twittersphere actually has extreme material consequences.

Methinks the "Saras" and "Adams" protesteth too much. And that the critics who have "lost all respect" for EI probably had little to begin with.

I can't evaluate the technical details of your argument. But until the naysayers, and Ofer himself, offer something more substantive than the catcalls here, I say 'carry on.' And I know you will continue to report a multitude of important stories, not just this one.

‎Ofer Engel: GUILTY AS CHARGED http://bit.ly/Tx7Qed

I know Ofer personally, he is a PhD student in the LSE department where I work. He has cooperated with me on many activities in support of Palestine and has supplied me with useful information and insights and has helped organise speaking engagements for me to talk about my visits to Gaza on a free Gaza boat.

All this proves nothing but leads me to trust him. I disagree with him in supporting Greta's endorsement of Atzmon's book but this is a political mistake not proof of malevolence. I can name too many people whose work in support of Palestine is otherwise beyond reproach who have fallen into that cess pit .

Thanks for your kind words, Mike, but I have never endorsed Berlin's endorsement of Atzmon. I stand 100% behind the Granting No Quarter statement http://uspcn.org/2012/03/13/gr...

Your activity came to my attention because you signed a statement defending Greta Berlin’s intent while you were also aware of the pattern of her online activities that I also witnessed. If you “stand 100% behind the Granting No Quarter statement,” why did you defend Greta Berlin?

Does “Walid Jabari” also stand behind the Granting No Quarter statement?

Nor do I support her views on Judaism or any attempt to blur the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. I merely thought that that this single incident was an innocuous affair that went out of hand. I certainly did not anticipate that supporting her on that specific issue would be understood as a a support across the board. Now I see that I was seriously mistaken. If there's anything I regret is signing that bloody statement.

Benjamin, I may be slightly dozy, admittedly, but I would like to understand this, hmm no html tags allowed:

"There is also a significant number of bitly links that are common to the three Twitter accounts. When bitly shortens a URL that the bitly user has already shortened, it just returns the same short code for that URL."

Does that mean, if a completely different user shortens the same source or link he receives the same short code? Or only the same logged in user gets back the same code?

One step back:

"Therefore, when a TweetDeck user chooses bitly as their preferred URL shortener and inputs API credentials, every Twitter account attached to that user’s TweetDeck will use the same API credentials."

His API credentials would be something like the original email with which he registered and the password he used? How do you recognize these credentials in the shortened links?

Last but not least. "However, 12% of the links tweeted by @Nablussi were not tweeted by @engelo but were shortened using his account."

Is it correct you suggest that
a) "Unique engelo bitly links" means "unique links" used by one of the personae but not by the two others?
b) "Dublicate engelo bitly links" means, links used by engelo but also used by on of the two others? Also created with the same account?
c) Not all of the unique links tweeted by person are created by the same TweetlyDeck or twitter account? But besides Engels's only 12 or 15 % respectively? In other words in @Nablussi's case 12% out of 43 % of unique tweets were created by the same account, in the@oBethlehem's case 14 out of 21%?

what's the big deal? a gazillions of people make up fake on line identities all the time. The fact that someone posts on a low class low quality facebook forum under a fake persona- what of it? Years back i was young and naive and decieved by a sexual predator, since then I always take everything and anything on line with a grain of salt. And so should everyone. As long as he didn't use these personas to abuse anyone, ofer engel is way ahead of the game on what goes on line daily. btw as walid jabari (if he indeed is walid jabari) ofer made a positive representation of the Palestinian cause if a bit hardline, as his discourse was far more intelligent and sophisticated than most of the commenters.

Ali and Benjamin, I wonder who are you? Don't you have anything to do but hunt, trace and stalk other people. Since April, wow! Too much time?
Ofer is so devoted to working and supporting peace process in Middle East, went to so many pro-palestine-demonstrations, risked is health by fighting and demonstrating with palestinian villagers in the westbank against Israeli soldiers.
And exactly him you chose for your witch hunt!
I can't believe it.
This electronic intifada seems really ridiculous to me. Couldn't you focuse on really important issues instead of shattering the people that are actually working on your side?

This is excellent investigative journalism, EI. The evidence is compelling, and Ofer Engel and his apologists have been unable/unwilling to refute it. Frankly, I think you are being too kind with respect to Engel's motives. Unlike Tom MacMaster (exposed by EI as the man behind the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax) who impersonated a lesbian Arab for kicks, Engel/Nablussi/Jabari is linked to two incidents that could seriously discredit the Palestinian movement. @Nablussi's false photo was used as a tool to discredit claims of human rights abuses in Gaza resulting from Israel's March 2012 bombing, while "Walid Jabari"has publicly supported a Palestinian activist who posted anti-Semitic drivel to the Free Gaza home page. Both Nablussi and Jabari have since vanished from cyberspace, and it now appears that Ofer Engel, an Israeli doctoral student specializing in online social networks, is the only earthly being who can vouch for their existence. Moreover, and most significantly, EI now presents evidence that tweets from Nablussi and Jabari were issued from Ofer Engel's bitly account. What plausible evidence can Engel provide to explain these links? Why won't he provide documentation of his emails to Nablussi? If both Nablussi and Jabari are enrolled/active at major academic institutions, how is it that no one else can verify their existence? Despite vehement denials, wing-flapping and character smears on the part of Engel et al, no one has refuted the evidence.