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|
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|
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.