Central Elections Committee set to scold Likud on digital manipulation

Until now, every major party running – except Likud – has signed the covenant, which was drafted by Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler.

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January 23, 2019 21:58
2 minute read.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud Party campaign launch in 2014.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud Party campaign launch in 2014 before the last elections.. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

 
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The chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, is expected to announce Thursday that he will force the Likud to sign a covenant promising to refrain from digital manipulation in the April 9 election, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Until now, every major party running – except Likud – has signed the covenant, which was drafted by Hebrew University lecturer Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the head of the Media Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

She wrote the covenant in lieu of legislation, because Israel’s Election Propaganda Law was passed in 1959, and because it has only been updated once since then to include television, makes no reference to the Internet. Efforts to update the law before the election failed after they were blocked by the Likud.

“I wrote the covenant so there would be rules for the Wild West despite the lack of legislation,” she said. “We went to [the] parties to sign it, but the Likud didn’t want to hear about it.”

Melcer asked the Likud to sign it and, after the party refused, announced 10 days ago that he would announce a decision within a week and a half on whether to impose the covenant on all the parties.

On Wednesday night, a Likud spokesman said that Melcer had no authority to impose the covenant and that the law must be updated by the Knesset to reflect changing realities. The spokesman said the Likud would not engage in digital manipulation, such as the use of “bots” and other sophisticated social networking, to impact the election results.

Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman caused a storm two weeks ago, when he warned that foreign countries were interfering in the election. Shwartz Altshuler confirmed that this was taking place, but said most of the election interference taking place by digital means was being done by Israeli parties, not foreign countries.


“This is a whole new world of manipulation,” she said.

 Shwartz Altshuler said there were three kinds of digital interference in political campaigns: Cyberattacks on computer infrastructure like the Central Elections Committee computer system; hacking into computer servers of parties to get internal information; and direct influence over public opinion by social media or other digital means.

She said the first two could easily be dealt with via technology available to the National Cybersecurity Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office, which she credited with preparing well for the election. But the third, Shwartz Altshuler said, is more complicated.

She cited two recent reports of a political strategist admitting he used many different means to digitally influence the election and of activists discovering a net of Saudi Arabian-based bots actively trying to influence political opinion on Twitter that was used by two political parties.

The Likud targeted voters by Zip Code on Election Day in 2015 and sent a video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu incorrectly claiming that Arabs were going to vote in droves. Shwartz Altshuler said more professional micro-targeting was now possible.

“Ahead of the election, it will be money-time for us, and we expect an escalation, so we will upgrade our team and work 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” the Cybersecurity Authority’s guidance manager Erez Tidhar told the Knesset Science Committee three months ago.

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