There has been one theme running through this election almost from the day it was called: Cybersecurity. The past few months have been colored with stories of online influence campaigns, hacking, bots and Internet trolls.
It began in November, when the Knesset hadn’t been dissolved yet but election fever was in the air, and The Jerusalem Post uncovered Twitter accounts sending links to falsified websites with outlandish news stories about Israeli politicians.
The Foreign Ministry reported some incidents to Twitter and got some of the accounts shut down, but it also sent a warning to journalists, a top target for these scams: “The modes of action to influence the political discourse in Israel are similar to those that were seen in the elections in the United States, the vote on Brexit in the United Kingdom and the elections in France. Their preferred network is Twitter, which is seen as a social media of influencers and opinion leaders.”
In January, less than two weeks after the Knesset made the elections official, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman warned about foreign intervention in the election using cyber capabilities, though he did not say which country was interfering and to what end. Many in the political field assumed he was referring to Russia, based on the aforementioned precedents, but Argaman has yet to make a follow-up statement nor has there been any serious evidence of a Russian effort.
Chances are, he was not referring to the actual votes being hacked – Israelis vote using slips of paper, which are counted by hand, not computers – but to the kind of activity that took place weeks before Argaman made his remarks: social media manipulation and disinformation.
The Shin Bet reassured people at the time that the intelligence community is able to monitor and thwart foreign influence in the election, ensuring that it will be free and democratic.
“Israel is prepared to fight any cybernetic intervention,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We are ready for any scenario; there is no country more ready than we are.”
Later that month, Facebook announced that it took down 783 fake accounts tied to Iran for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” which included posts related to Israel. Twitter also said it took down thousands of fake accounts from Iran, Russia and Venezuela. The two social media giants worked together to identify the suspicious activity. Then in February, the Foreign Ministry said Twitter had shut down over 400 accounts in six different “foreign manipulation networks” that were trying to skew Israeli political opinion ahead of the elections.
Then, there was a shift in the talk about cybersecurity when Channel 12 reported that Blue and White Party leader and former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz’s phone had been hacked by Iranian intelligence.
It quickly became clear that nothing that would pose a danger to national security was on the phone, but that didn’t stop Netanyahu and the Likud from focusing on the security breach.
NETANYAHU CALLED a press conference questioning how Gantz could protect the country if he can’t even protect his own phone. The prime minister said there could be sensitive materials on the phone – playing on lurid Internet rumors about embarrassing personal exchanges or a possible extramarital affair – and that Gantz should come forward with all the information, lest he find himself vulnerable to blackmail.
Blue and White dismissed it all, saying the phone had “no security information, no embarrassing videos and he was never a target of blackmail.” Gantz himself called the story “political, gossipy and totally delusional,” but the story hurt his party’s momentum. And now, weeks later, it still has not died, with reports that Gantz wants the Mossad to investigate how news of the hack leaked.
This week, fake social media accounts became the center of attention once again. Acclaimed journalist Ronen Bergman reported about a network of hundreds of fake social media accounts advocating for Netanyahu in an exposé in Yediot Aharonot and The New York Times – but most of the examples cited in the story are real people, who spoke up soon afterward saying that they are not bots, haven’t coordinated messages with others and are not officially affiliated with the Likud or the prime minister in any way, except that they are supporters.
Netanyahu called a press conference with one of the not-bots and denied that the Likud ran a network of that kind.
It would be a highly inefficient allocation of the party’s resources if the network – which doesn’t even seem to exist – was funded by the Likud. Other than targeting media figures and politicians, Twitter is not a very effective way to get to Israeli voters since, as a survey by the Israeli Internet Society found last year, only 17% of smartphone owners use the network, which is likely less than a quarter-million of over 6 million eligible Israeli voters.
FACEBOOK, on the other hand, is where it’s at. There were 5.8 million Israeli accounts on Facebook as of the end of 2017, giving it 67.6% market penetration. And Likud has used Netanyahu’s page – the most “liked” of any politician in Israel – in novel ways for the local political field, including a live propaganda webcast called Likud TV, which can also be watched on demand, and a “chat-bot” where users can talk to the prime minister’s account and receive campaign videos in return.
But Facebook is also where the Likud has gotten into trouble. Central Elections Committee chairman and Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer recommended this week that the police investigate the party for criminal activity, after it admitted to bankrolling “Moving Right,” a get-out-the-vote campaign, without putting the party’s name on it. “Moving Right” includes both social media activity and knocking on doors in towns that had low voter turnout in the last election. The campaign was represented as a joint effort of right-wing parties – but it was a Likud initiative, and Likud never managed to get any other parties to help pay for it.
Two days after the bot report came out, Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich was questioned by Blue and White lawyers and Melcer, and he once again emphasized that he had not heard of the social media accounts before reading the article and that the party is not operating a secret network, but only official campaign pages.
In his line of questioning to Urich, Melcer proved that he doesn’t quite understand the issue. He seemed to not understand the concept of people not using their real names or photos on the Internet, in order to express their opinions freely without fear of consequences socially or from work.
“If a person takes on a different name or photo on the Internet, is that anonymous activity?” he wondered. Melcer also suggested that, in future elections, there be “radio silence” for political parties’ messages on social media in the last week before an election.
Urich had to spell out how social media works: that just like in the real world, many people will talk about the same topic at the same time if it’s in the news. “At certain times, there was a rise in the number of mentions… They say [in the reports suggesting a secret pro-Likud network, that] it was coordinated… Unfortunately, that reflects ignorance [and] a misunderstanding of the Internet. At certain times, there is a jump in Internet use and there are peaks without coordination, because a topic is trendy: it’s on the agenda, it’s burning in people... This doesn’t show coordination. You need much more than that to show coordination between users.”
MEANWHILE, a Twitter account parodying Melcer went up, mocking the way he talks about social media.
“Dear all Twitter users, according to my decision, please avoid any political tweets until the election. Tweets about cats and nudes are still permissible until the petition is ruled on. Thank you, the Honorable Judge Melcer.”
At 12:39 a.m. Thursday, the fake account tweeted: “Twitter users, good night. I am announcing lights out. Please do not tweet until 6 a.m. Sincerely, the Honorable Judge Melcer.”
Melcer can only rule according to existing laws, and that leaves him without a lot of tools. When it comes to Internet use and social media in elections, Israel’s laws are far behind the political parties. The Ways of Propaganda Law regulating campaign advertisements was passed in 1959, and while there have been updates since then – for example, to prohibit threatening to curse people if they don’t vote for a party, as Shas did in the 1980s – it does not mention the Internet at all. Parties have total freedom online.
Melcer tried to get a handle on things at the beginning of this election campaign, suggesting that the Knesset amend election campaign laws or that parties sign a pledge to increase transparency in online political ads. Likud was the only party in the Knesset that refused.
Blue and White – really it’s Yesh Atid part at the time – argued that this proves they’re using fake social media accounts. Likud said that the Internet has been around for a while and things were fine in the last election, so there’s no reason to change. Anyway, as they encountered earlier this week, the requirement that campaign ads be labeled with the party sponsoring them arguably applies to all materials, even if the text of the law doesn’t mention the Internet.
But the Central Elections Committee seems to be behind the times. The committee’s director-general Orly Ades had little to say after Argaman’s warning of foreign interference, putting out a statement that could be summed up as: “don’t worry, we can handle it,” without any concrete steps.
We don’t know at this point if the hundreds of accounts shut down by Facebook and Twitter are the extent of foreign intervention, and we don’t know if there are more fake accounts secretly run by parties or by anyone else.
But cybersecurity had a massive presence in this election – and it’s likely here to stay as a player in Israeli politics, whether our institutions are prepared for it or not.