Expert says Israeli politics getting as bad as U.S.

According to Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at University of Haifa, what Israel just witnessed was another step toward the “Americanization” of Israel’s political landscape.

Elections poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Elections poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with US President Donald Trump
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
As Israel’s 2019 election winners move from campaigning to coalition-building – and the country takes its Passover break to recover from what was one of its nastiest elections ever – analysts are looking back at the 100 days of campaigning and asking themselves: “What just happened?”
According to Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at the University of Haifa, what Israel just witnessed was another step toward the “Americanization” of Israel’s political landscape and the rising prominence of social media in election campaigns. Both, he said, contributed to this month’s election victory by our once-again-returning prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The role of new media versus old media was quite a dramatic change from the last election,” Weimann told The Jerusalem Post.
Weimann, who has been monitoring election campaigns since the 1970s, said parties invested the bulk of their marketing budget in new media, producing dozens of social media videos, posts and tweets per party per day. Few dollars went toward TV commercials or radio ads. The Likud alone made at least 10 different videos each day, he said.
This shift, however, is not solely one of platforms. The use of social media itself “has implications in terms of political discourse,” the professor explained. “Social media is not regulated in the United States nor in Israel. It is not censored, and there are no gatekeepers. No one is checking facts or the accuracy of what is being said.”
The result was a campaign that involved many “news” items that were at best partly untrue and at worst fake news.
“Fake news is not a new phenomenon,” said Weimann, “especially with political campaigns. The difference is that now we have platforms where no one can block it... Today, through social networks, it is possible to spread false rumors, promote ‘fake news,’ incite and radicalize discourse, cause harm to candidates and parties, widen social rifts and plunge election campaigns into an abyss of extremism, distrust, sectarianism and violence.”
“There is also growing concern that the business models and algorithms that drive social media companies are fueling extreme partisanship and widening political cleavages, [and] ethnic and religious splits,” he continued.
This flow of fake information is made even more possible by social media’s relatively low cost and the ability to operate on social networks with complete anonymity.
ONLINE “PROXIES,” as Weimann calls them – such as avatars, bots and trolls – support these kinds of efforts. Avatars are fictional digital characters that appear on the net and pretend to be real. Bots are software application designed to perform actions online by mimicking normal users. Trolls are users whose entire purpose is to provoke and inflame discourse.
The Israeli defense establishment estimates that approximately 30% of all discourse on social networks is the product of bots, according to a January article in the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot. Moreover, Weimann said that 2017 studies revealed that some 50 million Twitter accounts are actually automatically run by bot software.
AND HERE is one striking example of where America’s 2016 and Israel’s 2019 campaigns dangerously connect, according to Weimann. A public revelation from Facebook exposed that a Russian “troll farm” with close ties to the Kremlin spent around $100,000 on ads ahead of the 2016 US election and produced thousands of organic posts that spread across Facebook and Instagram. These posts were aimed at influencing the election results.
“Russian agents exploited all possible social networks, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to influence the online discourse surrounding Donald Trump’s candidacy,” Weimann said. “The goal of the Russians... was to confuse, distract and influence voters.”
The Kremlin’s efforts were spearheaded by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian governmental body. Posts were centered on ideas ranging from race to immigration and weapons in order to create disputes and divisions among American voters.
Similarly, the 2019 Israeli elections saw thousands of fake identity stories. Weimann said that the watchdog group Big Bots Project reported a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake, used to smear Netanyahu’s opponents and to amplify the messages of his Likud Party. “The network operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors. On its busiest days, the network sends out thousands of tweets a day,” according to the report.
The report’s accuracy was later questioned, however.
In January, it was reported that Iranians had been using hundreds of fake accounts on Israeli social media pages in an effort to sow social division and influence the Israeli general elections.
THERE ARE companies forming to help stop these fake accounts and posts, such as Vocativ, founded by Israeli entrepreneur Mati Kochavi.
Weimann explained of how the company operated during this recent election.
“Vocativ used an intelligence system to scan the web to search for keywords based on the geographic location they originated from, as well as ties between bots, leading them to the fake profiles,” he said. “Their algorithm determined whether the profile was real or fake by, inter alia, examining whether the profile was posting in regular intervals or at an unusual pace. The algorithm could also uncover who was behind the bots, with most of the tweets and posts posted by the fake accounts traced back to an Iranian English-language website called Countdown 2040, which claims Israel will cease to exist by 2040.”
Vocativ determined that the bots were originally being used to increase discord among Israelis and Palestinians, but once elections were announced, the Russians shifted their focus and added additional bots. The Vocative analysis noted a 783% increase in bot account activity since elections were declared. Of the 350 Iranian bot accounts identified, only 50 were active prior to the election’s announcement, Weimann said.
These bots flamed an already brewing fire, which began to kindle back in 1996 when Netanyahu ran his first campaign against Shimon Peres for prime minister. Weimann said that Netanyahu hired New York State-based Republican Party consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein, who he said “ran a very aggressive, negative campaign that made Netanyahu prime minister.”
Finkelstein went on to be the political adviser in subsequent elections for Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
IN 1999, Ehud Barak hired leading Democratic pollster and political strategist Stanley Greenberg. In 2013 and 2015, Yair Lapid employed Mark Mellman, one of America’s leading public opinion researchers and communication strategists, who first worked for Yesh Atid, and then for Blue and White in its 2019 campaign.
“So many American advisers and political consultants were involved in Israeli campaigns on both sides,” said Weimann. “That is why we see more and more attributes in common between American and Israeli campaigns.”
Weimann said another example is how this last Israeli campaign became very personal, meaning less about party ideology and more about party leaders. And there was tremendous mudslinging.
“Just as Trump devoted more time than anything else to attacking Hillary Clinton – and he did not stop with political criticism, but attacked her personality and integrity, and filled social networks with fake news – so, too, Netanyahu attacked Benny Gantz, saying he had no experience,” Weimann said. “Netanyahu questioned Gantz’s role as chief of staff, then ran rumors on social media that Gantz was treated by a psychologist – fake news. He raised [the idea] that Gantz’s wife was involved with the leftist organization Machsom Watch.”
“You saw the same personal, negative campaign,” Weimann continued. “Netanyahu was impressed with Trump’s 2016 campaign and tried to learn from it.”
The final result of these strategies, however, is that they cause chaos, conflicts and splits.
“There are not only scary similarities between the 2016 American and 2019 Israeli campaigns, but also between the day after,” said Weimann. “When Americans woke up after the Trump election, it was not the same America. It was a more divided society. I think the same thing happened in Israel.”
Weimann said that the use of technology to run such negative campaigns focusing on inner conflicts and social splits has led to a more divided, less unified Israel, adding that: “I don’t think a society like Israel’s, which is challenged with so many security issues, can afford this.”