Could voter data manipulation return Netanyahu to power?

The prime minister's sophisticated use of big data was unimaginable a decade ago, but may well push the right wing bloc over the 61-seat line required to win the election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020 (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on as he delivers a statement during his visit at the Health Ministry national hotline, in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
“Avi Ophir from Bat Yam?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asks, approaching a young pizza delivery man in one of his latest videos. “You vote Likud. But in the last election, you did not cast your ballot. Bat Yam has a 52% voter turnout rate... run and vote!”
Seconds later, the prime minister encounters Noy, a waitress from Beersheba, whom he convinces to go and vote in the same way. Then he meets Hodaya, a dog walker from Kiryat Shalom and her brood – Pitsy, Daisy and Moish. He sends her to the polling station and grabs the dogs’ reigns.
This is not just a savvy campaign video. Netanyahu’s sophisticated use of big data is the reality that few could have imagined a decade ago, but what in this third election is likely to push the prime minister and his right-wing bloc to reach the 61-seat minimum required to win the election.
The game-changer is what Netanyahu has managed to do in the last month with Elector, the end product app of a computerized system for election management that was developed by Feed-b. This is according to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and head of its Media Reform Program.
The system was originally designed to allow parties to send text and WhatsApp messages to its current and potential constituents, and to manage data about voters and voting stations. Synced with the voter registry, the application enables political parties to conduct real-time crunching on election data, showing information on individual voters and rates of support by polling station and region.
Election law gives political parties access to the registry but forbids handing it to a third party. Likud, however, essentially outsourced its voter data wholesale to the app. As such, according to Shwartz Altshuler, Netanyahu has spent the last four weeks focused on getting as much information about his voters into that app as possible, so he can talk to them directly before and on the day of the election.
At rallies Netanyahu has held across the country – sometimes half a dozen in one day – he asked his followers to provide additional information about their family members, friends and neighbors who might vote for Likud. This information included telephone numbers – something not included in the registry – and any personal details that might assist the party in its communication campaign.
The prime minister calls it “the wisdom of the masses.”
“He went across the country and at every rally and asked people to download the app, to input information and to share it with their friends,” Shwartz Altshuler explained. “Netanyahu understands that what will change his position is not fake news or Twitter bots. It is micro-targeted messages on WhatsApp, SMS – talking to each person directly.”
Last month, this app leaked the personal information of more than six million citizens – twice. The volume of additional data outside of what would traditionally be housed in the registry demonstrated just how successful the prime minister and his party have been at filling in these blanks.
Prof. Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa, explained that the Likud Party estimates there are 300,000 supporters who did not vote in the second election. If so, “that is a huge number, worth eight seats in the parliament.”
Likud, of course, only needs three or four seats to change the entire map and become the winner. So, if in the last two elections Netanyahu focused on what is commonly known as the “Gevalt!” campaign – “If you guys don’t get out and vote we are going to lose; we are trailing behind!” – this time, said Weimann, the messaging is not so desperate.
“He changed his message to say, ‘We are leading, but we need to lead by more,’” the professor explained. “He says, ‘All we need is one or two more seats.’” And he delivers this message directly to the people – in communities that are known to have Likud supporters that he thinks he can get to go out and vote.
“This is a very selective audience,” Weimann said. “He is very well organized.”
In fact, Shwartz Altshuler believes that on Election Day, we could see this last month of data work come to fruition in some very sophisticated ways.
She offered the following scenario: Her son is registered to vote in Jerusalem, but he is a student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and does not want to travel to vote in Jerusalem for yet a third time in a year. Then, at around 5 p.m., he receives a call from a Likud campaigner who informs the young voter that he does not have to travel to the Holy City to vote. Rather, there is a voting station for the disabled nearby. “Pretend you are disabled,” the Likdunik says, “and go cast your vote for Likud.”
One can also imagine the opposite scenario: The Likud campaign learns that Tal from Tel Aviv is not a Likud supporter and does not want her to vote against the party. So, Tal receives a text message from an anonymous number claiming to be a representative of the Health Ministry: “We have identified a voter who was diagnosed with coronavirus at your polling station. Do not leave your house.
Party observers update the database according to the IDs of voters who came to the polling stations and parties who use the app – Elector is used not only by Likud but also by Shas and Yisrael Beytenu. They receive a real-time snapshot of who among their party’s supporters already voted and who did not.
So at 4 p.m., the Likud sees that there is low voter turnout at certain polling stations with lots of potential voters. Masses of Likud supporters in each neighborhood have already been identified. For the next six hours, they map out a viable route in Waze and travel house to house, knocking on voters’ doors and asking them to come out to the polls.
“Does Netanyahu really know if you voted or not? Does he really know where you live, your work?” asks Altshuler. “Think about the layers of data he needs for this.” But she said the answer is likely “yes,” as “teams of thousands of people have been downloading and uploading this information without people’s consent.
“He knows if your mother is sick, if your son served in Gaza, if you answered a Likud poll in the affirmative,” she continued, “and at 5 p.m. he will know if you have voted.”
When the data from this application was leaked, most reports were focused on security and other related risks. But Weimann said that what is more interesting to him is the type of information the Likud possesses.
“They had all of that data and added to it political preferences, past voting patterns, whether the person indicated support for Likud or not,” Weimann said, noting how this information could be leveraged later in other non-election related circumstances.
On the surface of it, Netanyahu’s repeated videos urging voters to head the polls, in which he knocks on their doors or takes their dogs for a walk, seem like the most democratic of exercises – because what is more significant in a democracy than that each person heads to the polls?
But once the elections are over, the question must be asked whether exposure to citizens’ political positions could allow for discrimination, Schwartz Altshuler said. For example, maybe an employer does not want to hire leftist workers and now he or she knows your political position even before you apply.
No one really knows what will be done with all of this data in the end and to what extent. But there is one thing we do know, she warned: “If all this data exploitation exists, then our choice is not really free and the story we tell ourselves about democracy as a free choice is a completely fictitious story.”
But the story could be very real for Israel. If Netanyahu gets Avi, Noy and Hodaya out to vote, then his winning may very well become the reality.