Security agencies are on high alert ahead of Israel’s upcoming general elections amid fears that foreign countries or non-governmental entities may attempt to influence the democratic process.
Public warnings of foreign interference have already come from the most senior of Israeli security officials, including Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman. Yet, while foreign cyber capabilities present a cause for concern for many countries entering into election periods or national referendums, much attention is paid to possible meddling on social media – especially Facebook, since the 2016 US presidential elections.
On Monday, Facebook announced it would be launching in March new political advertising transparency tools to help prevent foreign interference in Israel’s general election, and make electoral advertising on Facebook more transparent.
The tools, already rolled out for the US mid-term elections and earlier this month in Nigeria for its upcoming elections in February, will disallow electoral ads purchased from outside the country. Advertisers, Facebook said, will require authorization to purchase political ads, and users will be granted more insight into the origin of election-related promotions.
The social network will also create a publicly searchable library of electoral ads for up to seven years, including details on how much was spent on the particular advertisement and demographic information about who the advertisement reached.
“Our work around elections is never finished,” said Katie Harbath, director of Global Politics and Government Outreach. “We are constantly working to stay a step ahead of increasingly sophisticated bad actors and bringing additional transparency to political advertising is an important part of that effort.”
According to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Democracy in the Information Age Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, Facebook’s announcement ought to be welcomed, but she cautioned that election meddling through social media can be executed in many ways.
“It is good news that, even though we’re a small market, Facebook has recognized the fact that we might be exposed to foreign or illegitimate influence,” Altshuler told The Jerusalem Post. “We’ve already seen interference in a few countries. This is a self-regulatory measure that Facebook is creating in order to respond to criticism regarding election meddling and manipulation, but also because the threat of legislation potentially being forced upon them, such as the Honest Ads Act on the table of the US Senate.”
Altshuler warned, however, that purchasing political advertisements is only one, maybe the easiest, way to influence elections via social media. More problematic are other methods of influence, including spreading fake news and creating fake accounts, for which the current transparency rules do not apply and may be harder to combat.
“But we also need to remember that the main responsibility to maintain a resilient election process, and prevent any meddling in the election results, lies with the legislator, decision-makers and political parties themselves,” Altshuler said. “Trying to shift the responsibility to the shoulders of an international commercial company is wrong.”
In addition to Israel, Facebook’s transparency tools will be rolled out in India and Ukraine prior to their upcoming elections, with a global expansion due before the end of June.
The company currently employs more than 30,000 people working on safety and security, a threefold increase since 2017.