Archaic propaganda laws

There are some practices that should be banned for the sake of transparency so that parties cannot defraud voters.

Elections 2019: Who will Israel choose? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Elections 2019: Who will Israel choose?
One of the most entertaining times of any election season in Israel is what’s known as “election broadcasts.” In the weeks preceding an election, the main broadcast television channels air a block of campaign ads one after the other. It’s an opportunity to see the creative minds behind the campaigns display their best efforts – and also to see amateurish and often funny ads for tiny parties unlikely to make it into the Knesset. There are also blocks of radio airtime for the parties.
While it’s fun to get in front of the TV with friends and a bowl of popcorn for election ad time, it’s also very clear that this practice is completely outdated. Today, anyone can watch just about any TV program they want at any time.
And campaigns started releasing videos weeks ago, after the election was called, on their social media accounts and through WhatsApp.
In 2019, what’s funny about the campaign ads hour is not only the commercials themselves but the fact that this practice still exists. The problem is that this practice reflects a more serious flaw in our election laws.
The 1959 Election Propaganda Law has only been updated once, with the advent of television. And even then, Israel only had one TV channel on which to broadcast ads.
The law was not changed so parties could buy ad time 26 years ago when the first commercial channel went live, or a decade ago after YouTube and Facebook came into the world. If we want to go easy on politicians, by the 2013 election – the first in which Israeli parties took social media seriously – it was also not changed.
Currently, there is an open season on the Internet for political parties. They’re buying ads everywhere and using smart micro-targeting so the ads are used as effectively as possible reach the people who are most likely to respond to them positively.
And that’s not a bad thing. The level of regulation of campaign ads in other media has truly become absurd.
But there are some practices that should be banned for the sake of transparency so that parties cannot defraud voters.
For example, parties should not be able to act anonymously, whether in taking out negative ads about other parties without writing who is behind them, or creating fake accounts to write comments on websites and social media posts, or, in a practice that has grown common to the point of being an extreme irritation to many, sending unattributed text messages with polling questions that can be used for phishing information from the devices of those who don’t know not to respond.
As Gil Hoffman reported in these pages, the Israel Democracy Institute’s Dr. Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler said two political parties used a network of Saudi-based bots to digitally influence public opinion. 
Shwartz Altshuler said she wrote the covenant in lieu of legislation and because the current law makes no reference to the Internet.
“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.”
The Central Elections Committee has called on parties to sign an agreement to avoid online manipulation and pledge greater transparency, but the Likud is the only holdout of all the factions in the Knesset that has so far refused to do so.
The Likud’s argument is that changes in election norms should be passed as a law with a full legislative process behind it, and while that is a reasonable demand, in the meantime, the fact that the party will not pledge to be transparent raises suspicions that they are among those using shadowy means to manipulate voters.
All parties should commit to online transparency rules to erase any doubt that they are not unfairly influencing the election results.
And when the new Knesset is sworn in after the April 9 elections, its members should work on updating the Election Propaganda Law to reflect the reality of the 21st century.