Bots and fake news: A lesson for the Central Elections Committee

Our chances of identifying fabricated news or fake profiles on social media are slim. Those in charge should address the situation truthfully and with humility.

Fake news [Illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Fake news [Illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
Israel Television News Company’s Amnon Abramowitz recently reported on Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman’s stern warnings alerting of another country’s expected attempt to influence the general elections to be held April 9. In other words, the drama surrounding the 2016 US elections is likely to repeat itself in Israel’s future elections.
Those surprised by this (un) shattering news are invited to raise their hand.
Less than 24 hours later, Israel’s Central Elections Committee announced that there is no reason for concern. Everything is going to be just fine. The fate of Israeli voters will be nothing like that of their American peers, who elected a Democratic woman and ended up with a Republican president. Here in the Holy Land everything will be different. Fat chance! The Central Election Committee, responsible for protecting the integrity of the election, boasted, “The committee takes action in cooperation with the relevant professional bodies in Israel, including the National Cybersecurity Authority.” The committee added that it “studied examples of interventions in other countries in recent years and is working on an outline that includes ensuring greater awareness in the different bodies taking part in the election.”
Wait… is there a devised plan or not? If all the committee’s rigorous studies of other countries’ elections, as it proclaims, led it to a scheme that is based on promoting awareness and alertness – i.e. a PR campaign, might we not be so safe after all? What the Central Election Committee is actually telling us is: We will increase awareness and the average Joe will determine whether the Facebook post appearing on his screen, the advertisement he’s reading online, or the SMS he received – are written by politicians such as Avi Gabbay, Benny Gantz, or Yair Lapid, or are crafted by an evil programmer operating from a safe house, in the service of a foreign entity.
Itamar Hoshen (Credit: Dan Miller)Itamar Hoshen (Credit: Dan Miller)
Ultimately, as far as the Central Election Committee is concerned, the responsibility lies on us - the public. The government doesn’t really have the tools – and dare I say, the interest – for dealing with the threat of obstructing the election results.
The author is no cyber expert but is not naïve, either. Our chances of discerning highly personalized advertising aimed to manipulate how we vote – are slim. Armed only with the naked eye, who will suspect an online post shared by a friend but is actually a clone fake account of that friend? Who wouldn’t believe an innocent looking tweet by a familiar credible entity whose name is actually spelled a bit off? Who would doubt the intentions of a journalist publishing an article critical of a politician but is actually an article modified by a malicious software from afar? It is quite clear. We are more easily fooled than any of us would like to think. Whoever thinks he is immune is fooling himself. Our Central Elections Committee, just like that of any other country, doesn’t have effective tools for dealing with clever cyberattacks that might affect not only the servers of Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, but also the computers and servers of news companies worldwide. Evidence for this can be found in the fact, that only last week, fabricated news from financial newspaper site Globes, was discovered to be “fake news” after being widely circulated. Also, news allegedly published by radio station 103 FM, was revealed to be nothing more than an online scam. Democracy’s watchman turned out to be an evil clown in disguise.
Now what do we do? First, on the media front – don’t make bold statements, don’t promise what you can’t keep, don’t try to calm the average Joe to the point of thinking he is safe as long he is “aware.” Nothing is “just fine” when it is unclear to us, as news consumers, who we can trust and who we can, or should, believe.
Any organization – private or public – confronting a challenging issue in the media – in this case, the possibility of an obscure cyberattack (not knowing who the attackers are, when or how they will attack, etc.) should refrain from making general empty statements, especially statements that are not entirely true. Such empty promises are likely to come back with a vengeance at those who made them. We predict this will be the case for the Central Election Committee.
The Internet does not forget. It will remind us that the Central Election Committee promised to protect us all, but just like the allegedly all-mighty America, it failed at the attempt.
The writer is cofounder of OH! Orenstein Hoshen, a media and crisis management firm, specializing in media consultancy and strategy.