Protecting democracy in the era of (deep) fake news

It’s essential that the Israeli authorities take immediate action to counter such activity.

Fake news (photo credit: DR)
Fake news
(photo credit: DR)
International media sources have been busy these last few weeks reporting about foreign involvement in social networks and investigations of these violations by American authorities, such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into the Russians’ involvement in the 2016 US elections. Russia has also been accused of improper involvement in Britain’s Brexit referendum and that nation’s fragile situation, as well as in elections in France, Canada and Germany.
Nowadays, there’s no longer a need to fund third parties with radical agendas, to falsify election results, or to send people with fake IDs to vote at polling stations. It’s much easier to carry out sophisticated attacks in cyberspace, which secretly influence public opinion. In order for such a campaign to be effective, a specific narrative needs to be planted in people’s minds, in a systematic fashion, in the months leading up to elections.
That way, when the election swings into full gear, the seeds that were planted will have fertile ground in which to germinate.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported on a study by the New Knowledge cybersecurity company in conjunction with Columbia University, carried out at the behest of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The study showed that during the 2016 US elections, Russia endeavored to influence public opinion among African- Americans who identified as anti-Trump Democrats, in an effort to reduce voter turnout among this population. The study also offered evidence that showed that Russia continues to use social networking to delegitimize Mueller and former FBI director James Comey, as a way to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s position and Syrian and Russian actions connected with the Syrian civil war.
The report states that in light of recent developments, the Russians are transferring a large part of their activity from Facebook to Instagram, where it continues to operate at full speed (187 million Instagram posts and 76.5 million Facebook posts have been isolated). Russia is also attempting to create legitimacy within European public opinion for Russian actions in Ukraine and the Crimea. At the same time, it delegitimizes Ukrainian and NATO actions by planting false information about killings and massacres that were supposedly perpetrated by the Ukrainian army, and by presenting Russian military activity as being purely defensive in nature.
These attempts to sway public opinion are taking place in intra-state contexts, foreign policy, business and elections in a number of countries.
They are being carried out by local companies that are hired by interested parties, and more recently, by other countries as well.
Lately, a new term has entered the public lexicon – “deepfake” – the use of pictures or videos of real people with someone else’s face superimposed on them, or a computer-generated replica of a person saying things they never actually said. In other words, most of what people see is real, but the bottom line is false.
ONE INTERESTING example is a doctored video clip that was released in the US a couple of months ago, in which a journalist is seen to be pushing a White House intern.
There’s no doubt that the interaction which took place at a press conference was unusual, however, a number of video experts claim the video speed was doctored in a few frames, which makes the scene appear different from what actually happened. In other words, it was a manipulation of the truth.
It’s unclear why, but many Israeli journalists are focusing on politicians’ activity on social networks, instead of looking into institutionalized upheaval that’s being orchestrated by outside figures, some of which are from enemy states.
The significant players in this arena are Russia, China and Iran, all of which employ various methods to carry out campaign fraud – in other words, a type of psychological warfare. These techniques include the systematic publication of tendentious information that serves a particular agenda, while avoiding conflicting information (one-sided propaganda); publicizing true news items that have little bits of false information embedded inside (since the best lies are based on the truth); and creating news websites that disseminate a huge amount of information, of which only a small part is false (hiding lies inside mostly accurate facts).
In recent months, a significant amount of hostile activity has been uncovered in Israel’s cybersphere that was intended to influence public opinion, or to fan the flames of domestic political and social issues. Most of the incidents have involved efforts to harm US-Israel relations, to affect Israel’s status in world public opinion in general, and in the US in particular, and to intensify the rift between Israel and certain European countries.
Our enemies are also making great efforts to amplify tensions that exist within Israeli society, such as between the religious and secular, Arabs and Jews, and the Left and Right.
All forms of media are considered fair play, and there’s an endless amount of sophisticated software available with which fake news items can be concocted. In practice, these deepfake videos are successfully playing with our heads. Long-term studies prove that people don’t necessarily read or watch news programs as a way to gain information. Many times, their main intent is to seek information that strengthens basic views they already hold.
In my opinion, it’s completely acceptable for politicians to take advantage of social networks to put forth their messages. This is just part of the game of modern democracy. The phenomenon in which foreign countries – some of which are our actual enemies – interfere in our internal politics is, however, extremely problematic.
It’s essential that the Israeli authorities take immediate action to counter such activity.
But until this institutionalized counter-activity takes shape, I recommend that everyone regard with suspicion every piece of information we hear in the media, and make a great effort to search out the half-truths that might possibly be mixed in with the facts.

The writer is a veteran intelligence officer and brigadier- general who served as head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Research Division.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.