The prime minister’s digital literacy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fond of using the word “cyber,” likes to tell us that cyber threats need to be dealt with.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cyber security conference at Tel Aviv University (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cyber security conference at Tel Aviv University
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
The information revolution – or digital revolution – is continuing at a rapid pace.
Inevitably, such a technological sea change is likely to cause some people to have a hard time adapting.
However, when a sizable portion of our decision-makers have that difficulty, and “digital illiteracy” becomes evident in the upper echelons where decisions are made, we’ve got a problem.
Examples of digital illiteracy abound. How about the time when a judge imposed a two-week gag order without realizing all the information would be all over the Internet within 24 hours? Or when technical malfunctions in computer systems are interpreted as acts of God, instead of a company’s failure?
Digital illiteracy is also on display whenever moral panic erupts in response to the emergence of a new technological development: chats, forums, online harassment, incitement, censorship, etc. While everybody screams about these innovations, no one can suggest what might be done about them.
Yet another example of digital illiteracy is when a public representative opens a Facebook account, but then proceeds to delete every comment that is not to his liking.
Digital illiteracy is, however, also characterized by the tendency of some people to idealize technology, seeing it as the ultimate goal of government and society, as well as the magic solution to all the problems we face.
Just say “cyber” and all will be well. Such a digitally illiterate person will adopt the mantra “there is no stopping technology,” without pausing to ask where exactly technology is headed and who influences the direction of its progress.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fond of using the word “cyber,” likes to tell us that cyber threats need to be dealt with. Several weeks ago, he established the National Cyber Bureau and gave it an enormous array of powers. He also coined the phrase “Beersheba: cyber capital of Israel,” and formed the National Digital Bureau. Netanyahu is so enamored of technological companies that he has already drawn two doodles for Google.
But when it comes to his dealings with the media, Netanyahu is outdated and non-digital. When the story of the Prisoner X affair – in which imprisoned Mossad agent Ben Zygier committed suicide in his cell – broke, it was leaked to the foreign media, from which it spread throughout the Internet.
In response, an embarrassed Netanyahu requested a meeting with the “editors’ committee,” the legendary group that traded in secrets with the government back when there were only a few newspapers and well before the Internet existed.
As a politician, Netanyahu probably knows better than anyone that the digital revolution has been nothing short of a miracle, since the online social networks allow him to bypass the traditional media and speak directly with his audience.
At the same time, he sees social networks as a traditional television channel: a tool for broadcasting speeches without interactivity or hard questions from the viewers at home. Netanyahu posts tweets on Twitter that contain edited images and biased headlines. When the tweets come under fire, he simply deletes them, never thinking that someone might have taken a screenshot of them that could go viral.
While Netanyahu himself creates “viral videos,” he is unwilling to internalize the information revolution’s cultural significance. Just as all information can be found simply by googling it, the public also expects information about the prime minister and his expenditures to be readily available.
He calls upon the public to bypass the establishment media and speak directly with him on Facebook, but does not comprehend the organizational significance of transparent work in the public space, in which the public knows more about what is going on and has something to say about it.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has also been pitching a story about privacy, announcing his desire to expand the definition of wiretapping.
Unfortunately, signs of digital illiteracy are appearing here as well.
In a world where giant corporations collect terabytes of information about us – from our purchasing patterns to whom we voted for in Knesset elections – that they can use later on to persuade us of just about anything, is our privacy to be protected by guarding against wiretapping?
Prime Minister Netanyahu – who has neither a cellular telephone nor a credit card – talks about cyber threats, but never asks himself, even for a moment, how technology can be used to improve democratic functioning.
He never asks himself how technology can strengthen the link between voters and elected officials, make information more transparent and accessible, and expose the closed minds of some civil servants to some fresh air.
The author is head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Media Reform project.