A billboard in Tel Aviv displays the portraits of Israeli centrist leaders, calling upon them to unite ahead of the early general election scheduled for April 9. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Social Media Giants Act To Prevent Meddling In Israeli Elections

Facebook & Twitter have announced initiatives to spot election manipulation, but analysts say their motives are egotistic and that the Israeli government should do much more

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter are maneuvering to eliminate bogus accounts and neutralize other potential sources of manipulation ahead of Israel’s April 9 general elections. The intervention lies in stark contrast to the 2016 United States presidential vote, which was tainted by the dissemination of substantial amounts of Russian-backed fake content to millions of Americans.

After social media companies were sharply criticized for allowing this meddling, they now appear eager to stem further censure—and potential punitive legislative measures—by taking a more pro-active approach in countries with upcoming electoral bouts.

Since Israel’s parliament was dissolved in late December, Twitter has shut hundreds of suspicious “bots” (i.e. fake accounts) capable of performing functions autonomously such as tweeting in addition to liking and following pages.

These tools can be used to inundate certain individuals or large segments of the population with specious information, with a view to whipping up controversy and sowing division in order to sway public opinion.

Bots are distinguished from other fake accounts managed by real people engaged in the same scheme.

Meanwhile, Facebook announced this week that it would strive to make political advertisements more transparent ahead of the Israeli vote. To this end, the corporation will attempt to better monitor the purchase by foreign entities of ads relating to national or political issues by requiring buyers to clearly identify themselves.

The developments raise questions about why these social media giants are deciding to intervene now, how much cooperation exists between them and Israel’s political establishment, and what criteria is used to determine which accounts get closed down.

“We know there is informal cooperation between the Israeli government and the social media platforms, which is semi-transparent,” Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a Senior Fellow and media expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, told The Media Line.

For example, she explained that the Cyber Unit in the office of Israel’s Attorney General has requested that social media companies take down various content and delete particular accounts. “But we are not sure if other Israeli authorities cooperate directly with these platforms,” she qualified.

Any collaboration is informal as Israel lacks a legal framework to combat the manipulative use of social media, Shwartz Altshuler noted, adding that Facebook’s and Twitter’s actions should “not be a substitute for legislation.”

She stressed that Facebook is for the moment only targeting foreign political ads “as bots and fake accounts, according to its own regulations, are not forbidden. Therefore, it isn’t dealing with the core problem.”

By contrast, Itamar Hoshen, cofounder of OH! Orenstein Hoshen, a strategic media and crisis management firm based in Tel Aviv, believes that these tech firms are demonstrating a sincere desire to crack down on fake content even if they have ulterior motives for doing so.

“Facebook has finally decided to seriously tackle fake accounts for its own egoistic reasons,” he contended to The Media Line, adding that “these have nothing to do with democracy or with what the company calls ‘protecting the integrity of elections.’”

Instead, Hoshen elaborated, Facebook is taking steps out of concern that regulators will otherwise initiate legal action against the platform which, in turn, will adversely affect its stock value and public image.

“Secondly, if Facebook fails to act we might see in the near future that its advertising rates will decline as more and more people will ignore ads featured on its platform, believing they could be fake.

“If advertisers see that Facebook ads are becoming less and less effective, advertising budgets will be diverted to other platforms perceived to be fake-news free.

“Having said that,” Hoshen concluded, “the steps that Facebook and Twitter are taking are far more reaching than anything they did in the past, and this is an effort worth appreciating.”

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