'Fake News Spread by Politicians Is Legitimate in Democratic Discourse'

Israeli cyberwarfare expert Gabi Siboni, known as a serial worrier, is concerned that the country is unprepared for the 'cybernetic era'

File photo: Head of cyberwarfare programs at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University Gabi Siboni speaks at an event in Tel Aviv, 2013.
Yehonatan Saban

Long before the 2019 election campaign got underway, Dr. Gabi Siboni was worried about the impact of social media on future elections in Israel.

As head of cyberwarfare programs at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Siboni is known as a serial worrier. He’s expressed concern about Israel being unprepared for the “cybernetic era” and has suggested that business permits should be predicated on adequate information-security measures.

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However, when it comes to politics, he believes, “spreading fake news is a legitimate, part of the freedom of expression in the democratic discourse." He adds, "We need to use common sense in combating fake news.”

He realized the threat of social networks during the wave of knifing attacks in 2015-2016, which killed 47 Israelis.

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“This wave was called ‘terror by inspiration’ by the Israel Defense Forces, a wave stoked largely by social media” says Siboni. “In my army work I headed a team dealing with operations inspired by others. I realized the power of these events, which led to the development of a new concept at the IDF, with the establishment of a department dealing with ‘consciousness’.”

Amos Harel in Haaretz revealed the existence of this department last year, writing that "Israel operates such measures in order to influence the enemy, as well as Western countries, with regard to IDF operations.”

“I saw the growth of the fake news discourse in the United States and realized its potential," says Siboni. "I wrote about topics such as motivation to have an impact, the ability to influence and how this can be dealt with defensively and offensively.”

Siboni talks about the threat and its sophistication, noting that the advertising world was the first to utilize the relevant technology. “There is now a possibility of targeting specific populations," he observes. "Every person gets a personalized result when doing a Google search. This can be done in the political sphere as well. Messages can be sent by bots, with no real person behind them, with a generation of a history with nothing to back it as real.”

Siboni says that many of these campaigns are attributed to the Russians. "They may just want to practice, without a specific target, or they may want to undermine the liberal democratic process in the world," he says. "They also may have a preferred candidate. The costs of doing this are low, with easy deniability.”

He asserts the problem is that legitimate democratic discourse also utilizes social media. "The problem is in separating this from foreign intervention,” he notes.

Siboni proposes countering such attacks through a multi-organizational team, which would monitor online communications, and suggests a nonpolitical leader for such a team.