Israel Removed Thousands of Social Media Posts It Deemed Foreign Interference in 2019 Election

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ספירת קולות בוועדת הבחירות המרכזית, בשנה שעברה בירושלים
Ballot counting at the Central Elections Committee in Jerusalem, 2019. Credit: Emil Slaman

Israel's Shin Bet security service and the State Prosecutor’s Office worked to remove some 10,000 posts on social media ahead of the April 2019 election, which they said originated in foreign countries and were intended to influence the election results.

Every month, the cyber department of the State Prosecutor’s Office sends about 1,000 requests to social media companies asking to delete content. The months of March and April 2019 were exceptional in that the department made 12,000 such requests, including some 10,000 that came from the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet monitors social media posts from foreign countries and supplies the prosecutor’s cyber office with requests for deleting posts, which are then legally examined before being forwarded to social media firms. All the Shin Bet’s requests were accepted by the State Prosecutor’s Office, and media companies complied with most of the requests sent to them.

The Shin Bet declined to provide details on how it determines which posts are an attempt by foreign groups to interfere in the election, and which are legitimate posts by Israeli or foreign citizens. In addition, it declined to provide examples of posts that were removed.

The Shin Bet also declined to say why thousands of requests for removal were submitted before the April 2019 election, but not before the September 2019 election. Data on requests before the March 2020 election has not yet been released, but a source with knowledge of the details told Haaretz that there was no exceptional spike in such requests during this period.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman announced Monday that his office will examine the computer systems of the Central Elections Committee and its preparations against a cyber attack. In a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, Englman said that the purpose was to learn the lessons for future election campaigns, including the one that may be held in the next few months.

Englman said that the probe would include the committee’s “computer operations in the three election campaigns held in 2019 and 2020, including the readiness of the Central Elections Committee to deal with external cyber attacks.” Englman also said that most of the probe had been completed, but some areas are still being examined in-depth with the committee.

In January 2019, Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman said that he expected foreign countries to try and influence the election results. The intervention would be carried out through cyber technologies and hackers, and at that stage it was not possible to identify the political interest of the country involved, he said at the time. But the foreign countries will interfere – “and I know what I’m talking about,” said Argaman.

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