Opinion |

The Terrible Danger Stalking Israel – and Why Israelis Can't Fight It

'Post-truth' disinformation and incitement against minorities, journalists and political rivals: They're not exclusive to Israel, but Israeli Jews are particularly susceptible. This is why – and how that vulnerability could turn violent

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A Netanyahu 'emergency appeal' on Facebook on election day, Sept 17 2019: 'Long queues at Arab polling stations…You must go vote Likud to stop a last-minute leftist-Arab government'
A Netanyahu 'emergency appeal' on Facebook on election day, Sept 17 2019: 'Long queues at Arab polling stations…You must go vote Likud to stop a last-minute leftist-Arab government'Credit: Facebook

It's still not clear who the winner of Israel's rerun election will be. But there is absolute clarity about one aspect of this entire campaign year, punctuated by two national elections: 2019 has been a peak year in Israel for attacks on the media, incitement campaigns, and the unbridled use of disinformation, misinformation and fake news online, on TV and in the media more broadly.

A key target of most of the political parties' campaigns – especially on the right, but also in the center – were Israel's Arab citizens.

Faced with more "subtle" attempts to delegitimize them, and with outright slander, Arab citizens themselves were either ignored or actively excluded from the core issues of the election: who should lead the country and why. The other constituency targeted – unsurprisingly, for populist politicians – were journalists and the mainstream media.

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It seems that the right’s anti-Arab incitement and intimidation in the weeks prior to election day and on the day itself stirred a backlash, encouraging Arab voters to go to the polls, depriving Benjamin Netanyahu of an outright victory. But the potential for long-term damage to Israeli society wrought by this strategy, however, will be difficult to repair any time soon.

Spreading incorrect, outdated information and outright lies to incite against minorities or political rivals is not exclusively an Israeli phenomenon, of course. But Israelis are particularly vulnerable.

Over the last decade, this toolbox has become such a key component of political propaganda that even its popular nickname – "fake news" – has lost its original meaning and morphed into a taunt employed against traditional media outlets by the very people trying to disempower them.

The blatant dissemination of lies against Arab citizens, Arab leaders and journalists is now received with a certain indifference: racist and anti-democratic outbursts have been normalized as unsurprising election-year spin.

But closer scrutiny of what is happening with the media in Israel and elsewhere shows that the trend is more dangerous and destructive than we may think. Its potential for harm to Israeli democracy should not be minimized.

In many developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the dissemination of lies and the use of outdated photos and information have been weaponized by various political forces. They have been used to create mass confusion in the civilian population, to spark riots or violent attacks against immigrants or minorities, even to ignite conflicts between neighboring countries.

Here in Israel there is a tendency to view such spectacles condescendingly, as if Israeli democracy enjoys immunity from "third world" dynamics like these: "It can’t, and it won't, happen here."

But the Israel of 2019 has no "natural" or inherent immunity from these dynamics, and its norms are just as vulnerable to exploitation. The political mainstream has crossed red lines with its free use of anti-minority incitement, lies and unprecedented attacks against the media designed to undermine their independence and stifle criticism.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a news conference after he was entrusted with forming the next government, at the President's residence in Jerusalem, Israel, April 17, 2019.Credit: AFP

It is not at all clear if we in Israel have the resources and tools to contain and challenge these attacks and their potential damage.

Israel likes to compare itself to Western Europe. Netanyahu and his predecessors have generally depicted Israel as a strong Western democracy with a twist of "start-up nation."

But if we consider Israel’s situation compared to countries like Germany, the UK or the U.S. in terms of national stability and the wherewithal to cope with this concerted campaign, Israel is clearly not like Europe or North America. The delegitimizing trends in Israel resemble not Western Europe, but the developing world.

Take Germany as a point of comparison. In recent years, German media have suffered a wave of far-right smears against "elites" and media objectivity, the wholesale dissemination of rumors and fake videos purporting to show crimes committed by Muslim migrants - and the alleged "tolerance" for their crimes by the police and the liberal media.

These attacks mostly originate from the far right, and their parliamentary representatives, the Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013. The AfD received nearly 13 percent of the seats in the German parliament in 2017 - but they are still considered taboo for coalition-making; they remain in the opposition. There is a lively and critical public discussion about the party's legitimacy and how far it should be given a platform in the media.

Moreover, the media in Germany and German society in general, as in many other western democracies, have assets and resources that Israel severely lacks.

A pedestrian walks past electoral posters in the northern Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin on September 15, 2019, two days ahead of the Israeli general electionsCredit: AFP

German public service media, for instance, is strong and independent, with a significant market share and dedicated funding that comes directly from a substantial fee paid by the public; that financing comes via a council that is entirely independent and in which not one political appointee sits.

In Israel, by contrast, a Likud government minister wonders out loud why to create a public broadcasting corporation "if it cannot be controlled." An upcoming report by the state comptroller includes "grave findings indicating the level of political interference with broadcasters in recent years." 

During the election campaign, Netanyahu accused one of the few independent mainstream commercial news channels of "committing a terror attack on democracy," because of their reporting on the corruption cases in which he is mired, calling them, Trump-like, "fake news" – and called on the public to boycott it

Commercial media in Germany have far more ample resources and have established special units dedicated to fact-checking and identifying falsifications. They also display solidarity amongst themselves and with their European peers and share information and research. Furthermore, in Germany (as in many Scandinavian countries) there is a clear public consensus concerning the importance of an independent media; slandering the media invites criticism and skepticism.

Other countries have different assets that support media stability and credibility. In the U.S. for example, with a conspiracy theory enthusiast as president, attacks on the established media have actually strengthened its reach and resonance, and its economic and public standing.

In other countries like Britain and Spain, public broadcasters remain strong and influential, and the media still enjoys public support and recognition, even in times of political turmoil and fierce political debate.

Election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and US President Donald Trump, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Sept 15, 2019Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

In Israel, on the other hand, the situation is absolutely the opposite.

The public broadcaster is weak, has far less reach in terms of audience share and setting the agenda, and is under continual political pressure and the threat of closure.

Solidarity for the sake of investigations between commercial media entities is nonexistent; in the best case, they pursue a cold war amongst themselves. They trade accusations of political imbalance and corruption – and indeed, several of the big players demonstrate a susceptibility towards interference for political and commercial purposes.

The largest circulation newspaper, Israel Hayom, a freebie with vast influence and reach, is unabashedly in lockstep with the Likud, and is funded from outside the country - by an American, Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly invests $50 million a year in its operations with no profit or break-even motive in sight

Netanyahu has made a priority of encouraging the establishment and enforcement of right-wing media platforms, on TV and radio, and smoothing away regulatory and content requirements, promoting their biased reports through his powerful social media channels.

Distributing the Adelson-funded free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, at a train station in the southern city of Ashkelon, Israel. November 19, 2015Credit: © Amir Cohen / Reuters

His son, Yair, dubbed the prime minister's online "defender in chief," has no official position, but marshals a concerted army of right-wing trolls and provocateurs, pushing the trope that left-wingers are traitors

The crisis affecting media revenues worldwide, exacerbated by the tiny size of the market and its incapacity to scale or partner abroad because of Hebrew’s limited audience, threatens all of the other players – who don't have access to such generous funding – and weakens their investigative ability, fact-checking and editorial criticism.

Adding all these woes is the lack of basic respect and understanding many mainstream center-right politicians show towards the role of the media in a democracy.

Constant media-bashing and targeting individual journalists means the freedom and independence of the press has few defenders or guardians. The fear of blowback from commercial interests or politicians for "overly" critical analysis leads to a form of self-censorship. There are fewer pushbacks to the populist "post-truth" attacks on fact-based reporting. In these ways, Israel's norms are much closer to Hungary, Brazil or Pakistan.

Worst of all, wild incitement and slander in Israel do not come from the extreme margins of society or politics, but rather directly from the prime minister and his associates, whose political and media clout is almost limitless. Netayahu's surrogates serve him unquestioningly and in return are accorded exclusive access, and are given preferential treatment by the government.

An Arab Israeli woman votes during Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Kafr Manda near Haifa on September 17, 2019Credit: AFP

For the month before election day, unfounded "reports" attacked the legitimacy of the Arab vote: from vote theft, to declarations the Arabs wanted to destroy the Jews and constant messaging about how Arab Knesset members support "bloodthirsty" terrorists. That was even enough to prompt the violent intimidation of left-of-center politicians by right-wing thug-activists. 

Public trust in the media in Israel is already low in comparison to many other countries. Only 25-30 percent of the population trust the media; and 58 percent think it is corrupt. Those low levels of trust resemble the percentages in repressive states like Russia and Turkey

And Jewish Israelis are particularly vulnerable to manipulation, especially regarding the Arab minority.

Jewish citizens have very little direct familiarity with the relatively socially isolated Arab public, and their views are informed by negative and lack of coverage in mainstream media.

Many Jewish Israelis barely encounter their Arab fellow-citizens in their everyday lives; and Arab voices are woefully under-represented in the media, whether as reporters, commentators or interview subjects. Incitement against Arabs thus falls on fertile, susceptible ground.

Supporters of the Likud party and its leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, raise Trump 2020 banners as they await results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Israel. Sept. 17, 2019Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Israel's most powerful politicians orchestrate incitement, but Israel's media is too weak to challenge and contain them. Israel's education system, from schools to academia, also demonstrates significant weakness in informing and instructing students about the role of the media in a functioning democracy, about facts and propaganda, leaving most Israelis without the critical tools and awareness necessary to interrogate the messages to which they're exposed.

Now that the dust of the latest election has begun to settle, the time has come to pick up the pieces and try to repair the damage.

The next leader of Israel, if truly committed to democracy, must accord top priority to strengthening an independent free press, empowering public broadcasting, combatting disinformation, and reducing incitement and slander against the Arab minority.

Without these critical moves, the divisiveness, radicalization and instability that have marked Israeli democracy and Israeli discourse in recent years can only get worse – presenting an unassailable obstacle to forging a resilient, inclusive and flourishing society.

Israel faces a crossroads: whether it will keep walking towards the cowed, censored press characteristic of illiberal states, or whether it will turn away – towards the liberal democratic values its leaders love to tout abroad as the state’s founding characteristics.

Edan Ring is co-director of the Shared Society Department at Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equalitym and a lecturer in communications and social change at Ben-Gurion University and IDC Herzliya. Twitter: @EdanRing