Netanyahu Is Israel's Fake News Champion, Studies Find

Research shows that more than 70 percent of statements by senior Israeli politicians are tainted by untrue statements. Politicians know they won’t have to pay a price for their inaccuracies, say researchers

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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Netanyahu at a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, 2016.
Netanyahu at a press conference at the Foreign Ministry, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

Leading politicians, especially the prime minister, often accuse the media of presenting false stories or “fake news.” A study conducted by Yifat Media Check Ltd. and Hamashrokit (“The Whistle” fact-checking NGO) examined dozens of statements presented as facts by Israeli politicians. The full study will be released at the Eilat Journalism Conference, which opened Saturday. In all, more than 70 percent of statements by top Israeli politicians from the coalition and the opposition were found to be untrue.

The political lie that got the most press coverage (7 million exposures on regular and social media outlets) belongs to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said in a speech to the press in April that “By the terms of the nuclear accord, Iran was required to come clean to the International Atomic Energy Agency about its nuclear program. This was an unequivocal condition for upholding the accord.” This statement was broadcast on all the news programs and echoed in other media and online. The factual correction to the statement was published only on the Hamashrokit website and did not elicit a response in other media. The authors of the study say the nuclear accord never required Iran to reveal all of its activity for the development of nuclear weapons: The agreement stipulated that Iran must fulfill the conditions set in the “Road Map” appendix to the IAEA’s satisfaction, including in regard to military aspects of the nuclear program.

Second-place in the fake-news sweepstakes goes to Interior Minister Arye Deri, who said in June that, “According to government regulations, the only one authorized to submit bills on conversion is the interior minister.” This statement, part of a press release, was cited 30 times in the mainstream media and got 2.4 million exposures. But the statement is inaccurate, because although the interior minister is the minister with jurisdiction over the Citizenship Law, that law does not cover the conversion system in Israel and thus does not grant the interior minister authority in this area.

Interior Minister Arye Dery.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

In third place was Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid’s statement at a conference of the Hadashot News Company: “Since this government was formed, housing prices have risen by 13 percent and food prices by 8 percent.” His remarks were broadcast on the Mako and Reshet websites. The study found that, in fact, housing prices had risen by 12.3 percent since the start of the present government and that the price index had been consistently declining since August 2017 and only started to climb again in May.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid.Credit: Oliver Fitoussi

Data collected by Yifat Media Check show that 75 percent of appearances by politicians in the past year on broadcast media (radio and television) were by representatives of coalition parties and only 25 percent by representatives of opposition parties. The 300 statements reviewed by Hamashrokit in the past year were similarly divided. Over 70 percent of the statements examined were found to be either totally or mostly wrong, with coalition representatives showing a higher tendency to make untrue statements: 74 percent of their statements were found to be false, 12 percent were partially true and only 14 percent were true. Opposition members also were not truthful most of the time – 62 percent of statements they presented as facts were false, 15 percent were partially true and 23 percent were true.

The authors of the study also examined the influence and exposure of 33 ostensibly factual statements by politicians in the past year that Hamashrokit identified as false. Most of these were statements made in broadcast media.

Serious social harm

The main problem with fake news is that when false information is broadcast on established media, it is accorded a higher degree of credibility. For example, Netanyahu’s false comment about Iran was perceived as credible by 88 percent of readers and viewers. “This study indicates that politicians know they won’t have to pay a price in the established media for their inaccuracies,” says Dr. Tehilla Schwartz-Altschuler, head of the Democracy in the Information Age program at the Israel Democracy Institute. “If 75 percent of what they say is just not true, and the established media continues to serve this institution known as ‘press release’ and to be the government’s mouthpiece – we’re in real trouble. The expectation is that the media checks the facts. If the established media wants to survive, it must provide a connection and context. If it can’t do this, there is no justification for its existence.”

Another serious problem the study found is that, on average, a politician’s false statement gets 2.5 times as much exposure as the factual correction of that statement. “Here another kind of action is needed,” says Dr. Schwartz-Altschuler. “One of the arguments made by freedom of speech adherents is that in contending with fake news, the solution to everything is ‘counter speech,’ i.e., to fight the evil free speech with more speech. This was the freedom of speech doctrine for many years. Today we know that this approach doesn’t work anymore. Scientific studies have shown that this method only has the opposite of the intended effect because it causes the original false speech to be spread even more.”

One good example, she says, is the talk surrounding the issue of vaccinating children. Flooding the net with positive information about vaccinations did not help to quell the counter-arguments. “You can’t neutralize the dissemination of the incorrect information with the correct information,” she says.

Schwartz-Altschuler also cites the role played by the way fake news is framed. “When the media fails to provide factual criticism of politicians’ lies, the statements are presented in the newspaper as if they are correct, and it remains that way in the digital memory too. If you framed it from the start as something that is a matter of disagreement at least, then the framing in Google would be different as well. The damage caused nowadays by false reporting is not only to the audience that reads the report today – but to anyone who searches for it a year from now. And that’s another reason why not checking the facts does such great social harm.”

Tamar Zandberg, Meretz chairwoman. Credit: Meged Gozani

Boaz Rakocz, founder of Hamashrokit, wants to make clear that his organization is not calling politicians liars. “If I knew what the speaker’s motivation was, perhaps I could label him a liar,” he says. “But because I don’t know, I only say how much the statement ranges from true to untrue.”

Rokocz says he’s aware of the studies suggesting that counter-speech is not effective enough, but he offers another fresh example. “The last time the law authorizing the death penalty for terrorists came up, David Bitan, who was the coalition chair then, said they had tried to bring it up before and the prime minister was in favor and they lost by two votes,” he says. “In fact, the prime minister formed a committee to review the matter, which usually means the opposite of being in favor. The only MKs who voted in favor of the law then were from Yisrael Beitenu and they lost 94-6. By the way, Bitan himself voted against the law. So in this case you could take this highly charged issue, which is super-emotional, and have a factual discussion about it without perpetuating a lie or an inaccuracy. And this could be expanded to all the sensitive points in the Israeli discourse: the West Bank, asylum seekers, Gaza. We’ve all got plenty of narratives and gut feelings, but few facts.”

Rokacz cites another item – Tzipi Livni’s claim against Naftali Bennett that Habayit Hayehudi is working to annex all the Palestinian territories. “We checked Habayit Hayehudi’s platform, and there they talk only about the annexation of Area C. So if you’re Tzipi Livni, go ahead and fight Habayit Hayehudi, but be accurate and don’t confuse things.”

Do you contact journalists who’ve reported wrong information?

“Sometimes we do so by tagging journalists on Twitter. Sometimes they take responsibility, sometimes they ignore it. And sometimes they’ll correct it the next time.”

Right-wing critics say you’re supported by the New Israel Fund and are not objective. How do you respond to that?

“First of all it’s true that we are supported by the New Israel Fund; that is noted on our website and it is nothing new. We’ve been supported by them since day one. This argument hasn’t stopped us from checking the statements of Avi Gabbay, Tzipi Livni or Tamar Zandberg and putting them on the grill, including coloring their faces red when they are wrong. That’s how the graphics on our site are done. The content is objective and the work is objective.”

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