Netanyahu Presides Over a Social Media Empire. Here's How He Runs It

5 million followers (many from Brazil) ■ Enthusiastic comments (some by bots) ■ Financed posts (but we don't know the sums) ■ This is why Netanyahu no longer needs traditional outlets

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits at Google's offices in Tel Aviv.
Ofer Vaknin

“At 8 P.M. I will deliver a special message to the media. You’re invited to follow my Facebook page,” Benjamin Netanyahu announced on his Twitter page on Monday. Thus the prime minister set a precedent for his manipulation of the public: He announced via social media that he would give a statement on prime time TV, that could be viewed via his Facebook profile. You could say that Netanyahu, a veritable social opinion wizard, pioneered that method back in his first term in the 1990s, when he was one of the first politicians to create a website as a means of communication. “Now you’re not dependent on media analyses and intermediaries. You can ask what you want, decide what you see and decide for yourselves,” he said in his first video for that site.

Aside from his rare appearances on Channels 9 and 20, Netanyahu has ceased addressing Israel’s public via traditional media. Instead, he has dozens of posts a day on social media, including views and tweets, and his followers’ high response rate influences the algorithms of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, helping him to attract new followers and get his message across. Thus Netanyahu reaches elderly citizens via traditional media, and younger Israelis on social media. According to official statistics, Netanyahu’s televised declaration had ratings of 45.5% across Reshet, Keshet, Channel 10, Can 11, Channel 9 and Channel 20. In other words, 4.5 million people watched him live on TV, and another 120,000 watched the video on Facebook.

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This is what Netanyahu’s social media empire looks like. Every day Netanyahu broadcasts messages to millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Telegram via dozens of accounts, some of them run with state funding, and some via private funding from less-than-transparent sources. His posts have thousands of shares, tens of thousands of likes and responses, and one of the highest user response rates for any politician - certainly in Israel, but also internationally.

Netanyahu’s followers on Instagram

The social media accounts are divided into three main categories. They include Likud party accounts, financed by the party and run by its new-media manager, Yonatan Orich; and the prime minister’s pages, financed by the Prime Minister’s Office and managed by Topaz Lok, who has moved over to run Netanyahu’s election campaign. But the most followers come from Netanyahu’s personal social media accounts. Netanyahu’s Facebook page was launched in 2010 and currently has 2.3 million followers. The Prime Minister’s Office and Likud declined to say who runs Netanyahu’s personal accounts, how much it costs to run them, and where the money comes from. Orich is thought to be running them.

New media expert Raz Kaplan estimates that some 10,000 shekels was spent to promote posts from Netanyahu’s personal Facebook page last week alone. The monthly budget is likely 50,000 shekels, he estimates, which works out to half a million shekels a year. This means millions of shekels have been spent promoting Netanyahu’s personal page since its founding in 2010, he says.

Netanyahu is one of Israel’s most popular social media personalities, in terms of follower counts; all his accounts probably have a combined 5 million followers. As opposed to U.S. President Donald Trump, who is known for writing his own tweets, Netanyahu doesn’t even own a smartphone, due to concerns it could expose him to espionage. Rather, he owes his social media success to his young advisers, all alumni of the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Unit: Shir Cohen, 27, the prime minister’s spokeswoman; Lok, 26, the new-media advisor at the Prime Minister’s Office; and Orich, 30. The Prime Minister’s Office has five accounts on both Twitter and Facebook, in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian and Farsi, alongside a YouTube channel and Instagram account, and it pays to promote posts in English, Arabic and Farsi. In 2017 it had a budget of 101,000 shekels for promoting posts, and in 2018 the budget was 52,000 shekels. The office also has two new-media managers, whose employment costs it refuses to publicize. A conservative estimate places their salaries at 15,000 shekels a month. All told, this would mean the Prime Minister’s Office spends 244,000 a year to operate the prime minister’s official pages.

Likud declined to say how many people it employs to operate its social media accounts, and declined to address campaign staff. It denied making use of bots or anonymous internet users.

There are also Facebook fan pages such as “Heyda Bibi” and self-styled alternative media pages such as Buzznet, which regularly share Netanyahu’s posts, as well as vocal individual supporters such as “Ronit Habibi’istit.” In addition, sources say that Netanyahu’s son Yair is also involved in running his father’s social media accounts, and that Facebook page “We love Mrs. Sara Netanyahu” is run and funded by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu’s social media managers kicked things up a notch. Following his “dramatic announcement,” they launched an Instagram campaign targeting teens and young adults. The campaign was a bid to promote Netanyahu’s message that a bribe without money is not a bribe, an apparent response to the corruption allegations Netanyahu is fighting against. In this case, it appears that the social media action is designed to steer the public conversation away from the allegations and to blunt criticism of Netanyahu. An expert on social media bots and followers examined Netanyahu’s Instagram account and found that 68.7% of his followers are men, and 1.7% are bots. Another 47% are under 21, and a massive percentage, 43%, are in Brazil, while only 33% are in Israel. This is apparently one of the fruits of Netanyahu’s recent trip to Brazil- 200,000 new followers, an extraordinarily large number.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a handover ceremony for the new Israeli chief of staff at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, January 15, 2019.
AFP

An online marketing source said that many social media influencers have a large number of fake followers, most of them from Brazil and India. And indeed, a close look at the followers and comments on Netanyahu’s personal Facebook pages indicates traits that could characterize purchased followers. Dr. Anat Ben-David, an internet researcher at the Open University, says that as opposed to other Israeli politicians, Netanyahu’s page has the highest number of comments by users who respond only to his page, and not to any other Facebook page, and also the highest number of comments by users who comment only once.

A significant number of those who comment on Netanyahu’s posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are from abroad. “Most of the comments are posted in English, and the large majority express unequivocal support for Netanyahu,” says Ben-David. On the pages of other Knesset members, in comparison, some 95% of the posts are in Hebrew. This in and of itself doesn’t indicate manipulation, but since the numbers are so large, you can’t ignore the potential impact on public opinion in Israel, she notes.

Given his failure to win over the local media outlets, it’s only natural that Netanyahu has turned to social media. As the April elections approach, it’s likely that the main manipulations of public opinion won’t be by foreign governments working surreptitiously, but rather the results of Netanyahu’s actions over the past four years. This includes his criticism of traditional media, as well as his efforts to halt legislation that would have increased transparency on social media, extended election campaign laws to new media, and blocked inciting content on Facebook.

The biggest influence in the upcoming elections will likely come from local sources pushing their messages on social media, said Kaplan. It’s more difficult to push fake news in a small country like Israel, with only 6.6 million internet users, compared to a massive country like the United States with its 300 million users. Any stories that start to gain traction in Israel wind up being analyzed by the country’s big media outlets within hours, he said.

“The main danger in Israel isn’t fake news from foreign sources, but the political atmosphere and the faulty norms that characterize the political and public discourse,” Kaplan said.