1. With only eight days to go, the Israeli election campaign seems, to use a far-flung analogy, like a “Phony War.” Often described as the most dramatic and consequential vote in recent memory, if not all of Israel’s 71-year history, the campaign seems to have lost its mojo. Other than ongoing mutual mudslinging between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, one would be hard put on this Monday to comprehend what the elections are all about.
One reason is the weeklong hiatus imposed by the flare-up in Gaza, quelled by the de-facto cease-fire agreement reached over the weekend. The recess broke the campaign’s continuity as well as its managers’ concentration, and both politicians and pundits are having a hard time regaining their footing – or their momentum.
Cardinal issues such as the peace process, occupation, economic stability or social equality are discussed only rarely and only on the margins of the public’s or the media’s attention. Lacking new revelations, the personal mud-slinging is also running out of steam, though that won’t deter the warring sides from escalating their harsh rhetoric in the few days left.
2. One major reason for what is, at most, a quiet before the storm has nothing to do with Gantz, Netanyahu or the specific Israeli issues of the day: The advent of social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest have effectively supplanted the mass rallies that were once the main arenas for pre-election slugfests. They have provided an alternative and controlled means of exposure for the candidates, inducing them to avoid unscripted television debates and interviews.
Rather than taking to the streets to put up election posters, convince passers-by who they should vote for or attending mass rallies in order to cheer for their favorites or heckle their rivals, Israelis seem to prefer tweeting, posting or Whats-apping their opinions. The venue of their political activism, as well as their bitter brawls, have moved from the real world into cyberspace.
3. Which is why, in addition to relatively slim pickings of issues for campaign advisers to sink their teeth into, a report by Ronen Bergman about an ostensibly illegal network of arguably illegal fake social media accounts owned and operated by Netanyahu’s Likud made such a big splash on Monday.
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The report, published simultaneously in Yedioth Achronot and the New York Times, sparked a flurry of mutual accusations. Gantz lodged a formal complaint with the police, alleging that Netanyahu was waging no less than “a campaign of consciousness terror” to illicitly influence voters. Netanyahu, in what can only be described as an astounding lack of self-awareness, retorted that Gantz and his cohorts are conducting “the most deceitful and reprehensible campaign in history."
Bergman cited a report issued by an independent watchdog group called the Big Bots Project, which uncovered a network “comprised of hundreds of social media accounts, many of them fake” which “operates through manipulations, slander, lies and spreading rumors.” The report did not find any “direct links” between the alleged network and Netanyahu or the Likud, but cited circumstantial evidence linking the network’s activity to the Likud campaign and news events focusing on Netanyahu. Likud officials, including Netanyahu’s firebrand son Yair, often repost the network’s tweets a short time after they are posted, the report claimed.
The Likud typically reacted with the retort that the report is a product of leftist NGOs with a political agenda. Netanyahu’s fans in the media also produced actual individuals, albeit with ties to the Likud, who own some of the suspect social media accounts listed in the Big Bots Project Report. They presented this discovery as a refutation of Bergman’s report, even though it was nothing of the kind: Bergman did not assert that all of the network’s account were bogus and the fact that some of them aren’t doesn’t negate the existence of an organized network disseminating slander and lies about Likud’s rivals.
4. In any case, the brouhaha is essentially much ado about nothing, a filler for the temporary vacuum in the election campaign. The number of Twitter users in Israel, even if one accepts the company’s claim of dramatic growth in recent years, is far more modest than in other countries, comprising no more than 100,000 users. According to a 2017 report issued by telecommunications giant Bezeq, only 10 percent of Israeli Internet consumers describe themselves as active users – compared to 80 percent who are loyal to Facebook and an astounding 87 percent who swear by WhatsApp. And while no less than 6.6 million Israelis surf the web, most of them ignore Twitter and wouldn’t know a bot if it hit them in the face.
5. Nonetheless, one prominent reason for the hubbub surrounding Bergman’s report of the dissemination of fake news and unsubstantiated slander is the analogy to Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. The possibility that Netanyahu is using similar underhanded methods comes in the wake of a growing perception that Trump and his campaign are serving as role models for the Israeli prime minister. From fake accounts to slimy insults against rivals and a blatant disregard for actual facts, Netanyahu seems to have adopted Trump not only as the greatest friend Israel has ever had but as a personal and political role model as well. His fans don’t mind, but opponents abide by the rule: Tell me whom you emulate, and I’ll tell you who you really are.