How Netanyahu Defanged Social Media Regulation Ahead of Election

Israel went into this year’s election without adequate laws or the regulatory authority to prevent many of the worst online excesses - largely thanks to the prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement during a news conference in Jerusalem, April 3, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The social networks took on a major role in the campaigning this election, but neither internet giants like Facebook nor government regulators could do an effective job controlling the worst excesses.

One key reason is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked legislation that would have given more teeth to laws and to regulators enforcing the rules. In addition, his office has direct control over the National Cyber Directorate, whose operations are conducted almost entirely in secret.

The result was an election campaign characterized by aggressive postings, especially by Netanyahu’s Likud party. Netanyahu himself largely shunned the mainstream media, while he and his supporters campaigned directly through social media and elsewhere online.

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Social media reaches a huge share of the Israeli population. An estimated 4.5 million Israelis have Facebook accounts and 1 million use Twitter, especially people in the media and politics. In last November’s local elections, voters got a taste not only of the impact of social media but its nefarious uses.

In testimony to the Knesset Science and Technology Committee shortly after the local elections, Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy spoke of his personal experience in dealing with online attacks: “A feeling like you’ve been trampled on; the most despicable, the most sophisticated delegitimization – I’ve experienced all this in the last few months in the most difficult way. What’s happening to us today in the social networks is violence worse than physical violence.”

Last July, Netanyahu blocked a Knesset vote on a bill that would have required companies like Google and Facebook to remove content. In its original incarnation the law would have only addressed incitement to terror, but gradually evolved to include much broader provisions.

“The prime minister believes the current version of the bill could be interpreted too broadly and permits censoring of opinions and gravely harming freedom of expression in Israel,” a Likud spokesman said at the time.

The decision was hailed by human rights activists and others, but the result was that social media platforms could be used to send anonymous messages, gather personal data on users to target messages, and stoke incitement.

Israel’s Central Elections Committee and its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, tried to cope with the new reality of election campaigning. But Melcer was armed only with the Election Advertising Law, which was enacted in 1959, decades before there was an internet.

Within his power, however, Melcer did seek to reduce the use of the web for negative campaigning. But what he did was too little and too late against a tidal wave of social media campaigning.

He barred political parties from posting anonymous ads and said they must identify themselves, but he did so only in February – well into the campaign season. He also gave himself the power to order social media posts taken down, but his legal powers on that account remain limited and he requires the cooperation of the platforms.

Since Melcer put the rule into effect, he has received several requests to act.

In one case, the Hadash-Ta’al party asked that an anonymous Facebook page that attacked the party and Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli-Arab MK for the party and a favorite target of rightist parties, be pulled. Melcer agreed that the page violated the rules on anonymity and ordered Facebook to remove the page and reveal the identities of those behind it. Facebook agreed to honor the order but only after insisting it couldn’t monitor the content of every page.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is running for the Union of Right-wing Parties, appealed a decision to take down his Facebook page for a week, including the days running up to Election Day. Haaretz reported that the election committee issued the order because of a posting he made saying “1,000 dead terrorists, [but] not a single hair will fall from an IDF soldier.”

Netanyahu’s impact on online campaigning was also felt via the National Cyber Directorate, a government body formed by a cabinet decision in December 2017 to replace the cybersecurity operations of the Shin Bet security service and the National Cyber Bureau.

The bureau reports to the Prime Minister’s Office and its director is appointed by the prime minister without undergoing a competitive process. Its operations are deemed so secret that when the Knesset Research and Information Center recently sought to get figures on general trends on online activity and the elections, it was turned down.

However, in testimony to the Knesset Science and Technology Committee last October, Erez Tidhar, the head of the directorate’s personal protection unit, surprised lawmakers by saying the unit had regular direct contact with Facebook, something that had previously not been publicly known.

“There is fruitful and excellent cooperation,” Tidhar said. “It’s easy for them to identify what a real profile is, what an avatar is and what a fictitious profile is. We operate on a variety of platforms with other companies. These are proactive actions that we initiate.”

Tidhar, who later tried to retract his statement, said the cooperation had let it have thousands of pages taken down over the previous year.