“Arab voters are heading to the polls in droves.” This infamous line pushed out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the 2015 election was the paradigmatic Israeli disinformation campaign, inciting against Israel’s Arab population and demonizing its participation in the vote. In this election, however, Israeli Arabs are no longer the means, but rather the end of disinformation.
“This is the first election in which we are seeing disinformation efforts targeting the Arab community internally, in Arabic,” explains Inbal Orpaz, a researcher focused on disinformation at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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“In the previous election rounds, the Arabs were united in one slate,” she explains. This time is different, she and activists note, as there is a battle for the Arab vote: The Joint Arab List, headed by Ayman Odeh, and Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List, which split off from it after forming an informal alliance with Netanyahu, are both vying for votes.
“Now the Arab vote is up for grabs, so no one is invested in suppressing the Arab vote through disinformation, even Netanyahu,” she explains. “Instead, we are seeing disinformation used to try to divide the Arab vote.”
The result of this political battle is that techniques that were once used against Arabs are now being used to try to win them over. Moreover, activists and experts say, there is no attempt to prevent the Arabs from voting en masse.
“Quite the opposite,” explains Samer Swaid, a doctoral researcher in political science from Haifa University focused on minority leadership. “For the first time, not only is there no attempt to suppress the Arab vote, there is even a battle over voters. Even Netanyahu has his calculations, and long gone are the claims of forgery in the Arab community or calls to have cameras installed at voting stations.”
Muhammad Mahagna, a voter from Umm al-Fahm, told Haaretz that “there has always been tons of news in Arabic on social media. But I don’t remember there ever being an election when there was so much of it being pushed out so aggressively. There are tons of fake photos, videos that have been selectively edited and more. It almost screws with your mind,” he says.
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Pro-LGBTQ vs. pro-Bibi
Swaid and Orpaz note two key themes in the Arabic-language disinformation campaign: Gay rights and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has courted the Arab vote this election. “One major theme of disinformation is actually originating with him,” Swaid explains. “He comes to Arab communities and actually says he opposed racist legislation and house demolitions – though he is the person who is responsible for them. He also claims he can get the Arab community more funding that the Joint List.”
The Joint List, an allied slate of Arab parties, has been the butt of most of the disinformation efforts, Swaid explains. Mansour’s United Arab List split from the Joint List over “the question of how Netanyahu should be treated and whether he is legitimate or not. But both Netanyahu and Mansour’s proxies are trying to present the split as being over social issues like gay rights and funding for the Arab community,” he says.
Indeed, the major theme of the Arab disinformation campaign is LGBTQ rights and the Joint List’s purported support for it.
“Mansour’s party, UAL, has tried to build a narrative according to which the split was not over Netanyahu bit over gay rights. That they are opposed to gay rights and were not willing to run together with the Joint List that is being presented as pro-gay,” Swaid says.
Orpaz adds that this campaign, like many other disinformation efforts targeting Jews, played out in a new arena – the Telegram app. “Generally, Telegram is the new frontier of disinformation in this election,” she says, noting additional examples in Hebrew and Russian.
On Telegram, Arabic-language journalists and activists have, for the first time, created closed groups, and their disinformation is spread and debated.
“It’s not necessarily the journalists, but they will post something about gay rights and then the activists will push forward disinformation in their comments and this spins the debate,” Swaid says.
For example, Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the Hadash slate within the Joint List, was the target of a viral video that selectively edited a speech she had given to cast her as radically secular and pro-LGBTQ. The party was referred to as “The Tahini List” due to its support of a local tahini brand that came out in support of the rights of gay Arabs last year, in what can be seen as a type of Arabic-language dog whistle.
“I can’t believe there are so many politicians and journalists treating us, the voters, like such idiots,” laments Mahagna, the voter from Umm al-Fahm.