Netanyahu Is Sending Personal Messages to Facebook Users. Here's Why

'Hello, this is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I wanted to personally ask you for your support in the upcoming election. What do you think?'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a cybertechnology conference in Tel Aviv on January 29.
Tomer Appelbaum

Tens of thousands of people have been getting personal Facebook messages from the page of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few days. This may be an effort to gather data on Facebook users for a database to be used by the Likud election campaign, say some experts.

The messages, sent through Facebook’s Messenger system, are worded like a private message to the user: “Hello, this is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I wanted to personally ask you for your support in the upcoming election. What do you think?” Under the question there are three responses, “Yes,” “Maybe” and “No.” The conversation is sent and managed by an automatic bot that responds to the user’s answers.

What is the purpose of these private messages?

Several experts believe that this is an effort to collect information on Facebook users, both potential supporters and opponents. “The attempt to get personal is a lure; the aim is to build a database for marketing purposes,” says journalist and technology blogger Ido Kenan. “It’s not like Netanyahu is actually conversing with someone there.”

Researcher Dr. Anat Ben David of the Open University also believes that this is an attempt to collect data on voters without violating Facebook’s rules. “Page managers can do demographic segmentation and then crosscheck it with what people wrote in Messenger, and you have a demographic database and personal data,” she explains. “Then you can target political ads at them in a sophisticated way. I have no way of proving that that’s what they’re doing, but I know that it’s possible because I’ve done it.”

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As part of her research at the Open University, Ben David developed an algorithm that learned to glean different emotions from what’s expressed in Facebook responses. The researchers fed the algorithm 14,000 responses from the Facebook page of President Reuven Rivlin, and it learned to identify whether they were positive or negative.

Software developer Ran Bar Zik, who writes about information security in Haaretz, adds that such an effort is neither illegal nor underhanded. “Collecting information is an important thing and not a conspiracy,” he says.

Media researcher Dr. Yuval Dror of the College of Management disagrees with other experts about the purpose of the initiative. He believes “it’s an exercise in intimacy.” The message conveyed, he says, is “I’m accessible, I want to hear from you.” He argues that it would be a “very convoluted way” of collecting voter data via Facebook.

How can the conversations serve the campaign?

According to Ben David, Netanyahu’s people can accumulate a great deal of information about voters from these exchanges – their basic attitude toward Netanyahu, the issues that most interest them, or what disturbs them about the candidate. This information can then be crossed-referenced with demographic data like age and place of residence. A database of this kind could be very valuable to campaigners, because it can be used to send the users ads or fake news that speaks to their values.

Another possible use of such a database would be to try to keep voters who could harm Netanyahu’s interests away from the polls on Election Day. During the runoff election in Jerusalem, for example, a Facebook page was activated, allegedly by the campaign staff of Mayor Moshe Leon, that warned of traffic jams and congestion at the polling stations. The goal was to keep supporters of his rival, Ofer Berkovitch, from coming to the polls.

A digital marketing company executive who preferred not to be named, explained: “It is impossible to determine whether someone supports or opposes Netanyahu just because he ‘liked’ his page. Some who ‘likes’ Netanyahu can be a supporter or an opponent, there’s no direct segmentation of that.” According to him, a campaign manager can indeed make use of the information gathered from the personal messages. For example, segmenting by the answers can be a good way to make efficient use of resources. If a user makes it clear that he is certain he will vote for Netanyahu, or that there’s no chance he will vote for him, there is no need to bother targeting him with advertising.

Why are only some users getting the messages?

Examples collected by Haaretz showed several target groups: In one case, messages were aimed at users who have displayed interest in Haaretz and are older than 35; in another case they were aimed at users who were aged 18 and up and were interested in Netanyahu’s rival for prime minister, Hosen L’Yisrael party leader Benny Gantz, while in the third case the targets were those above 35 years old who were interested in Finance Minister and Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon.

If you get such a message, how can you determine why you were targeted?

On the message page, to the right of Netanyahu’s name, there is a symbol with three dots. Clicking on it leads to a menu, on which you select, “Why am I seeing this?” This will lead to an explanation of why this message was directed at you.

Why would a campaign use Messenger instead of the regular Facebook page?

Facebook has set limits on political advertising on its network. Revelations of the Russian intervention in the last U.S. presidential election have led both users and the media to become more skeptical about social media posts. Making contact through Messenger circumvents Facebook’s public arena and allows a one-to-one “conversation,” which is harder to monitor and whose objective may be harder to determine.