Israeli Police Won’t Be Investigating Most ‘Fake News’ Spread During Election Campaigns

Police will investigate cases of impersonation, incitement and document fraud, but noted that it's difficult to meet the legal burden of proving that fake news is in fact false

Election advertising in Tel Aviv in September 2019.
Moti Milrod

The Israel Police have decided not to investigate the spreading of fake news in election campaigns via smartphones messages unless the cases involve impersonating others, incitement or document fraud, Haaretz has learned. The decision was taken in part due to the difficulty in meeting the legal burden of proof that the information was unreliable.

The decision was made, Haaretz discovered, during Israel's last election round last April after hundreds of complaints were filed with police regarding the election process for the 21st Knesset as well as the municipal elections in 2018.

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Among the instances that were cited in developing the policy was a video released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the day of the Knesset election in 2015, in which he claimed that “Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves” and that “the left is bringing them in buses.” Under the new police policy, the matter would not be investigated.

The same applies to false, anonymous text messages on the WhatsApp messaging service and social media about candidates or parties. But pretending to be a candidate or any other person or publicizing a false document, such as minutes of a meeting or an agreement, would lead to investigation.

A law enforcement official said that in developing the policy, there was a range of opinions regarding whether publishing fake news was tantamount to fraud, but the official noted that it is difficult to prove such information false. It was decided not to involve the police in such public and political issues unless there is clear evidence that a crime had been committed, he said.

The police do not have a firm estimate regarding the number of investigations that they have opened regarding false text messages that were used to impersonate other individuals during recent election campaigns. At this stage, the problem of fake news remains the responsibility of the Central Elections Committee, which has made efforts to increase public awareness of the issue.

Haaretz became aware of the new policy in connection with allegations regarding text messages that were allegedly sent by the office of Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul in the 2018 municipal election and that it transpired were fake. Malul has not been questioned by the police, but the case is currently being examined by the prosecutor’s office.

Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul
Ilan Assayag

Haaretz has learned that the decision in principle against investigating fake news more generally was made last year, around the time of the April Knesset election. Some of the complaints came from candidates who claimed to be victims of fake news. There were also complaints about fake text messages that purportedly announced a candidate’s withdrawal from a race or support for other parties.

Following the complaints, representatives of the police and prosecution considered the issue. It was at that point that the police developed the policy that such complaints would only be pursued in cases involving impersonation of others, incitement to violence, racism (subject to the prosecutor’s approval) or counterfeiting of documents.