“The forgery has begun,” tweeted Yair Netanyahu, the son of Israel’s prime minister. He swiftly deleted the tweet within a minute of putting it up, and reposted it within a minute with an alternative, less provocative wording: “The tricks have begun.”
He’s not alone. In the 72 hours since polls closed in Israel’s fourth election in two years, right-wing groups affiliated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling party have been abuzz with claims of voter fraud. On social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, WhatsApp and Twitter, accounts – some real, some fake – have been awash with posts claiming irregularities and spreading disinformation about the vote.
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“The time between the exit polls and the final results are the most dangerous in terms of disinformation about the election,” explains Achiya Schatz from the disinformation watchdog group Fake Reporter. Along with his group, Haaretz revealed this week that members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, his son Yair and prominent supporters have over the past three election cycles systematically cast doubt on the integrity of Israel’s electoral process.
A review of its materials in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote shows how themes pushed out by supporters of Donald Trump in the United States were transplanted to Israel and recast to fit local politics, with an eye on problematizing elections results deemed unfavorable to Netanyahu. Now that the final results are almost in, the different facets of the disinformation campaign are kicking into action, Schatz says.
For example, one major theme in the days leading to the vote was misleading claims about the timing of the final results, specifically regarding Israel’s so-called double-sealed envelopes. These act as Israel’s analogue to absentee ballots, allowing soldiers, diplomats and others who can’t get to their polling station to cast their vote, and are counted independently.
“These elections will be decided by the double-sealed envelopes, that’s where they’ll try to steal the vote,” one Likud activist said in a video posted to a closed party Facebook group. “We need all the Likud lawmakers to go to the [Central Elections Committee] and demand they be allowed to count those vote themselves.”
“There are 600,000 double-sealed envelopes,” a far-right wing journalist considered close to Netanyahu was quoted as saying in another post. The number is false – according to the Central Elections Committee, there are only 450,000 such ballots. The journalist also claimed that “they are being counted by leftists judges – we need cameras in the counting stations.”
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"They don't even really know how many of these envelopes they have,” a Likud activist claimed in one the party’s closed groups. The claim highlights how misleading information pushed by the party sows confusion, which can be easily exploited to suggest that the election results are being forged.
Another far-right journalist also claimed that should the results from the double-sealed envelopes come in after 3 P.M. on Thursday, “it will raise suspicions they are playing around with the final tally.”
Shatz explains that claims like these are not actually meant to be factual, but instead are intended to problematize the counting process and create the appearance of widespread issues when none exist.
This method was on display on Wednesday evening, when the director general of the election committee announced that the official in charge of updating the results was breaking for the night after working for nearly 24 straight hours. On closed Telegram groups, the statement served as fodder for Yair Netanyahu and others. “I guess they need a break to plan how to move a Knesset seat or two to the left,” one person said.
Another viral post, originating from a right-wing website considered close to Netanyahu, claimed that the committee had lost an entire ballot box from a Jerusalem voting station.
Claims that the committee was invested in “stealing” Netanyahu’s majority were also prevalent during the last three elections. Specifically, right-wing figures and groups alleged that “left-wing” judges heading the committee were “helping the Arab parties” get over the threshold to prevent a right-wing majority of 61 Knesset seats.
Over the past two days, and especially in wake of the news that the Islamist United Arab List party had made it over the electoral threshold despite exit polls claiming otherwise, the claim was being pushed again: “We’ve seen this already in the United States and know how it's going to end,” one person wrote in response to the news. Another wrote: “They’ve started faking and stealing the election.”
Before the election, disinformation experts told Haaretz that while there was a massive centralized effort by social media platforms to crack down on misleading information related to November’s U.S. election, in Israel no such effort is being made. Moreover, the shift to closed Telegram groups and the use of video and audio instead of text make such claims almost impossible for monitors and social media platforms to find.