Jordana Cutler, Facebook Israel’s head of policy and Jewish Diaspora, complained in an article on Sunday that Haaretz was spreading fake news. More precisely, she argued that there was no factual basis to last week’s editorial, which argued that the integrity of the looming Israeli election was at risk and protecting it was of no real interest to Facebook.
Facebook’s consistent disregard for protecting orderly democratic processes has been repeatedly demonstrated over the years, again and again. Facebook for its part has responded with a host of lies and distortions. Even Cutler’s disclaimer shows the same old lack of sincerity by Facebook. She describes herself as “Facebook Israel’s head of policy,” which enables her to repeatedly evade tough questions about the social media company’s wider policies, which she claims can be better addressed by Facebook Ireland. However, in 2017 she told the Knesset that she herself was Facebook’s representative in Ireland.
Cutler: Throughout the past three national election campaigns, Facebook has worked tirelessly to protect election integrity in Israel, uphold local laws through strong cooperation with the Central Elections Committee and the Ministry of Justice.
The reality: Politicians violated the Knesset Elections Law several times using Facebook, with Facebook usually preferring not to get involved. In Netanyahu’s case, the head of the Central Elections Committee had to actually instruct Facebook to suspend his page’s chatbot on election day, after it was discovered it was breaking Israeli campaign laws by posting of public opinion polls after the time it is legally permitted to do so.
The radical decision to block the chatbot was made despite a previous understanding between the committee and Facebook. According to the committee's head, a retired supreme court justice, the company "agreed" to remove content that violated Israeli election laws, thus negating the need for the legal intervention on their part. And yet, even when the Likud chatbot spread inciting and racist messages against Israel’s Arab population, the company wasn't so quick to take action. In fact, it acted only after the elections committee received a petition on the matter, moving to preempt a decision on the matter only then.
Cutler: Contrary to what the editorial claimed, revenue from political advertising in Israel is not a “money maker.”
- Excuse us, but the fake news is yours, not Facebook's
- A free and fair election in the digital age: Can Israel do it?
- The damage has been proven, so why are we still on Facebook?
The reality: If Cutler is representing Facebook global headquarters, then yes, that’s true. With all due respect to the last two election-replete years, Israel and its political system is just one item out of many in the billions of dollars the corporation turns over.
One should note, however, that Zuckerberg made similar claims himself while trying to push back against similar accusations made against Facebook in the U.S.
Nonetheless, there may be something to Facebook’s argument: Indeed, money isn’t everything. More precisely, it is everything, but making money also requires power, specifically direct links to the corridors of power in each of the countries the platform operates in. One tried and tested way is to recruit people known to be close to key power brokers, such as someone who used to be the deputy to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior adviser on Diaspora affairs, a person known to be close to him. Her name, in case you were wondering, is Jordana Cutler.
Incidentally, Cutler is not the first (and definitely not the last) person to be recruited after a career in some administration or other. Nick Clegg, the Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook, arrived from an even more senior position, that of deputy to former British Prime Minister David Cameron. Even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, considered to be Mark Zuckerberg’s right hand woman, came to Facebook after several years at Google, before which she served as the head of U.S Treasury Larry Summer’s bureau.
Cutler: We even publicly encouraged regulation to help update Israel’s antiquated election laws, to incorporate the challenges brought by digital media and advertising.
The reality: Cutler is repeating an old trick used by Facebook several times in recent years – ostensibly calling on governments to do something already and legislate some kind of new regulation, since tasks like these are far too complex and delicate a task to be left in the hands of digital platforms. Facebook is right on this matter, but throughout its history, Facebook seemed quite skilled at learning and sidestepping existing regulations - as well as influencing policy makers behind the scenes.
Referencing a draft bill put forward recently that would have advertisers be liable for political ads, Cutler later hints at the kind of regulation Facebook likes: Full responsibility placed on advertisers, and zero responsibility on Facebook.
Cutler: Ads can be a very important part of giving power to voice – especially for candidates and groups that the mainstream media might not otherwise cover.
The reality: Researchers as well as professionals from the digital media industry responded with derision when asked to relate to this claim by the Facebook representative.
They all say that far from giving a voice to the disenfranchised, the weak only grow weaker on Facebook, specifically when it comes to advertising spending, especially at times of elections. Elections bring with them increased investments on ads by political parties, which entails increased competition over exposure, which in turn leads to a spike in costs. Parties awash in funds, like Likud, can inundate Facebook's feed with advertising and paid-for posts, while the “candidates that aren’t covered by the media” that Cutler holds so dear can only hope for minimal exposure.
But advertising is only a small part of the issue. The ads are but one cog in an enormous web of content people are exposed to on and off Facebook. The exposure to paid ads isn’t even the most important side of that machine. The true value lies in parties’ ability to constantly augment the data they have on voters in ways that improve targeting. This segmentation allows them to hone the specific messages that each different segment gets.
On Facebook, the bigger the page, the bigger their engagement. This positive feedback loop stands at the heart of its targeting and segmentation, and it actually helps strong parties: Through Facebook groups and pages that are not defined as election advertising, through private messages on Facebook Messenger, on mobile phones, TV, or even videos and “organic” posts (posts that are distributed with no financial investment in promoting anything). In the case of the prime minister, all this gives him much greater exposure than the smaller or “weaker” candidates get. The more exposure these “organic” posts get, the more disseminated they get online, garnering media coverage independently. Thus, the message of stronger parties reverberates, drowning out the messages of weaker candidates, the ones Cutler claims are helped by Facebook.
Cutler: It is hard to define where to draw the line as to what would even be considered a political ad. The editorial says “political information” – what does that mean? Is it only advertising from candidates and parties? What about ads on important social issues such as civil marriage or drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military?
The reality: That’s 100% true, but Facebook likes to only discuss funded political “advertising” in this context. However, Facebook and our feed has a mix of all kinds of content, from political pages to groups of different kinds, legacy media publishers’ posts alongside those of smaller outlets and even influencers. Facebook’s true power lies not in the ads but in its blurring of boundaries between news and entertainment, politics and mundane cate memes, fact lovers and flat earthers. The platform actually thrives on the dissemination of viral information - regardless of its veracity - and paid political ads are not necessarily the main way it spreads, say in comparison to the groups and communities which have arisen in Facebook over the years. The issues of so-called fake news pages or groups pushing out disinformation is rarely one Facebook will address in this context.
When it comes to elections, Facebook has zigzagged, as is its wont, revealing issues only where the light has already been forced to shine: paid political ads. If anyone shines a light onto some darker corner, Facebook does all it can to extinguish that light that democracy needs to flourish.
Cutler: We believe in providing transparency to the public regarding how campaigns are using these political ads in campaigns.
The reality: “Facebook believes in transparency” is perhaps one of the most unfounded sentences ever to appear on Israeli media. Apple’s attempt, for example, to inform iPhone users of what data apps were collecting on them was met by an actual fake news campaign by Facebook, which saw it buy full page ads insinuating that informing people of what was happening with their personal information was an assault on the internet itself.
Even the “transparency” offered by Facebook to advertisers is limited, just another example of its concealing more than it reveals. The information it shares with journalists and the public is close to nothing, a true beacon of transparency.
On the one hand, before the election in 2019, Facebook launched a tool that obligated Israeli advertisers to receive approval for purchasing political ads. It opened a “library” of political ads that ostensibly enabled one to determine who stands behind various political ads. On the other hand, Facebook blocked external tools developed by watchdogs and were used by external researchers trying to follow the money and understand the current political media landscape.
In fact, the transparency tool Facebook calls its “library of political ads” is not proving to be a stellar success.
In a study by Prof. Anat Ben-David and her colleagues at the Open University, they collected screen photos of political ads that were funded by different agencies over the last three election campaigns. These were used to create an alternative archive to Facebook’s official one and an “initial analysis of ads served ahead of the September election shows that over 35% of the collected ads were not marked by the platform as political,” wrote Prof. Ben-David.
“These unmarked ads were targeted primarily by politicians, anonymous pages and NGOs. Ads ran by pages whose administrators are anonymous are of special importance for studying manipulation or disinformation within campaigns” she added. “However, since they are not marked as political, they will not appear in Facebook’s official Ad Library, therefore, doubting the very utility of making truth claims on the completeness of Facebook’s official collection,” the paper by Prof. Ben-David, which was published in the May edition of the European Journal of Communication, concluded.
Refaella Goichman contributed to this analysis.