Facebook Blocks Netanyahu Chatbot Asking for Details of Israelis Unwilling to Vaccinate

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adjusts his protective face mask after receiving a coronavirus disease vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, December 19, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adjusts his protective face mask after receiving a coronavirus disease vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, December 19, 2020.Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

For the third time in less than two years Facebook has blocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's chatbot for breaking the platform's rules.

Facebook made the announcement on Monday and said that alongside limiting the messenger bot it also removed a post by Netanyahu in which he asked for the phone numbers of Israelis over 60-years-old so he could call and convince them to get COVID-19 vaccinations. The video, Facebook said, broke its privacy rules.

Netanyahu on Thursday posted a video on Twitter encouraging senior citizens to get vaccinated and ended with the line: "If you know someone who is nervous about getting vaccinated, send me their name and phone number," Netanyahu said in the video, urging his followers to send him the personal details of people who fit the description without their consent or knowledge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook page. The chatbot button has been removed due to the suspension Credit: Screen capture

"Maybe they'll get a surprise phone call from me and I'll convince them," he promised. 

The Facebook bot posted a similar line to the prime minister's page, which was later removed by Facebook over privacy concerns. The video was still up on Twitter and Netanyahu's official Telegram channel.

The video prompted lawyer Shahar Ben Meir to file a request with the Likud and with Facebook to have the post taken down. The chatbot has not been taken down completely, and is only restricted in its ability to send messages. An examination reveals it can still receive messages, in other words: Those who saw Netanyahu's post can still send in personal details. While in the past, attempts by Netanyahu's Facebook page’s operators to collect information was done publicly, now the data will be collected unbeknownst to the public. 

Facebook has already suspended Netanyahu’s chatbot twice in the past year and a half. Both were done at the request of the head of Israel’s election committee, a former supreme court justice. The first suspension resulted from the bot pushing out content that incited against Israel’s Arab population, in which Netanyahu wrote that the “Arabs want to destroy all of us - men, women and children.” The second suspension was a result of the bot breaking Israeli election law by publishing polls in the 24-hours prior to the election, when doing so is considered an illegal attempt to influence voters. 

"Under our privacy policy we do not allow content that shares or asks for people's medical information," said a Facebook spokeswoman. "We have removed the offending post and temporarily suspended the messenger bot, which shared this content, for breaking these rules."

Netanyahu's chatbot sends its followers an election poll. The post caused the bot to be suspended for breaking Israeli election law which bars polls from being published on or the day before electionsCredit: Screen capture

Netanyahu's Likud party said that the aim of the post had been simply "to encourage Israelis over the age of 60 to get vaccinated in order to save their lives".

Israel has become a world leader in vaccinating its population against COVID-19, which could give Netanyahu a boost ahead of the March 23 election.

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