Last week we witnessed a barrage of fake news the likes of which has not been seen here for years. An “investigative report” by an organization of informers purported to have found that a group associated with the United Arab List had given government money to Hamas, and a senior figure in the group had met secretly with a leading Hamas official. Channel 13 anchor Ayala Hasson reported the story and, purely by chance, it also reached a campaign orchestrated by supporters of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling themselves “Israel Is Committing Suicide.”
Two days later it emerged that the UAL-linked group is a charity that assists children and orphans in the Gaza Strip, and is not funded by public money. The senior Hamas official is the director of the organization’s border-crossings into Gaza who meets frequently with Israeli officials, and the visit of the charity’s senior figure had been coordinated with the Shin Bet security service. No Israeli suicide; the visit involved humanitarian aid, which Israel welcomes to avoid worsening the humanitarian crisis in the Strip. Or, as expected, this is another case in which Netanyahu blames others for what he himself did: transferring money to Hamas.
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But the damage was already done: The first rule of propaganda is to take control of the story, to come out with a false report that contains enough half-truths to appear fairly reasonable, and allow it to reverberate. Such a tale will always be more interesting, better clickbait, than the truth. The truth comes out after a few days, but nobody will notice it: It’s boring, and in any case the media have already moved on.
Fake news has become one of the most dangerous threats to democracy. Lies are spread with greater ease than ever. Almost everyone is connected to social media – super-corporations with a great deal of money and no restraint. We are approaching the point at which we will have to choose between the existence of Facebook and the possibility of the existence of a democratic regime.
The concept of democracy is fairly simple. We are all rational creatures, and we use our understanding to achieve the best results for ourselves; we carefully weigh the actions of the government, our elected management, and if it acts against our interest or our conscience – we elect another one to replace it. But there is a big hole in this theory: Freud showed more than 100 years ago that we have an irrational side, motivated by fears – that’s the side that fake news takes advantage of.
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One version of such reportage after the state budget was passed is particularly dangerous: the made-up story that Netanyahu would resign from the Knesset after the budget passed, together with the rumors that the president would pardon him if he retired from political life. The goal of these tall tales is clear: to allow Netanyahu to escape justice. And if that happens, we can bid farewell to the rule of law in Israel. These are crude manipulations of the public, which is defenseless against them.
The human rights think tank Zulat Institute last week released a report that examined the connection between fake news and human rights infractions, proposing a legislative reform that would emphasize purveyors of such news. A survey by the institute found that a large majority of Israelis, about 68 percent, wants government legislation against fake news. This is no simple task: How do you limit freedom of expression in the name of protecting democracy? Nevertheless, action must be taken against disseminators of fake news. Because if we don’t have a democratic regime, neither will there be freedom of expression here. Israel must enact legislation, cautious but resolute, that will stop the crumbling of the foundations of democracy – or what’s left here will be only propaganda.