In his attempt to bat away the investigative report into his digital-libel army this week, the prime minister tried to summon up the spirit of the late Menachem Begin. “They called us chach-chachim, rabble, baboons, kissers of amulets and mezuzot, and now they’re calling us bots,” he said at a press conference. In Israel Hayom, three opinion pieces were entitled “I’m a bot” – full disclosure that would have been better provided earlier.
But Netanyahu is not Begin, and the investigation into his network of fakes is not a racist slip of the tongue, but a deep and dark description of a party’s defamation mechanism that has been working for years to create an alternative reality for his voters. Although Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, it’s hard to believe anyone is surprised by this.
Similarly, the day after Netanyahu’s bot press conference, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer ordered an investigation into the organization Zazim Yemina (“Moving Rightward”). It emerged that the organization is not unaffiliated with any specific party, as it claimed, but is a “political and legal affiliate” of Likud that has transferred 15 million shekels ($4.1 million) to the party. A blatant lie – which they tell because they can.
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We’ve seen the depths the official Likud campaign has reached – the slander, the insults, the lies – but we didn’t see what their shadowy, unofficial campaign looked like. In that respect, the embrace Netanyahu gave his gutter commenter “Captain George” accurately depicts the reality we’ve become accustomed to. As a bonus we also got to see MK Amir Ohana trying to swallow the last of his self-respect with a smile next to the man who once analyzed someone who’d responded to him online and came to the conclusion that he was “1. A homo. 2. A faggot.”
In 2017 a group of researchers from Harvard managed to analyze an enormous mass of data produced by the 50 Cent Army, a group of internet commenters funded by China to manipulate public discourse. Most of these commenters were low-level, public-sector clerks who didn’t get involved in timely arguments but only wrote about unrelated topics at the right moment, to divert people’s attention. “Attention” is the key word here, because no one would try to divert it if it didn’t have power. That’s what these kind of propaganda apparatuses are trying to destroy.
En route to the premiership, Netanyahu succeeded in poisoning any possibility of conducting a meaningful debate about our life here. There is no way to know if a certain commenter wrote something of his own accord, or got a list of talking points from the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Slander was always Netanyahu’s favorite campaign strategy, and that’s how the alternative reality he’s weaving for his voters also looks. In this engineered hallucination, a former chief of general staff is mentally ill and three indictments are a leftist persecution campaign.
Netanyahu has created an alternative reality in which much of the public is convinced that others living in this country are dangerous traitors. The prime minister is recorded trying to turn a newspaper into a house organ, to slant the coverage of two large media outlets in order to steal an election, and his voters are still talking about the tentacles of the New Israel Fund.
Next week Netanyahu must go. The reality here is too complex and worrisome for us to have the privilege of battling fantasies.