A Free and Fair Election in the Digital Age: Can Israel Do It?

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A man walks past a mural in an office on the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California, 2014.

Social media is the primary arena in which election campaigns are waged today, all the more so during the coronavirus crisis. In the United States, Twitter and Facebook were relatively well prepared for the November election: Facebook blocked political ads in the month before the election; Twitter said it would flag posts from candidates or campaigns making premature claims of victory, and did so.

But what about the campaign for Israel’s fourth election in two years? During the first three, anarchy reigned in the digital political arena: There were posts and tweets loaded with disinformation; targeted advertising using data from unknown sources; digital teams that dug up dirt, some of it baseless, on rival candidates – all of it funded in part by taxpayer money allocated to the parties by the government.

Unlike in the United States, in Israel we can’t rely on Facebook and Twitter to protect users from false or anonymous political information. Moreover, elections in Israel are a moneymaker for social media; politicians spend tens of millions on every campaign and given Israel’s small size, the number of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube users is relatively minute. Israel simply doesn’t catch the attention of the internet giants, which in the last elections in the United States began to call out politicians’ lies because they were close to home, geographically and psychologically.

The only solution to the problem is in Israel, not at the headquarters of technology companies. The election campaign law must be updated to suit the digital age. The use of personal data for targeted political advertising is a problem area that needs oversight.

Government regulation of content is a very sensitive and complex issue. Not only because of the opposition of the social media giants, which employ lobbyists who are close to politicians, and especially to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There are also issues of freedom of expression and of the media in Israel and beyond. Who decides what is “fake news”? Who has the authority to restrict and censor content? Is it right for the government to do it? At a times when leaders constantly accuse the media of spreading “fake news,” this is a thin line that can easily become a double-edged sword. But election-campaign oversight needn’t engage with these sensitive areas and questions. It can focus solely on the aspects that involve politics and the parties during the election season.

There’s no need for censorship in order to obtain full transparency for party advertising on social media. All that’s needed is to require proper disclosure in every political ad of its funding source. Kahol Lavan is promoting a bill to this effect. This transparency, which will give clear context to the content, is an essential part of the protection of democracy. That is presumably the reason Likud has opposed it.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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