Editorial

Who’s Afraid of Transparency?

Despite opposition from Netanyahu and the Likud, further restrictions on election propaganda is needed to safeguard democratic values

FILE Photo: Netanyahu prepares to be interviewed by Channel 2 News, 2009.
Emil Salman

Recent history has shown how much the internet in general, and social media in particular, have become sophisticated propaganda tools in anonymous hands, sometimes belonging to foreign interests seeking to undermine the legal foundations of Western democracies. Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and Brexit referendum in Britain, efforts are being made around the world to fight “fake news” on the internet, targeted marketing of messages on social media, paid-for user comments, smear videos and armies of bots and fake user profiles whose sole purpose is to hijack the conversation and sway elections.

Worries about these practices have been raised in Israel as well. Only last week, Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman warned that a foreign state plans to interfere in the April 9 general election using cyber technology. But not only do foreign actors threaten to meddle in the elections by means of anonymous disinformation. Israel has already seen campaigns that exploited online social networks to create fake user accounts, disseminate fake news and manipulate public opinion. By way of example, during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the internet was used to spread hatred and deepen divisions.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 12

>>Read more: Majority of Israelis fear election will be manipulated through cyber attacks 

As a result, lawyers Shachar Ben Meir and Isaac Aviram asked the Central Elections Committee in December to extend existing restrictions on election propaganda to material disseminated on the internet. The current law, from 1959, stipulates that every campaign advertisement include the name and address of its sponsor. Ben Meir and Aviram sought a court order that would apply this law to online ads as well. Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Labor Party supported the move and Yisrael Beiteinu expressed support in principle. Only Likud opposed it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently even suspended progress on amending the law in accordance with the recommendations of a committee, headed by former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, that examined the 60-year-old law’s ability to answer the needs of contemporary technology.

“Internet use was very significant in the most recent election campaigns, and the parties saw no reason to pass laws or to sign an accord with criminal implications,” wrote Likud legal adviser Avi Halevy. “There is no reason to act differently during the current campaign, in a manner that would contravene the foundations of our legal system.” In fact, there is a very good reason to act differently, and to address practices that undermine our democracy under the camouflage of democracy. There is a reason to protect mechanisms that operate covertly to smear and to plant disinformation among millions of people. What is right for election advertising in the traditional media is right for online media. The opposition of Netanyahu and Likud leads us to question what the campaign will bring.

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