We've recently come very close to elections. In backrooms, behind locked doors, far-reaching deals were debated. Beneath the glare of fluorescent lights, political strategists and high-tech professionals discussed ways to use big data to manipulate newsfeeds; ways to utilize bots and fake accounts. Business executives urged politicians to influence the primary source of information for many Israelis: Facebook and its many branches.
There would be a cost, it would be expensive, but it would be worth it. Just look what happened with Brexit. Look how well it worked out for Trump. Israel is a small country. It could be done so quickly that nobody would notice. It's worth it, and it would be pulled off without leaving a trace. How could anyone step away from the chance to convince the majority of Israelis that their way is the right way?
In focus groups held in Darkenu over the past two years, we have noticed an alarming rise in the number of Israelis who report indifference to news outlets, preferring instead to rely on social media. Over 5 million Israelis use Facebook regularly, and a recent DIGIT poll surveying news in the digital age showed that 25 percent of Israelis under the age of 35 reported consuming news only through social media. For them, if it doesn't come up in their newsfeeds, it's not important.
What this means is that for many of these young people, unless a story is liked or shared by someone they know, they're not reading it. Millions of Israelis are exposed to partial, pre-processed information, coming from an allegedly trustworthy source: their friends. But what counts as a friend these days? Someone whose request you approved, whose updates you've grown used to as you scroll through your feed. It's a disturbing truth, but many Israelis today are easy targets for digital manipulation.
This reality means that political strategists face a great many temptations. With a decent budget at their disposal, they can, almost invisibly, utilize a variety of sophisticated tools to hijack and distort voters' newsfeeds. Propaganda is specifically tailored to fit to the target audience's lifestyle and psychological profile.
Taking advantage of legitimate tools, they can fill newsfeeds with doctored, false information presented as facts. They can spread lies through hundreds of fake accounts, lies which travel even more widely because real users have accepted friend requests from the fake ones. Slowly voters come to believe that the lies are truth. Fake news as a methodology, orchestrated for a purpose, served up to a willing and captivated audience.
Lately, report emerged of suspicions of misuse of data in the recent Italian elections, evidence of similar tactics that have been used by Russia. On Twitter, 25,000 users generated over half a million posts framing immigration policy in ways associated with the Italian extreme right. Most of the information those users shared originated on Russian news websites.
This all relates back to the recent reports in the Guardian on the ways Cambridge Analytica misused improperly-obtained information belonging to 50 million Americans—information used to tilt the election towards Trump. The company also intervened in the Brexit referendum. This is not a random effort, but a calculated disruption of the flow of information users consume.
As it stands, current election laws cannot prevent such phenomena from happening right here in Israel. Following the reports, Facebook has blocked the company’s activity across its platforms, but can we really believe this was an isolated incident?
Politicians and political consultants cannot just sit by and wait for Facebook or any other social media network to say they've solved the problem. They should stand up, now, and raise their voices as one, making clear that this interference will not be tolerated. If we aspire to a meaningful and healthy democracy, we need informed voters. Those who believe in Israel's democracy cannot remain quiet. We need you—all of you—to pledge loudly, in your own voice, that you will not partake in the spread of fake news and engage with fake users. Promise us, the citizens of the nation you serve, that you won't seek to manipulate people's feeds with bots and slander presented under the guise of legitimate news outlets. Not every means of achieving victory is kosher. The internet gives us immense power; let’s not allow it to corrupt our country.
The author is VP of Strategy at Darkenu.