Election committee asks Facebook to tighten political ad rules now, not in March
Israel elections 2019

Election committee asks Facebook to tighten political ad rules now, not in March

Under pressure to stop campaign meddling, social media giant says it’ll require identification of those who fund political ads starting sometime next month

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Central Elections Committee chair, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer (L) meets with Facebook's director of the elections, Katie Harbeth, February 3, 2019. (Courtesy)
Central Elections Committee chair, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer (L) meets with Facebook's director of the elections, Katie Harbeth, February 3, 2019. (Courtesy)

A month after it was revealed that the Shin Bet security agency had intelligence proving that a foreign country intended to influence the April election via online meddling, the Central Elections Committee on Monday asked Facebook to bring forward its plans to launch tools and restrictions in Israel aimed at preventing foreign interference and make political advertisements more transparent.

In a bid to protect Israeli voters from manipulation of information and fake news, Facebook announced last month that it would introduce rules that require all Israeli ads dealing with national or political issues to carry clear information as to who paid for them, and that the identity and location of the person or people behind them are verified. But the company would not give an exact date for when the changes would come into force, saying only that they would happen in March, just weeks at most before the April 9 ballot.

Meeting with Facebook executives on Monday, the chair of Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, asked the social media giant “to re-examine the possibility of bring forward, as much as possible, its preparations on the subject,” in order to “preserve the integrity of elections and reduce unfair influence on voters.”

A spokesperson for Facebook declined to say whether it planned to accede to Melcer’s request and introduce the tools earlier than planned, saying only that it would provide an answer directly to the Central Elections Committee “in the near future.”

Facebook Tel Aviv’s Facebook cover photo. (Facebook)

In addition to presenting the plans to the committee, which is tasked with managing all aspects of Israeli elections, Facebook’s director of election-related matters, Katie Harbeth, and its Israel policy head Jordana Cutler, agreed that “direct communication between the committee and Facebook would be established, with the assistance of the cyber department of the State Attorney’s Office.”

Both Facebook and the committee declined to say what the nature of that communication would be and whether the committee would be able to request that certain posts or ads be removed from the social media platform.

The Times of Israel elections 2019 logo (Composite photos by Flash90)

Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, was caught off guard by the announcement of the upcoming Israeli elections and as of two weeks ago, no fact-checkers had been employed to specifically flag problematic content in the run-up to the poll — as they have been, in their thousands, for elections elsewhere in the world.

Ad transparency of this kind was introduced in the US and later in the UK, following the tech giant’s massive failure to stop Russia from meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.

The Facebook “like” symbol is illuminated on a sign outside the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, June 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

The ad transparency measures come after a nightmare year for Facebook, marked by a series of scandals over data protection and privacy and amid concerns that the leading social network has been manipulated by foreign interests for political purposes. Criticism of Facebook has included allegations that the social network is being used as a platform to spread divisive or misleading information, as was the case during the 2016 election that put US President Donald Trump in the White House.

Similar tools will be launched in Ukraine, which is due to go to the polls on March 31, in India, where elections will probably be held in April, and ahead of elections to the European Parliament, set for May 23 to 26. By the end of June, the rules will be applied globally, according to the company statement.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party rejected a plea from Melcer to apply basic transparency standards to online campaigning.

That rejection, charged an Israeli expert on internet legislation and election manipulation, appeared to signal that Likud was planning to make use of some of the dubious methods that gained prominence in the 2016 US elections.

Some 62% of Israelis fear that the elections could be tampered with, but most are confident that the country is equipped to handle a major cyberattack, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Nearly three-quarters of Israelis, 73%, reported that Israel is “well prepared to handle a major cyberattack,” the highest percentage of any of the 26 countries surveyed.

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