Expert hails vital move to protect public from manipulation

Election judge bars anonymous internet ads despite Likud objection

Justice Hanan Melcer warns of foreign attempts to influence April 9 vote that could undermine Israeli democracy

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)

The Central Elections Committee chairman, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, on Wednesday banned anonymous election ads on all platforms, including social media, from both within Israel and abroad, warning that they could be used to subvert the April 9 elections.

His ruling came after the Likud party blocked efforts to legislate the widening of current election propaganda laws to include online content, and said it would refuse to sign an accord between all parties committing to clearly claim authorship of their online campaign materials.

The ban goes into effect on March 1.

Melcer said he was forced to act, warning against “manipulative propaganda and attempts to implant false consciousness in the minds of voters and harm democracy.”

Melcer also said that unsigned election ads make it difficult to counter foreign interference like that seen in recent elections in other countries.

A billboard poster showing Benny Gantz, Head of the ‘Israel Resilience’ party, is seen on a building in Jerusalem. on January 21, 2019. ( Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He noted that the onus for enforcing the ban fell on the political parties putting out the ads and not on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which are “not a party to these elections.”

Facebook’s Head of Policy and Communications Jordana Cutler (left) and Israel Democracy Institute researcher Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler at the IDI’s Democracy in the Information Age program, January 18, 2018. (Oded Antman)

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology policy at the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, hailed Melcer’s move. “This is a dramatic decision that will put an end to the ‘Wild West’ practices that are all too commonplace in social media election campaigns,” she said. “It also mandates identifying fake accounts used for propaganda, bots, WhatsApp messages and surveys disseminated through Messenger and collects information about the respondents.

“The decision does not replace existing legislation that preserves transparency and protection of privacy during elections,” she noted, “but given the vacuum created, it clarifies the rules of the game and protects the public from online manipulation.

Facebook on Tuesday refused to give a precise date for the rollout of its political advertisement transparency tool, which will force the sponsors of ads to identify themselves publicly.

At a press conference in Tel Aviv, company chiefs would only say the tool would go live in “mid-March.”

At the beginning of this month — and just weeks 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 asked Facebook to bring forward from March its plans to launch tools and restrictions in Israel aimed at preventing foreign interference and making political ads more transparent.

In this Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019 photo, an election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel. Seeking re-election under a cloud of criminal investigations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently channeling his inner Donald Trump in an angry campaign against perceived domestic enemies. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Until now the Likud party has been the major stumbling block to an agreement on online content. In January Likud chief legal adviser Avi Halevy wrote to Melcer saying that the party would not sign a voluntary accord.

“In our opinion the Elections Law should be amended to adapt it to the changing reality, but the power to do so is exclusively in the hands of the Knesset,” Halevy wrote on behalf of the party and the prime minister. But, he added, “the need to consider in depth the proposals and their consequences means that we cannot complete the legislative work before the upcoming elections.”

Current protection from fake news and disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats. Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys, but not the internet.

A bill to extend the election propaganda law to online content and to give the Central Elections Committee the legal power to prevent online manipulation was  held up in Knesset committee by the Likud party, with sources with direct knowledge of the legislative process telling The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally ordered that it be shelved.

Example of one of Facebook’s transparent political ads, which says: ‘Sponsored: Paid for by Elizabeth Rose.’ Screenshot, Facebook offices, Tel Aviv, February 26, 2019

The bill — which required only one more plenary vote to become law — would have specifically clamped down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly. This amendment would apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.

In lieu of passing the law, Melcer said that parties should sign on to an ad hoc accord to treat anonymous paid online campaigning as a breach of a specific clause of the Election Law and agree to fines on such content. Every current party in the Knesset accepted the idea, accept for Likud.

Halevy wrote that the party would not accept “replacing the Knesset with any such agreement between different factions,” openly raising fears that such an accord could leave the party open to criminal charges.

“The use of the internet was very significant in the last election campaign and the parties were not required to legislate or sign a treaty with criminal implications,” he said. “There is no reason to conduct this election in any other way.”

Since the 2015 national ballot, however, concerns about online interference in polls have taken center stage on a global scale following allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections, which saw the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the use of Facebook to manipulate information.

The IDI’s Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a cosignatory to the petition, described the Likud decision at the time as “inexplicable” and said the only explanation was that “they want to use these tools to manipulate voters.”

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