Facebook again briefly bans Netanyahu chatbot for illegally publishing polls
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At least 82 accounts banned for urging Arab boycott of vote

Facebook again briefly bans Netanyahu chatbot for illegally publishing polls

Chatbot was suspended last week for 24 hours for incitement again Arabs; PM also violates regulations by giving interviews to radio stations on election day

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine/AFP)

Facebook on Tuesday briefly suspended a chatbot operated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official page for the second time in five days, because it illegally shared polling information.

The step was taken by the social media giant after the bot repeatedly violated the social media giant’s rules as well as an Israeli law that forbids publicizing polls in the days before elections.

Facebook originally said it had banned the chatbot for the remainder of election day, but some two hours later Central Election Committee chief Hanan Melcer,, who had made the initial request to ban it, made the decision to reinstate it.

The chatbot was reinstated after Likud MK David Bitan promised it would stop being used to publish poll results or alleged poll results. The move is also conditioned on Netanyahu stopping illegally giving radio or television interviews.

“We’re working with elections officials around the world to help ensure the integrity of the elections,” a Facebook spokesperson said in its initial statement about the suspension. “Our policy explicitly states that developers are required to obey all laws applicable in the country where their application is accessible. Therefore we’ve suspended the [Netanyahu] bot’s activity, in light of the violation of local law, until the closing of the polls” at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

Netanyahu responded to the suspension during a Facebook Live broadcast, saying: “Facebook is unable to stand up to leftist pressure.” He later took down that video.

Facebook suspended the bot last week for 24 hours over hate speech after it warned visitors of a possible “secular left-wing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men.”

In this July 30, 2019, file photo, social media application Facebook is displayed on Apple’s App Store (Illustration: AP/Amr Alfiky)

“After careful review of the Likud campaign’s bot activities, we found a violation of our hate speech policy. We also found that the bot was misusing the platform in the time period allowed to contact people. As a result, we temporarily suspended the bot for 24 hours. Should there be any additional violations, we will continue to take appropriate action,” a spokesperson for the social network said at the time.

Netanyahu insisted he does not share that view of Arabs, and said the bot’s message wasn’t written by him.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu did not see these things, did not approve them, does not agree with them, and opposes them,” a Likud statement said. “When the content was brought to his attention, he asked that it be taken down immediately.”

Facebook on Tuesday also reportedly removed at least 82 accounts suspected as fake that promoted a boycott of the elections among Arab Israelis, seen as a further attempt to suppress the Arab vote.

The profiles had been sharing posts in popular Arabic-language forums encouraging a boycott of the elections, according to the Haaretz daily, which said Facebook’s action followed a complaint by the group The Democratic Bloc, which flagged more than 130 accounts it believed were unauthentic.

Separately, Netanyahu on Tuesday also appeared to violate the law by giving interviews to two radio stations on election day.

According to the law, “From 7 p.m. on the day before the elections, and throughout election day, there will be no election propaganda via gatherings, marches, loudspeakers or radio or television broadcasts.”

Nevertheless, Netanyahu on Tuesday morning gave an interview to the right-wing Galey Israel Radio. In the afternoon, Melcer said the premier had done so illegally, but that did not stop him from giving another interview, this time to the ultra-Orthodox station Radio Kol Chai.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to commuters in front of the public bathrooms at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, September 17, 2019. (Screen capture: Facebook Live)

Netanyahu’s warnings that his defeat in the polls would result in the formation of a left-wing coalition with Arab support have been a centerpiece of his campaign, along with a bid to allow party operatives to bring cameras into polling stations, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

During the April 9 elections, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims was widespread fraud that has occurred in the community.

Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

On election day in 2015, Netanyahu famously warned that Arabs were voting “in droves” in a bid to get out right-wing voters, comments for which he was pilloried and later apologized.

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