Facebook to bar anonymous Israel political ads, but only shortly before election

Under pressure to stop election meddling, social media giant says it will require identification of those who fund political ads from sometime in March; Israelis vote on April 9

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

Facebook announced on Monday that it will launch tools and restrictions in Israel that are aimed to prevent foreign interference and make political advertisements more transparent, ahead of the April 9 elections.

The new tools will only come into force in March, however, in the final weeks of the campaign. Announcing the move, the company’s Israel headquarters did not say when exactly in March. A global Facebook statement said that such tools would be introduced in the EU “in late March” and in Israel “before” the elections.

In a bid to protect Israeli voters from manipulation of information and fake news, the company will require that all ads dealing with national or political issues carry clear information as to who paid for them, and that the identity and location of the person or people behind them are verified.

“In March, we are planning to launch new ads transparency tools to help prevent foreign interference in the upcoming Israeli Election and make electoral advertising on Facebook more transparent,” the statement from the company’s Israel headquarters said.

“Protecting the integrity of elections while making sure people can have a voice in the political process is a top priority for Facebook,” it added.

“Over the last two years, we have increased our capabilities to take down fake accounts, increase ads transparency, disrupt bad actors and support an informed and engaged electorate,” the company said.

The ads will be stored for up to seven years in a publicly accessible library.

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.

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 the Central Elections Committee chairman, Supreme Court Judge Hanan 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.

Last week, The Times of Israel learned that Facebook was caught off guard by the announcement of Israeli elections on April 9. As of last week, 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.

The US tech giant’s vice president, former British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, said in a speech that the methods would become available in March and help “make political advertising on Facebook more transparent.”

President Reuven Rivlin and his wife Nechama cast their vote at a polling station in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2015. Israeli general elections for the 21st parliament are set for April 9, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

Facebook ads have also been at the center of the FBI investigation over Russia’s alleged meddling in the US election of Trump, and suspicions are rife that the Kremlin has intervened in votes across Europe.

Earlier this month, the head of the Shin Bet security services warned that a foreign state “intends to intervene” through cyberattacks in Israel’s elections.

The censor barred from publication much of what Nadav Argaman said, including the country he said aimed to influence the elections. Russia, unbidden, rushed to deny that it had any such plans.

Argaman said he was “100 percent [certain] that [redacted name of foreign state] will intervene in the upcoming elections, and I know what I’m talking about, I just don’t know in whose favor.”

Following this statement, Israel’s Central Elections Committee said that it was devising a detailed plan of action to thwart attempts by foreign countries to meddle in the 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.

Sue Surkes, Raoul Wootliff and AFP contributed to this story

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