Fake news a ‘nuisance’ for Israel, not a dire threat, says country’s cyber chief

While Americans sound the alarm over covert social media manipulation, Israeli expert says no sign of Russian efforts to impact politics here

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Fake News logo (Illustrative: iStock)
Fake News logo (Illustrative: iStock)

Fake news in Israel is a “constant nuisance” rather than a major threat, the Head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office said recently, downplaying its effects here as compared to the US, where it wreaked havoc on the 2016 presidential election.

Speaking on a panel at this week’s Cyber Week cybersecurity conference, Eviatar Matania said the effects of fake news can be mitigated with education and awareness.

In February, US special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians on charges that they plotted to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election through social media manipulation aimed at helping Republican candidate Donald Trump.

“We should build a resilient population, which means we should educate people to try not to believe everything that they see. We need vibrant and independent media with different ideas and we need everyone to take responsibility — not just government but also corporations,” Matania said.

Dr. Eviatar Matania, director general of the National Cyber Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office (Courtesy Cyber Week)

“If we do all this, we will be able to overcome the problem of fake news. I am optimistic.”

Lior Tabansky, head of Cyber Research Development at the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center of Tel Aviv University, said he had seen no indications of Russian attempts to meddle in Israeli elections via fake news or other covert influence efforts.

“We have not seen any of that,” Tabansky told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of the panel, which he also took part in.

Several Israeli companies have been in the news lately for reportedly offering to carry out social media manipulation on behalf of the Trump campaign, but the panelists were silent on the topic of Israel’s alleged homegrown fake news industry.

Outside the auditorium where the panel was held, The Times of Israel saw a representative of one such company, networking with other participants.

‘Can’t just take it on the chin’

Americans on the panel were less sanguine than the two Israelis about the possible effects of fake news and attempts to crack down on the phenomenon.

“When there is an opposing nation that has undertaken a covert campaign backed by the full resources of the state security services to undermine those institutions that are supposed to provide long-term resilience, you have to think if you’re on the receiving end that this is a serious concern and merely taking it on the chin is not a good idea,” said Michael Sulmeyer, the director of Cyber Security Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center.

“If you’re a state that is a victim of a concerted covert campaign — you have to figure out the best way to defend yourself,” he added.

Dr. Michael Sulmeyer of the Harvard Kennedy School speaking at a panel on Fake News at a Tel Aviv University cyber conference. Tuesday June 19, 2018 (Facebook screenshot)

Professor Martin Libicki of the US Naval Academy also sounded the alarm when he remarked that he wasn’t sure the United States is resilient enough at this point in history to withstand an onslaught of fake news.

“A Nobel-Prize-winning economist two years ago looked at life expectancy rates in the United States and  found, not surprisingly, that they are increasing, for every group but one,” he said.

“If you’re white and don’t have much education, your life expectancy is flat. This is correlated with the opioid crisis. It is correlated with a 30 percent rise in suicide rates. I think a part of that arises from racial demographics and part of it rises from the worsening economic position of uneducated people,” said Libicki. “I would like to believe, and there is evidence to believe, that healthy societies can tolerate fake news, but I’m seriously concerned that we don’t necessarily live in healthy societies.”

Professor Martin Libicki of the US Naval College (Courtesy of Cyber Week)

Another speaker, Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, called for serious regulation to rein in the world’s top two advertising platforms, Google and Facebook.

“We are seeing the increasing dominance of two advertising companies, Facebook and Google as two choke points through which much of the worlds news and information flow. If we are serious about addressing the harm of the constellation of problems we call fake news, one has to be serious about reducing the dominance of these platform monopolies,” he said. “That would mean embracing a form of antitrust regulation that at least in the United States we have not seen in a generation.”

A theory of control

Tabansky, of Tel Aviv University, described a Russian theory called “reflexive control theory” that he said is at the heart of Russia’s information warfare efforts against foreign countries.

“The Russians believe that social systems have an algorithm for how they operate. Once you figure it out, you can introduce an input that causes the system to behave the way you want but the system itself thinks it is behaving rationally, that it is doing the natural thing,” he said.

“The Russians’ message is: democracy is not real democracy; it is a fake regime, a failing regime; and we have a better alternative.”

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