How Israel’s post-truth elections sent a fact-checker into overdrive

Noa Barak of non-profit The Whistle has debunked claims Liberman wants to ban circumcision, talk of mass voter fraud and more. But there’s no real cure for disinformation, she says

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

An image that appeared on an unofficial pro-Netanyahu Facebook page on April 3, 2019 accusing several Israeli mainstream media outlets, including Ha'aretz, Ynet, and Kan of being "fake news" and biased in favor of Netanyahu rivals Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid (Facebook screenshot)
An image that appeared on an unofficial pro-Netanyahu Facebook page on April 3, 2019 accusing several Israeli mainstream media outlets, including Ha'aretz, Ynet, and Kan of being "fake news" and biased in favor of Netanyahu rivals Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid (Facebook screenshot)

False claims that prominent journalists and celebrities were backing the prime minister for another term. A false report that a party leader was determined to ban circumcision. A false quote by a leading politician ostensibly denigrating rivals because of their ethnicity. False allegations that April’s elections had been stolen.

In the weeks before Israel’s latest elections on September 17, wild rumors and misrepresentations of fact circulated widely before the truth, as they say, had a chance to put its boots on.

It doesn’t only happen here, of course; Israel is not the only country experiencing a chaotic information environment. A recent Pew Research Center study found, for instance, that more than half of American respondents said they had shared a news item they either knew or later learned to have been made-up.

At an event in Tel Aviv looking back on the latest Israeli vote, an Israeli expert and her German counterpart compared notes during a panel discussion on the role misinformation and disinformation had played in recent elections in both their countries.

Noa Barak, Research and Development Manager at a non-profit called The Whistle: the Israeli Fact-Checking Organization, told the audience that a lot of the pre-election misinformation her organization had tracked on social media was less about policy issues than unsubstantiated rumors targeting specific politicians.

Noa Barak, Research and Development Manager at The Whistle: the Israeli Fact-Checking Organization (Photo: Facebook)

“On social media we saw a lot of rumors and false claims about the leading candidates. [Blue and White party leader] Benny Gantz was a prominent figure of misinformation and so was [Democratic Camp candidate and former prime minister] Ehud Barak. There was a lot of slandering of political rivals and a lot of false statements attributed to politicians,” she said, addressing the audience in English.

Barak, whose organization monitors both politicians’ own statements and what was said about them on social media, also cited Democratic Union Knesset member Stav Shaffir as someone who had been a victim of disinformation.

Stav Shaffir of the Democratic Camp party speaks during a Central Elections Committee debate about disqualification of the Otzma Yehudit party from the upcoming elections on August 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Shaffir was quoted as saying that she doesn’t like having Mizrahi Jews leading the Labor Party, referring to [Labor’s] Amir Peretz and Orly Levy. She never said that.”

Another widespread piece of misinformation, according to Barak, was the assertion that Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman had said that he hoped to completely do away with the Jewish commandment of circumcision.

“We saw fake tweets that appeared to be by Liberman saying he would outlaw circumcision. It never happened.”

A retweet of a fake tweet that appears to be by Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman saying “Yisrael Beytenu will put an end to the barbaric custom known as brit mila [circumcision]. The year is 2019 and mohel is a profession that ultra-Orthodox Jews work in instead of finding real work. No more!”
“On the other hand,” she added, “there were a lot of fake endorsements of politicians, especially of Netanyahu [supposedly] by journalists like Ehud Ya’ari and Avri Gilad and also by celebrities like Ninet Tayeb.”

The organization Barak works for, The Whistle, was founded two and a half years ago and in January began operating under the auspices of Israel’s Globes business newspaper. Its “initial mission,” she said, was fact-checking the pronouncements of politicians in the mainstream media and on their social media accounts.

“We actually have a student who listens to hours of interviews every day and marks statements of fact that can be checked.” The results of these checks are published in a daily featured column in Globes.

Five months ago, The Whistle added a second mission, monitoring social media specifically, and joined Facebook’s fact-checking program.

“There is a new feature on Facebook where you can report a post as being fake news or false news,” said Barak. “Facebook sends these flagged posts to third-party fact-checkers. Facebook doesn’t have any say on what is going to be checked and what the result of the check will be.”

Politicians’ own Facebook accounts are exempt from this fact-checking, however, she said, because Facebook was concerned that such monitoring could adversely affect democracy or free speech. Instead, other shared news items are checked.

After The Whistle checks a post on Facebook, it can rate it “false,” “partly false,” or “misleading,” Barak said. If the post is deemed to be less than factual, Facebook will notify the publisher of the post as well as all the users who shared it.

“Facebook doesn’t remove the content. People can still share whatever information they want to share. But they are notified and get a link to our check.”

Barak said that social media discourse, in her experience, is “much, much, much wilder than [offline and mainstream media] political discourse.”

She said another difference is that in the mainstream media, politicians often make false statements about policy issues, whereas on social media the lies her organization saw tended to be about something a politician had said or done.

“Politicians in the mainstream media say things that aren’t true about financial issues or the healthcare system or the [Palestinian] conflict. It’s sad, but there’s a bit of good news in that, because it means politicians still believe the public is concerned with those issues, as opposed to just gossip, slander and crazy rumors.”

Not only do some Israeli politicians still talk about issues of substance, Barak noted, but a few even corrected themselves after The Whistle highlighted errors they had made.

One politician who did so, but who is not in the Knesset anymore, was Michal Rozin from Meretz. “We tweeted back a correction to one of her tweets. She said ‘You know what. You are right. I take it back.’”

But Rozin’s retraction was atypical, said Barak.

Former Meretz MK Michal Rozin (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We do see a few examples of politicians who make the same false claim over and over. And we correct them over and over. And finally they modify their statements.

Yamina’s Naftali Bennett, the former education minister, for instance, had repeatedly claimed that the number of high school students taking the challenging five units mathematics matriculation exam had doubled under his tenure.

“He didn’t double the number of students [during his term as minister]. He took an initial figure from three years before his candidacy. But then” — after the inaccuracy was highlighted to him — “he eventually he stopped saying that, and started saying ‘almost doubled.’”

“Not many politicians will admit publicly that they were wrong,” Barak noted. “We did have one who admitted in a phone call that we were right. But I get it, it’s very embarrassing to admit.”

Claims of election fraud

Barak said that perhaps the most significant piece of misinformation in September’s election campaign consisted of claims that there had been major election fraud during the previous national elections in April.

“Most notably there was a statement by the prime minister himself, who said that the elections had been stolen from the Likud due to election fraud, especially in the Arab sector. He said that this cost the Likud two seats in the Knesset. It became a major story.

“After this statement we saw a flood politicians, especially right-wing and Likud politicians, repeating that claim. There were hundreds of posts and tweets spreading that information. These led to an attempt to pass a camera law [that would have allowed party operatives to bring cameras into polling stations], which ultimately did not pass,” she said.

Screenshot of a Facebook video dated September 3, 2019, in which Netanyahu stated there had been widespread voter fraud in the previous elections.

In a live Facebook video on September 3, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We will not let them steal our elections again. It turns out there was election fraud on a massive scale in the previous elections and I estimate that if there hadn’t been this fraud, we would have received 61 Knesset seats and we could have formed a government and saved our State of Israel these unnecessary [do-over] elections.

“And now they are trying to steal the elections again, and we are trying to prevent this by putting cameras in all the polling stations.”

Parallels with Germany

Dr. Henning Lahmann, a senior researcher at the Digital Society Institute at the ESMT Berlin and a visiting fellow at the Israel Public Policy Institute, which is funded by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, spoke about three election campaigns this year in Germany: the nationwide election for the European Parliament in May, as well state elections in September in Saxony and Brandenburg.

Dr. Henning Lahmann, Henning L senior researcher at the Digital Society Institute at the ESMT Berlin and a fellow at the Israel Public Policy Institute in Tel Aviv (Facebook screenshot)

“Since 2015, we see narratives about migration. Ever since the rise in the number of refugees from Syria and other migrants from the African continent, we’ve had this narrative being pushed by right-wing parties and other groups about the rise in crime and about the end of Western culture in Europe,” he said.

In Saxony, said Lahmann, there was a meme spread that “if we continue on our path, then we’re not going to be allowed to eat pork in Germany anymore within the next five years.”

Lahmann said that while the migration issue has dominated the discourse in recent elections, accusations of voter fraud had come up in Germany as well.

“There was a story in Brandenburg that there had been votes for the right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) that hadn’t been counted. It turned out to be at least 80 percent false.”

Lahmann said that the right-wing AfD party has seen a steady rise in support over the past few years, but there has been a backlash as well. “There’s also been kind of the reverse trend. So we don’t know where it’s going. It’s hard to tell what impact disinformation pushed on social media has had.”

Lahmann later told the Times of Israel that the ease with which bad actors can hide their identities online is a big problem.

“Things like hate speech and Holocaust denial are against the law in Germany. But you have to be able to show who is behind it, prove who is responsible for it.”

Lahmann said that anonymity online is not entirely a bad thing and that in repressive countries it gives dissidents and dissenters the protection they need to speak out.

Asked if there are online tools to trace the origins of a meme or narrative, Lahmann mentioned a Berlin startup called Tracemap.

Different countries, same problems

Barak told the audience she had attended the Global Fact 6 fact-checking conference in Cape Town, South Africa in June with over 250 participants representing 55 countries.

“It was amazing for all of us to see how we all come from different countries and completely different political and social scenarios and we all experience similar problems. For instance, we have a lot of similar technical problems. How do we make our work more effective, because this is a very tedious job. It takes someone two minutes to say something false and then I can spend three days fact-checking it. So there’s the question of how to make that faster.”

Barak said that another challenge fact-checkers faced from around the world is how to discern if a photo has been doctored. She briefly tutored the audience in how to use Google’s “reverse image search.

But Barak said the main insight she came away with was that fact-checking alone cannot solve the vast, overwhelming problem of misinformation in the digital age. “There’s no cure for disinformation,” she lamented.

“We cannot keep on telling them the facts,” she added, helping them to differentiate between what’s true and what isn’t, and, in any case, “they’re not going to believe us for much longer.”

The only solution, said Barak, is education: “We need to educate people, to train them to differentiate between types of content. It’s such a scary, messy situation that we’re in culturally right now. People need to be able to know what’s what.”

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