In the run-up to Israel’s 2019 national elections Tuesday, social media and the way it is being used to influence voters have been a contentious as well as confusing issue.
On April 1, The New York Times, in collaboration with Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, published an article that revealed a network of Twitter accounts promoting the candidacy of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claimed that many of those accounts, while run by real people, used fake identities. After publication of the article, several real people emerged to claim that they were neither bots (which the articles had not claimed) nor part of a coordinated campaign to promote Netanyahu.
While Twitter has suspended a number of the pro-Netanyahu accounts mentioned in the media reports, others have been deemed not to be problematic. On April 5, Israel’s Central Elections Committee rejected the Blue and White party’s petition to ban the Likud party from campaigning on social media, ruling that there was not enough evidence that Likud ran the fake network.
On Monday,the day before voting, The Times of Israel conducted its own, albeit modest, survey of the Twittersphere to determine what is being said about each of the various candidates. We wrote a simple computer program that retrieves the 500 most recent tweets for each candidate’s names and found that most of the tweets we retrieved revolved not around issues of security, peace or the economy but around the issue of whether or not Netanyahu should be reelected despite the impending indictments against him for alleged corruption.
On this issue, tweets in favor of the prime minister appeared to outnumber, although not by a significant margin, tweets opposed to his continued premiership. Whether these tweets were grassroots expressions of voter sentiment or the result of planned and coordinated social media campaigns is not something The Times of Israel set out to determine.
It’s all about Netanyahu
Netanyahu is the candidate whose name is most tweeted about, by far, one day before elections, with his opponent Benny Gantz receiving about half as many mentions. The 500 most recent tweets we retrieved for the word “Netanyahu” in Hebrew had been composed in a single hour, while the most recent 500 tweets for Gantz took approximately two hours to accumulate.
At 1:15 p.m. on April 8, the tweet containing the word “Netanyahu” that had been liked or favored the most times was by right-wing radio personality Sharon Gal.
“I’ve deliberated, and decided,” he wrote. “I will vote Likud. 1. In order to strengthen the foundations of the right-wing bloc; 2. Because Netanyahu is an excellent prime minister and he should continue; 3. It’s a liberal party and that’s important to me,” he tweeted, adding, “Wake up from your indifference. Go out and vote Tuesday.”
The second-most-popular tweet still making the rounds Monday afternoon was by Maariv and Kan journalist Kalman Liebskind sharing an article he had written two days earlier.
“This article is about the ‘bot investigation’ in Yedioth Ahronoth that did not contain a molecule of real journalism and was entirely a crude political move whose purpose was to silence Netanyahu supporters. It is also about journalists, who if they only could, would ask us to show our [Labor party/union bona fides] before using social media.”
Another very popular tweet, by Makor Rishon editor-in-chief Hagai Segal, suggested that some of the allegations of corruption against Netanyahu are being exaggeratedly played up by his critics.
“If tomorrow Netanyahu were to give all of Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians for nothing and without consulting the chief of staff (as Rabin did with the Oslo agreements and Sharon did with the Disengagement) he would not get hit with as much criticism as he is for German submarines sold to Egypt.”
Other popular tweets pointed out that the ordinarily media-shy Netanyahu has given a blitz of interviews over the past several days, comparing Israel’s news media to a battered woman.
“For ten years he has kicked her and shattered her and now three days before the election he takes control of her without difficulty and almost unconditionally. And she gives herself over entirely like a prisoner suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Netanyahu and the media — 72 hours of ecstasy.”
Tweets about Gantz
Tweets about Netanyahu’s main challenger for the premiership, Gantz of the Blue and White party, were likewise both critical and adulatory.
At 1:15 p.m. on Monday, the most-liked tweet containing the name “Gantz” was a tweet that Netanyahu himself had posted the day before. Netanyahu’s tweet, containing a clip from a “Fox News” interview, read, “Watch this clip from the most-watched television show in the United States. Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s close adviser, is attacking Gantz for attacking President Trump for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.”
In the clip itself, Giuliani does not in fact attack Gantz, but the Fox News anchorman does.
The second-most liked tweet about Gantz is one posted by Fania Oz-Salzberger, daughter of the late beloved left-wing Israeli novelist Amos Oz.
“About Benny Gantz and Amos Oz: They were respectful friends, though Gantz is politically to the right of Oz. Gantz often visited my ill father. They talked a lot. And father told us: ‘A good leader must understand human nature, read the map, have courage and compassion. That’s Gantz.’”
The third-most-liked tweet about Gantz was by former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was responding to a news report on Channel 12 on March 28 that claimed that when Gantz was IDF chief of staff, he had a serious difference of opinion with the prime minister about a secret mission. Gantz, according to the report, hesitated and sought to consult the cabinet, while the prime minister was more decisive.
In the tweet, Barak wrote, “I was there. The description of how the decisions were carried out deeply misrepresents what happened in an effort to present Gantz in a manner that is warped and dishonest. Netanyahu is apparently deeply anxious. He continues to endanger the country’s security with untrue and malicious leaks. He is a shameful phenomenon that we must remove on April 9. Is Channel 12 selling out?”
The fourth-most-popular tweet that mentions Gantz was by a man named Moti Stieglitz.
“Gantz and Lapid claim that Netanyahu has not done anything for the past 13 years. I’m lazy so I checked just the last month.”
Stieglitz’s tweet is accompanied by a video showing various recent meetings between Netanyahu and world leaders, including Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The odd and unusual
The most popular tweet featuring the New Right’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked has nothing to do with their policies, but once again focuses on the suitability of Netanyahu, or that of his wife, for high office.
The tweet, by veteran Maariv journalist Ben Caspit, focuses on the reportedly erratic behavior of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, when reporters visited her home the night before. According to these accounts, Ms. Netanyahu lashed out against Shaked and Bennett and said that she didn’t think Shaked was particularly attractive.
According to Caspit’s tweet, “This story is bigger than the way [Haaretz journalist] Chaim Levinson presented it. Eyewitnesses report shattering screams, starring Bennett and Shaked, and using language unacceptable even for Twitter. ‘It’s the first time I understand how insane she is,’ said one eyewitness. They finally pulled [Sara Netanyahu] away forcibly and made the people there swear to forget what they saw and heard,” Caspit wrote.
The most popular tweet that mentions Zehut candidate Moshe Feiglin refers to a bizarre interview he gave to comedian Dudu Bauchner several days ago in which the candidate and comedian massaged and slapped each other’s bare feet.
The tweet, by Ha’aretz journalist Chaim Levinson, said, “Wonderful trolling. Someone uploaded the Moshe Feiglin video to Pornhub in the Fetish category.”