Promoted content ad giants tell Israeli PR agencies: No more political smears

Promoted content ad giants tell Israeli PR agencies: No more political smears

As Likud-funded ad execs revealed to be behind anonymous stories smearing PM’s rival Gantz via ‘native advertising,’ Taboola and Outbrain vow to stop distributing negative content

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Flash90)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Flash90)

Days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was revealed to have funded anonymous articles slamming prime ministerial hopeful Benny Gantz for lacking managerial and other skills, the two companies responsible for “recommended” web content worldwide have informed PR and advertising companies involved in the Israeli election campaign that they will henceforth not publish any such negative material.

In a statement Tuesday, Outbrain, one of the two companies, said it routinely “prohibited negative advertising aimed at smearing any brand, person or party” but that because of the sensitivity of the election period, it had once again “clarified” its policy to all of its clients.

Adam Singolda, founder and CEO of Taboola, the other company, told The Times of Israel, “We’re committed to ensuring that elections are free and fair, wherever we operate. We want to make sure that political campaigns can be identified as such by our users. We also restrict the ability of parties [or representative of parties] to promote negative campaigns about their opponents.”

“Advertisers and media consultants currently involved in political campaigns were informed that the two platforms would not allow negative items,” the Globes business daily reported Sunday. “The sole option open to political parties seeking to use the platforms for political campaigns is positive reports about their candidates.”

The two platforms, Taboola and Outbrain, were both created by Israelis and are now based in the US. They promote content that appears under titles such as “Around the Web” and “Recommended For You” at the bottom of many news articles on vast numbers of websites.

They specialize in what is called native advertising — placing material online which looks like the site’s editorial content but is sometimes paid for by an anonymous advertiser to promote a particular product.

Taboola-promoted content features on Israeli news sites such as Ynet, Walla!,  Globes, Israel Today and Reshet TV. Outbrain’s Israeli media clients include Haaretz, The Marker, Calcalist, Mako and the Times of Israel.

On February 10, the Hebrew-language Maariv news organization published a news article claiming that former army chief Gantz — the most serious leadership threat to Netanyahu in years — had displayed “zero leadership” and “zero management capability” while chairing an Israeli intelligence startup called the Fifth Dimension.

The Maariv article blamed poor management on the part of Gantz and the company’s director general Doron Cohen for Fifth Dimension’s closure in December.

Renova CEO Viktor Vekselberg attends the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 25, 2018 (Alexander Ryumin/TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP)

It rejected the official explanation that US administration sanctions on one of the company’s key funders — Russian-Jewish oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, an associate of Vladimir Putin — had stopped the necessary flow of cash.

The Maariv news story subsequently reappeared under different headlines on various websites, this time as sponsored content promoted by both Taboola and Outbrain, according to Globes.

On February 14, Globes’ Hebrew edition revealed that this story, as well as others published by other news organizations about Fifth Dimension’s demise, had been pushed by both companies on several major Israeli news sites by an advertising company employed by Likud.

Taboola and Outbrain have since removed Likud-funded content.

A screenshot from the Arutz Sheva website showing Taboola’s promotion of an article (right) about Benny Gantz. The title of the article says, “Benny Gantz’s workers came to the offices and discovered that the doors were locked.”

On Tuesday, the same slurs against Gantz were being repeated, but this time openly, by the prime minister, on his personal, Likud party-funded Facebook page.

There, a Hebrew clip was posted entitled “Gantz failed in business and fired more than 100 workers.” It featured a Channel 13 news interview from February 9 with the Maariv journalist responsible for the original article. The punchline: “Netanyahu rescued the Israeli economy and brought it to its highest level ever.” The clip ended with a Likud election slogan: “Gantz. Leftwing. Weak.”

A screenshot from part of a video clip broadcast on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal Facebook page on February 19, 2019. The clip shows an article published by the Maariv newspaper on February 10, 2019 which criticized Benny Gantz’s management of a startup cyber company.

Native advertising is just one of many ways in which politicians and political parties can smear rivals and influence voters while hiding behind anonymity online.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid presenting his party’s platform on LGBT rights in a press conference in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2019. (Courtesy)

In June, Channel 12 news revealed that a venomous campaign waged against Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid via various Facebook pages was actually being run by Spotlight Political Research – a company acting for Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay.

The Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959 applies to printed newspapers, TV and radio, but not to digital media.

Netanyahu’s Likud party has resisted all attempts at amendments to make it do so, halting a bill before its last plenary vote and becoming the only party last month to reject a plea from the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, 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 Netanyahu’s party wished to make use of some of the dubious methods that gained prominence in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Last Thursday, while briefing reporters in Warsaw, Netanyahu said that in general, he was “against restrictions in cyberspace.”

Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer at a press conference at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 7, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Earlier this month, Melcer told a press conference at the Knesset that the current election law “screams out” to be updated.

The judge said he would announce his decision the following week on a petition submitted to the election committee by two lawyers in December to extend the election law to digital platforms and to oblige all political ads online to carry the name of the person or people behind them to identify themselves.

No decision has yet been announced.

Melcer would not be drawn on whether Facebook had agreed to his request earlier this month to bring forward its implementation of a rule to force identification of online political ads, as it has already done in four other countries.

Facebook — which, with WhatsApp and Instagram, which it owns, is the platform of choice for most Israelis — announced last month that it would introduce rules obliging all Israeli adverts dealing with national or political issues to carry clear information about who paid for them and to require that the identity and location of the person or people behind them be verified.

But the company would not give an exact date for implementation, saying only that the rules would come into force in March, just weeks before the April 9 election.

Melcer asked the company to bring forward its plans in order to “preserve the integrity of elections and reduce unfair influence on voters.”

Facebook’s response was that it would respond “in the near future.”

A computer screen displays the logo of the social networking site Facebook, taken in Manchester, England, on March 22, 2018. (AFP Photo/Oili Scarff)

At the press conference, Melcer noted that, “Within the context of our preparations, we are acting on many levels, with the various security agencies, and also with the social platforms. I’ll say it delicately: Their announcement [Facebook’s agreement to force the identification of political ads] did not come as their initiative, voluntarily….We played a role in the issuing of that announcement.”

Without going into further detail, he added, “We want to cooperate with whoever is willing, but there are other means, too.”

Surveys published by Channel 12 news and the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday both gave Netanyahu’s Likud party 30 seats if elections were held now.

In second place with 18 predicted seats according to the Channel 12 poll was Gantz’s Israel Resilience, which is running on a joint ticket with the Telem party headed by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon.

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