With local elections just a day away and rumors rife that national elections could follow not long after, Israel’s official cyber agency has revealed the beginnings of what could be a major attempt to influence Israeli voters via the kind of underhanded social media tools that marred the US 2016 presidential elections, with experts in the field saying the admission lays bare woeful vulnerabilities in the country’s ability to tackle mass politically motivated cyber hacking.
Acknowledging for the first time that an Israeli government body is working in conjunction with online social media giants in order to prevent active efforts at election interference, the National Cyber Directorate said thousands of fake Facebook profile accounts created to spread false information about Israeli political candidates have been taken offline at the agency’s request.
However, the Directorate, which is run out of the Prime Minister’s Office, is steadfastly refusing to detail the matter any further — raising concerns about its lack of transparency, and also for the potential for political manipulation.
Insistently refusing to answer questions from The Times of Israel, first the Directorate, and then the PMO itself, have declined to specify why the accounts warranted removal, how many were closed, and whether they were managed by foreign governments or overseas parties.
A Kulanu member of Knesset said the steps taken by the Directorate have come too late to safeguard Tuesday’s vote, and warned that the election meddling is certain to get worse ahead of next year’s general elections.
Speaking at the Knesset Science and Technology committee last week, in a session largely overlooked by Hebrew media, Erez Tidhar, the head of the Directorate’s personal protection unit, said that Israeli officials had been in communication with Facebook as part of efforts to protect Tuesday’s municipal elections, confirming that the accounts removed were among 583 million accounts that the social media giant recently said it had shut down in the first quarter of this year due to their potential dissemination of “fake news.”
On Tuesday, some 6.6 million Israelis age 17 and up will be eligible to cast their votes for the 251 municipal and regional councils in the nationwide local elections.
Tidhar acknowledged that his unit, which he said acts as a channel for government complaints, had been involved in limiting cyber-attacks on all platforms for some time, and said that cooperation with Facebook had resulted in the company removing “thousands of fictitious accounts” ahead of the municipal elections and “a lot of avatars [social media profiles] created to try to change public opinion and to manipulate information.”
Tidhar indicated that Israeli political parties were behind some of the fake profiles.
Israel, like governments across the world, is worried about online interference in elections, following alleged Russian interference in the US presidential elections in 2016 and continuing reports of efforts by Russia, Iran and other states to distort online platforms to influence the public’s views.
According to Freedom House, a US group that promotes freedom and democracy, online manipulation and disinformation played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries during the past year.
But in revealing the efforts to influence the local elections, the National Cyber Directorate also highlighted – perhaps surprisingly, given Israel’s high degree of digital literacy — the deep weaknesses in Israel’s preparedness for mass attempts to sway voters, as well as the acute lack of oversight to which the agency itself is subject.
While admitting that Facebook accounts had been removed at its behest, the Directorate has refused to release any details about the specific requests it made or about other nefarious social media use it has uncovered, including whether the accounts may have been run from outside the county, in what would signal foreign attempts to taint Israeli democracy.
Speaking at the same Knesset committee last week, Kulanu Party lawmaker Roy Folkman revealed that his colleagues were already seeing “massive attacks and harm to privacy” online, with “elements active in the political system who are using tools that are borderline legal to get hold of voter data” and well-funded “interventions using fictitious user names.”
For the upcoming local elections, action was already “too late,“ he said, but attacks from within Israel and overseas aimed at influencing voters’ views could be expected to “climax” before national elections.
Kulanu colleague Rachel Azaria, who announced in June that she was running to be Jerusalem mayor but withdrew her candidacy last month, told the committee that she had faced an “incomprehensible” amount of fake news.
Folkman charged that the Israeli system was totally unprepared.
Today, there was “no government body with tools, except for the National Cyber Directorate,“ that could possibly handle attacks from overseas, “but even there I’m doubtful about their preparation,” he said.
‘Horrifying’ blurred lines
Tidhar told the committee that illicit cyber activity at this stage was “worrying” and “annoying” rather than a threat to democracy.
That statement echoed others made earlier this year by the director general of the National Cyber Bureau in a rare public appearance at this year’s Cyber Week cybersecurity conference held in Tel Aviv in June.
Speaking at a panel discussion, Eviatar Matania downplayed the effects of cyber hacking on Israel’s elections as compared to the US, calling it a “constant nuisance” but not a “major threat.”
But while the Directorate may not view the threat to Israel as grave, the admission that thousands of accounts have been removed at its request raises a number of key questions about Israeli policy on fake social media accounts, and the procedure through which they are flagged.
In Israel, the Interior Ministry is responsible for all data related to managing both local and national elections. It supervises polling booths and manages the actual votes.
The Central Elections Committee, currently chaired by Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer and working under the auspices of the Knesset, is the address for public complaints about election-related misbehavior.
At present, though, the National Cyber Directorate is in charge of all cyber-related interference and meddling, whether for terror or incitement purposes, or to influence political opinion around election time.
The Directorate was established in December 2017 when it was decided to merge Israel’s two cyber security units: the National Cyber Bureau, responsible for leading the strategy, national policy, and technological buildup of Israeli cyberspace; and the National Cyber Security Authority, which acted as the central operational body for the defense of the country’s cyber network.
The new body, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, is responsible for all aspects of defense in the civilian sphere.
The Directorate does not have the power to block social media content in Israel, but can file an official request with Facebook, Twitter or other social media giants for them to remove posts or accounts that the government agency deems unacceptable.
Earlier this year, however, the Directorate was nearly given unprecedented and far-reaching powers to block Israeli web users’ access to parts or the entirety of any website.
A bill set to become law was blocked hours before a final vote, only after The Times of Israel found that the law went drastically further than was previously understood, even by the lawmakers pushing for it.
While the initial proposal was aimed at tackling terror incitement on social media, the bill in question would have allowed for censorship of “any website that the public or a section of the public has access to, even if that access requires a password or code, payment or no payment, or whether the site is based in Israel or abroad.”
If passed into law, it would have granted the government authority to block any content from any internet site (including news websites) deemed to violate any section of Israel’s penal code — all via administrative court order, under gag order, for perpetuity.
While that bill did not progress, the current powers of the Directorate still remain under a cloak of darkness.
Lack of transparency
Following Tidhar’s admission that accounts had been removed, the agency declined to release any information about the activities it had discovered. It ignored repeated questions posed by The Times of Israel about how many accounts it asked for Facebook to remove, how many the social media giant agreed to erase, why the Directorate deemed they warranted removal, whom the accounts targeted, whether they were being run from within Israel or abroad, and whether officials believed any of them formed part of an effort by a foreign government to influence Israel’s elections.
The directorate, which as a PMO department insisted that all press questions go through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson, declined to answer any of these queries.
Instead it responded with a brief statement misrepresenting what Tidhar had told the committee and relating only to the direct management of internal computer systems to be used in the local elections: “The national cyber network is taking part in the preparations for the municipal elections,” the statement said.
Neither Tidhar nor any other official from the Directorate were available to answer further questions, a PMO spokesperson said.
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a board member of the National Press Council, a researcher for the Israel Democracy Institute and a campaigner for the protection of privacy, told The Times of Israel after the Knesset committee meeting that she was appalled to hear that the fake accounts had been removed at the behest of the National Cyber Directorate.
“[Tidhar] refused to tell the committee how many accounts were removed, how they were removed, or on what legal basis they were removed. He just said there were thousands.
“A body not subject to the Freedom of Information Act that has no power under law sees itself as in charge of removing political speech — it’s horrifying,” she said, referring to the fact that the agency is defined as part of Israel’s national security apparatus and not bound by transparency laws like most other government bodies.
“The line between defending Israel against other countries and getting involved in Israeli elections is blurred,” Shwartz Altshuler continued, warning that flagging and removing compromising online content could be construed as a partisan political decision and must be open to public scrutiny. “We can’t allow this in Israel’s democracy,”
MK Revital Swid, of the opposition Zionist Union, told the committee that the public had the right to know what was going on “in order to understand that there’s such an attack underway.”
Addressing Tidhar, Swid charged, “You’re operating rather in the dark. You’re removing fictitious profiles – and we’re not against that – but we’d like to know what the criteria are, how you work, and we believe it should be accessible so that we can assess it. You say you’re removing thousands of profiles but you’re not subject to any oversight. Nobody has checked you. The public isn’t aware. There’s no transparency. It’s unacceptable. What you take down may result in a great lack of balance in the political field.”
Tidhar insisted that there was no possibility of using the cyber directorate’s powers for partisan political gain or hindrance, emphasizing that it does not look at specific profiles or content and does not deal with either the attackers’ or the targets’ identities.
Instead, he said, the agency focused on finding suspicious patterns of online behavior, identified when materials against particular candidates were posted by thousands of computers at the same time using the same style, and where there was no evidence of any real people behind the profiles sending them.
When such activity was discovered, “We consult with Facebook and they’re the ones that take the profiles down,” he said, stressing that the government body only acted in an advisory role.
Facing up to abuse
Facebook, as well as WhatsApp and Instagram — both owned by Facebook – are the platforms of choice for most Israelis.
Twitter, which unlike Facebook, tends not to cooperate with governments, is a minor player, used largely by politicians and the media.
The Directorate’s address for complaints to Facebook is Jordana Cutler, head of policy and communications at Facebook’s Israel office, and a former adviser and close aide to Netanyahu and Israel’s US Ambassador Ron Dermer. Before joining the Prime Minister’s Office in 2009, she was a member of the Likud party’s campaign team for the 2009 national elections.
Cutler told the Knesset committee that all complaints were dealt with equally, no matter whether they came from the Prime Minister’s Office or regular Facebook users, and that all meetings with the National Cyber Directorate had been coordinated with the Central Elections Committee.
“Our community rules are the same for everyone, no matter who is reporting the content. We act only according to the rules of our community,” Cutler told the Knesset committee, adding that the company would be launching a campaign in Israel to encourage the public to complain if they suspected political disinformation campaigns.
Facebook has significantly stepped up policing of its platform since last year, when it acknowledged that Russian agents successfully ran political influence operations aimed at swaying the 2016 presidential election.
It has also taken a number of steps to tighten up its operation following revelations earlier this year that a British political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, had obtained personal data from millions of Facebook users and used it without their permission to further political aims.
Facebook now has 20,000 people working on safety and security, double the number it had last year, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month in an update on preparing for the US midterm elections next month in which he explained how the company deals with such content.
“We use detection technology and people on our trained teams (who focus on finding harmful content such as terrorist propaganda or fraudulent spam) to help find potentially violating content and accounts and flag them for review. Then, we review them to determine if they violate standards and take action if they do. Taking action could include removing a piece of content from Facebook, covering photos or videos that may be disturbing to some audiences with a warning, or disabling accounts,” Zuckerberg said.
He also outlined several new guidelines that require all political ads in the US to clearly mark who paid for them and to verify the identity and location of the person behind the ad.
“But,” Zuckerberg added, while the system makes it significantly harder to buy political adds from outside the country, “it would still be very difficult without additional intelligence for Facebook or others to figure out if a foreign adversary had set up a company in the US, wired money to it, and then registered an authentic account on our services and bought ads from the US.”
Following Zuckerberg’s post, the company announced a similar program for the UK.
Cutler said that the company was working closely with the Justice Ministry, which has its own cyber unit in the state prosecutor’s office, interested MKs and academic researchers, as well as the current relevant government bodies, to prevent disinformation spreading.
Prof. Karine Nahon, president of the Israel Internet Association and an associate professor at both Washington University and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, told The Times of Israel that while such efforts were praiseworthy, Israel should demand that Facebook implement its US and UK political advertising transparency measures in Israel as well.
Mayors, parties, deep in online distortion
In its latest iteration, “fake news” rose to prominence immediately after the 2016 US election, when several mainstream media outlets ran exposés of a pervasive social media-based industry that had produced entirely false stories about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. One report described hundreds of “fake news” articles, authored anonymously by Russia-backed content writers and distributed across the internet by automated bots.
In Israel, the first example of this modern-day phenomenon — which showed traits of both “fake news” and mass dissemination of such information using personal contact information — can be traced to the 2015 national elections.
At 12:23 p.m. on election day, Netanyahu posted a Facebook message warning that “the rule of the right is in danger,” that Arab voters were turning out in droves, that they were being “bused to the polling stations by left-wing NGOs,” and that his supporters simply had to work harder to get out the vote “and close the gap.”
Netanyahu appeared in a video clip on his social media and floods of text messages containing that clip were sent to thousands of voters.
According to pollsters, whose initial exit polls put Netanyahu more or less level with his rival, Zionist Union chair Isaac Herzog, the message was a determining factor in the prime minister’s victory.
But it was untrue. The Arab vote was only marginally higher than in previous years and only in a very few polling stations. There was nothing close to the massive surge that Netanyahu had warned of. There were no buses bringing in droves of Arab voters.
Ironically, it was a spoof of that message that sparked the first Israeli warnings of legal action to tackle “fake news,” with the Likud party threatening to sue the creators of a fake account pretending to be Netanyahu.
Nahon, who has written extensively about the way online platforms can distort our sense of what is real through tools such as algorithms, believes that Facebook was largely responsible for the gap between the hopes of left-of center voters in the 2015 elections and the reality of Netanyahu’s victory.
By feeding voters information with which they tend to agree, Nahon said, Facebook serves to strengthen our existing beliefs rather than provide alternative views for our consideration.
In August, Nahon wrote to Justice Melcer to warn about attempts to influence (PDF, Hebrew) the outcome of elections in Israel and called on him to lead a public debate on the subject together with representatives of bodies such as political parties, social media platforms and cyber companies.
“In my view, in Israel too there are attempts – externally and internally – to manipulate and influence the public discourse and the elections,” Nahon wrote. “These attempts will increase and become more sophisticated in the run-up to Israeli elections.”
At the Knesset committee meeting, Nahon quoted research indicating that in general (not specifically during election campaigns), 15 to 20 percent of all social network profiles are either forged (where a real person poses as another real person), fictitious (created in the names of people who do not exist) or bots (fake, automated accounts intended to influence opinions without there being any real people behind them).
Nahon told the Knesset committee that it was often mayors and election candidates who were producing fictitious accounts in Israel, while campaign managers were spending 75 to 85 percent of their entire budgets on internet campaigns.
The use of fake news in local campaigns appears to have been influenced by the similar methods of manipulation used by national political figures and parties.
In August, the Yedioth Ahronoth Hebrew daily published an expose on the use of trolls (real people who post inflammatory information anonymously) to defame rivals, disinformation, including fake news, and the purchase of products whose purpose was to allow for behavioral profiling of users.
During the same month, Hadashot News uncovered “hundreds and thousands of accounts that are suspected of being fake which are being used for political purposes, both by the big parties and municipalities in Herzliya, Nahariya, Haifa, Tiberias, Yavne, Kiryat Motzkin, Hod Hasharon and many more.”
“My fear,” Nahon told the committee, “and I won’t mention politicians, is that there are two levels of bot operators in Israeli politics…..The sophisticated politicians who spend much of their money on bots and will probably not be caught” and first timers, two of whom had already been netted.
Nahon told The Times of Israel that platforms such as Facebook were able to catch online transgressors but were unwilling to share that information with the public. They must be more transparent, she urged.
In one clear case of Facebook manipulation, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid publicly complained in June this year that the Zionist Union was running an “enormous attack of fake news against Yesh Atid, and against me personally,” naming party chairman Avi Gabbay as being behind the campaign.
Asked for examples of such malevolence against him, a Yesh Atid party official pointed to the anti-Lapid tweets of Topaz Luk and Yonatan Erich, social media advisers for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Likud party respectively, and several Facebook pages that share posts and memes mocking Lapid.
One such page, named “Enough Yair,” showed several telltale signs of being backed up by significant funding, with its posts shared far and wide via paid Facebook ads.
A week later, Hadashot news reported that the campaign was being run by an online media company called Spotlight Political Investigations and was funded by Zionist Union to the tune of 1 million shekels ($270,000.)
Upon further investigation, The Times of Israel has discovered that the company was in fact called Spotlight Digital Investigations, which public records show is owned by Zionist Union activist Gil Lemel, who also co-owns the digital marketing company FST21 with former prime minister Ehud Barak. A spokesman for Barak said he had nothing to do with Spotlight Digital Investigations.
In an example of Facebook manipulation to skew this week’s municipal vote, someone faked the profile of the Movement for Quality Government for 24 hours in order to besmirch a candidate running for mayor in the Lower Galilee Regional Council.
In one of the nastier local election campaigns, in Kiryat Motzkin, north of Haifa, Tvi “Tziki” Avishar, 40, is battling 74-year-old Mayor Haim Tzuri, who has led the city since 1993.
Avishar told The Times of Israel that he had proof that a fake Facebook site, designed to look like his real one, complete with logo and photos, was created by a council employee close to the mayor more than a year ago, and that city workers had been told to add “Likes.”
The site, which carried disinformation, announced recently that Avishar had withdrawn from the race.
”Facebook said it was not contrary to their community rules and I reported it to the local police, but they’ve done nothing,” Avishar said, after reporting the case to Shakuf, a citizens’ media group.
The page was finally taken down earlier this month.
A council response accused Avishar of “fake news,” spin and “trying to drag the public discourse into a shallow place devoid of substance.” The response also alleged that Avishar was being investigated for financial wrongdoing, a charge that Avishar vehemently denied.
Tzuri has been in and out of the media in recent years.
Last month, the state prosecutor’s office closed a corruption case against him, while deciding to indict seven others, including a close associate.
In December, according to the Globes business newspaper, a local paper in the Krayot area north of Haifa issued a special “Golden Badge” issue to summarize the activity of area mayors.
The local newspaper showered Tzuri with accolades, describing him as being responsible for acts of magic and genius in the city and quoting him saying that being mayor was “a mission, not a job.”
It later transpired that he had used municipal funds to pay for the article and that it was his spokesman’s department that had drafted the questions and answers.
In addition to spreading fake news, Nahon and Shwartz Altshuler also warned of ease with which political actors can use social media to access the public’s most private information in order to manipulate voters, and the lack of legislative protection against abuse.
“We are all exposed,” Shwartz Altshuler told The Times of Israel.
“The government is doing nothing at the moment to protect us. We do not understand the extent to which we are being influenced and from the legal point of view, election campaigning on digital media is like the Wild West,” she said.
The local election campaigns in Israel have made clear that personal data is also being widely abused.
In Jerusalem, text messages that looked like they had come from the municipality were appearing on residents’ phones promoting the mayoral candidacy of Ze’ev Elkin, currently environmental protection and Jerusalem affairs minister and the prime minister’s man for the job.
Elkin has denied involvement and the municipality told the Movement for Quality Government, a clean government watchdog, that it was not behind the messages; it did not say how access to residents’ records had been obtained.
Elkin has also been the target of an anonymous negative campaign, which sent messages to thousands of voters’ cellphones, describing the candidate as “Gargamel,” the fictional evil wizard in The Smurfs cartoon.
On Monday, Elkin accused his rival Moshe Lion of being behind the “anti-Semitic” campaign, saying the comparison “reeked of derogatory insults against Jews from the distant and dark history.”
With Lion yet to comment on the accusation, Elkin has filed a complaint against him with the Central Elections Committee, which will now have to decide whether the current campaign laws prohibit this sort of communication.
Fake news ‘not illegal’
Nahon and Shwartz Altshuler agree that it must be the Central Elections Committee, and not the national Cyber Directorate that deals with online interference during and in the run-up to elections.
Legal protection for voters stems principally from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which prohibits for the purpose of electioneering use of money, land or property belonging to a governmental body, local or national.
That law was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with allocations for television advertisements and mounted posters.
After the 2015 national elections, then-Supreme Court Justice and chair of the Central Elections Committee Salim Joubran called the law “archaic” and complained that it ignores “today’s most popular media tool, in general, and even more so during an election campaign – the internet.”
Over recent years, there have been rulings that have extended the definition of public property to include municipal websites and Facebook pages — even the Facebook pages of mayors.
In one case several years ago, 6,000 “Likes” on the central Israeli city of Hod Hasharon’s Facebook page were transferred to the private Facebook page of the mayor. Whatever he posted reached those 6,000 pages, which were subsequently ruled to constitute “public property” that was out of bounds for a political campaign.
In another legal-precedent-setting case, in May, the municipality of coastal Hadera and its leader Zvika Gendelman (who was arrested in June over suspected bribery, corruption and tax-related offenses ) agreed in an out-of-court settlement approved by the Haifa District Court to cease blocking access to the council and mayor’s Facebook sites for certain residents and to stop erasing negative comments.
Any citizen may file a complaint to the Central Elections Committee alleging that a party or candidates have broken the law.
The judge heading the committee — always a sitting member of the Supreme Court — will interpret existing law and his or her ruling will set a new precedent which will carry the force of law and which can only be challenged in the Supreme Court.
The committee’s veteran spokesperson, Giora Pordos, explained that complaints about online election campaigns would be decided with reference to the existing prohibition on campaign material that was racist or incited to violence.
“We are not responsible for distinguishing between truth and lies,” he told The Times of Israel. “That is not in the purview of the committee.”
Pordes said that “every complaint will be decided on based on its own merits within the law,” but that spreading “fake news” was not illegal in its own right.
In November, a committee chaired by former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch and tasked with reviewing election regulations and campaigning submitted its report to President Reuven Rivlin.
A bill that basically reflects all of the Beinisch Committee’s recommendations is currently awaiting its first reading in the Knesset plenum.
That bill, if it goes through in its current form, will give the Central Elections Committee more legal teeth by enabling it to fine people who do not to comply with an order.
It seeks to tighten up the rules against campaigning that is either racist or that incites to violence, and it seeks to clamp down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly — a move that will apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.
If passed in its current form — the position of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset remains to be seen — its requirement for identification will extend to the pashkevill posters commonly seen pasted on the walls of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Used to convey different kinds of information or exhortation, the pashkevillim are often used anonymously to undermine a particular person or group.
The difficulty will be in enforcing the ban on anonymity for paid campaigning, which is partly why Melcer and other senior Central Elections Committee officials met last week for a consultation in Jerusalem with Sean Evins, who leads Facebook’s Politics and Government Outreach for Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
In the meantime, Shwartz Altshuler is heading a committee tasked with updating the 1981 privacy law, which also covers elections, and which already contains prohibitions on the use of private information for purposes other than those for which it was collected, without the individual’s consent.
It may be too late for the upcoming local elections. It may even be too late for the next national elections, whenever they may be held. But Shwartz Altshusher says she hopes that the efforts, as well as the recent revelations, will spur a change to prevent online election manipulation from damaging Israeli democracy beyond repair.