With an eye to Trump and Netanyahu, Israeli university takes on ‘fake news’

With an eye to Trump and Netanyahu, Israeli university takes on ‘fake news’

As politicians disseminate more and more misinformation while discrediting and bypassing the media, University of Haifa hopes to help students ‘analyze and understand reality’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

In a candid on-camera moment during a welcoming ceremony for US President Donald Trump upon his arrival in Israel earlier this year, Sara Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, revealed to First Lady Melania Trump what she believed would bring two couples together during the three-day trip and beyond.

Chatting on the red-carpeted tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport, she said that, just like the Trumps, Israel’s “first couple” was loved by the people but cruelly mistreated by the media.

“You know in Israel all the people like us. The media hate us but the people love us,” Netanyahu told the first lady. “Like you.”

“We do have a lot in common,” Melania Trump quipped as their husbands traded their own pleasantries beyond the reach of hot mics.

The Netanyahus and Trumps holding hands on the tarmac, at the start of the US president’s visit, May 22, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/Flash 90)

Both Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have had famously combative relationships with the media, accusing it of carrying out “witch hunts” against them, dismissing specific journalists as biased and untrustworthy, and denouncing critical stories about them as “fake news.”

The attacks on the media have been escalating in recent months, with Netanyahu and Trump each facing investigations over alleged misdeeds: Netanyahu is the subject of two corruption probes by the Israel Police, while Trump’s team is being investigated over suspected collusion with Russia.

Now, one Israeli university is hoping to unpack the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year with what it claims is the first-of-its-kind course in “fake news.”

“As mainstream news continues to lose credibility and social media moves in as the primary shaper of reality, will the general public ultimately lose the ability to sort fact from fiction?” asks the promotional material for the new course at the University of Haifa.

Professor Yaniv Levyatan. (Courtesy)

“By first studying the erosion of traditional journalism in recent years as well as the historical methods of information-manipulators such as Nazi propagandists, and then acquiring the critical thinking skills to decode the messages emanating from today’s mainstream and alternative media, University of Haifa students who enroll in the new course will form a new generation of thought-leaders who are uniquely committed to the truth,” the school promises potential participants.

According to Dr. Yaniv Levyatan, the professor leading the course, which is being taught as part of the national security studies program at the university’s School of Political Science, the phenomenon of “fake news,” and the way that it is portrayed by strongmen leaders across the world, poses a “serious challenge for the future of democracies.”

“Fake news has created a situation in which we can no longer believe anyone or anything, since we have no way of evaluating the credibility of the flood of information we encounter,” said Levyatan, an expert in propaganda and psychological warfare.

Fake news is old news

Yellow journalism, or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes, has been recorded as far back as the early Middle Ages. It spanned Ancient Egypt’s inflation of battlefield victories, early Christian rumors of pagan cannibalism, 15th-century blood libels against Jews, American Revolution-era distortions of scalping Native Americans and the Nazi Germany grobe luge, the lie so colossal that people can’t conceive of doubting it, to name just a few historical examples.

But 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.”

A year on from the election, that specific industry appears to have grown in size and reach, and is being emulated by shady operatives across the political spectrum, according to Levyatan.

“People fail to appreciate that 50 percent of online traffic are bots performing various actions on the web, including the production of fake news. This does not happen for no reason, and of course there are those who benefit from this situation and want to see it continue,” he said.

A tweet is displayed at The Daily Show-produced ‘Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library,’ showcasing US President Trump’s tweets since taking office, June 16, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

But the phrase “fake news” took on a life of its own when Trump himself turned it on those wielding it, accusing traditional media outlets of intentionally lying about him. Since he first used it in December 2016 to deny a report that he planned to serve as an executive producer for “The Celebrity Apprentice” while in office, the president has denounced — in speeches, press releases and of course on Twitter — hundreds of reports as “fake news.”

Observers say Trump has made a habit of flogging the media in order to deflect from critical reporting about him. He has declared that “no politician in history” had been treated more unfairly than he, over ongoing criticism of his administration’s handling of several key scandals, and has taken to tweeting regularly about the “failing New York Times” and “fake news CNN.” In one especially evocative tweet, he decried the media as the “enemy of the people.”

Over the past two decades, Netanyahu has also repeatedly tried to curb his many detractors in the media, which he considers biased against him. In 1999, while facing challenger Ehud Barak as incumbent prime minister, Netanyahu famously derided media coverage of him, leading Likud members in a chant, “They are a-f-r-a-i-d.”

He has long forgone press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists, and has publicly called out specific stories or media outlets for stories he disliked. But Netanyahu’s apparent animosity has grown more intense in the year since Trump was elected and, like the US leader, he has recently started referring to the press as “fake news.”

At a number of boisterous rallies held recently in response to media reports and public protests over his alleged corruption, he has lashed out at the media, saying that “the fake news industry is at its peak” and accusing it of “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family.”

Like Trump, Netanyahu has also targeted individual reporters. He took one newsman to court for reporting that Sara Netanyahu had kicked her husband out of the car on a busy highway in a fit of pique. Last year, after acclaimed investigative TV journalist Ilana Dayan reported on mistreatment of the prime minister’s staff, she read out on the air a six-minute rebuke from Netanyahu in which he called her a “left-wing extremist” and slammed her credentials.

The beauty and the beast

According to Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communications at the University of Haifa and an expert in the field of mass media, “fake news” — both as an actual phenomenon of false stories, and as a politician’s tactic of attacking the press — has gained special potency in the age of social media.

“Social media promotes fake news,” he told The Times of Israel. “We are talking about a platform that is unregulated, uncontrolled, uncensored, processed without any traditional gatekeepers such as editors, and all with the ability to spread incredibly fast, especially among young people.”

Professor Gabriel Weimann (Courtesy)

Weimann said that social media has the potential to boost democracy and participation in political discourse. But that potential may also be its biggest pitfall.

“The beauty and problem with the internet, and especially social media, is that it is the most open, liberal, democratic platform that has ever existed,” he said. “Everyone can publish whatever you want: your songs, pictures, experiences; whatever you like. No one controls the content. But it can therefore also be used to spread lies.”

And that freedom, Weimann says, is accessible to “your high school friends, terrorists and politicians alike.”

Both Netanyahu and Trump have increased their use of social media in order to bypass and discredit the press, and communicate directly with the public.

Netanyahu’s office frequently uses the popular WhatsApp messaging platform to distribute statements, often anonymous, on pressing matters. He frequently posts Trump-like messages and self-serving statements and videos on Facebook and Twitter.

In an interview with Fox News earlier this year, Netanyahu admitted that being “overly connected” to the public via social media can be problematic and lead to poor decision-making. But he said that in today’s world, politicians have to play the game.

“The problem today for politicians is not being disconnected. The problem is they’re overly connected. And they’re completely at the mercy of these shifting tides of opinion that are reflected in the net. And that’s — not good,” he said. But, he added, “I think it’s inevitable. It’s there. We all work with it, we all understand it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu answers questions on Twitter live, at his residence in Jerusalem, as Israel celebrates its 68th Independence Day, May 12, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

In addition to using social media platforms to label the traditional media as “fake news,” both Trump and Netanyahu have also been accused of using the vast platform to disseminate their own falsehoods.

“Trump and Netanyahu do not only blame the media for spreading fake news, but both use online media to spread fake news,” Weimann said. “There are hundreds of examples from Trump, but no better example of this type of fake news than the ‘Arabs in droves’ video.”

He was referring to one of the most controversial moments of the 2015 election, which has since become a symbol of the lengths Netanyahu is willing to go to remain in power.

Faced with polls showing that the rival Zionist Union party could edge out his Likud, and with just hours left for voting on election day, Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page claiming a mass effort to ferry Arab Israeli voters to the ballot stations.

“The rule of the right is in danger,” Netanyahu said in the video. “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing organizations are busing them in.”

The remarks drew sharp condemnations from Israelis across the political spectrum, including President Reuven Rivlin, as well as from the Obama administration.

Arab Israelis did vote in larger numbers than before and turned the main party representing them, the Joint (Arab) List, into the third-largest in parliament. But there was no evidence of the claims made by Netanyahu, and he has since apologized on a number of occasions.

“It was fake news, spread by the prime minister, on social media,” Weimann said, stressing that those three factors made the story “particularly hazardous.”

Levyatan, the head of the University of Haifa program, warned that political leaders have the dangerous potential to use social media as a form of mind control.

“In ‘1984,’ the authorities control us mainly through the ‘telescreen,’ which can see what we are doing,” said Levyatan, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian classic. “Today’s technological devices, which we use of our own free will — such as the smartphone and social networks — allow the elite to penetrate our minds.”

Wanted: Critical consumers of social media

Last month, American internet giants told the United States Congress they were committed to cracking down on “fake news” on their platforms, but admitted the phenomenon had taken them by surprise.

Testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the influence of Russian-backed fake news, Facebook disclosed that a shady Russian group had posted more than 80,000 times on its service during and after the 2016 election, potentially reaching as many as 126 million users. Twitter said it had found that nearly 37,000 automated “bot” accounts with Russian links generated 1.4 million tweets that were seen by a potential 288 million people in the three months before the November 8, 2016, presidential election.

(From left to right) Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook; Sean Edgett, acting general counsel at Twitter; and Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security at Google, testify during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’ in Washington, DC, October 31, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Facebook, Twitter and Google all sought to assure concerned lawmakers that they were taking necessary steps to rid their platforms of disinformation, propaganda and provocation.

“We are deeply concerned about all of these threats,” Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said.

The companies said they had already begun implementing measures to try to screen out manipulative content, though they face the difficult challenge of keeping their platforms open, in order to avoid accusations of censorship and bias, and not becoming the curators of truth in society.

Weimann welcomed the efforts, but said that he was “not optimistic” regarding their chances of success.

“Just imagine how they could be able to monitor the chatter online, billions of postings and emails and messages every minute. Who would be able to check them all and decide what breaks regulation, what is true?” he said.

With no clear-cut answer to tackle the fake news, whether disseminated by automated bots or by heads of state, Weimann believes the answer lies in educating the next generation of social media users to become “critical consumers.”

“We need to teach people from a young age how to engage with the news they read online,” he said. “This needs to be something taught at school. It is a central component of how we interact with the internet. It needs to be taught at the most basic level.”

Weimann called for a new culture of “responsible browsing,” which he said the University of Haifa’s “fake news course is trying to address.”

The University of Haifa campus (Courtesy)

“The University of Haifa is a leader in the fight against this epidemic, ensuring that all will be better equipped to dissect information,” said Karen Berman, CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.

Levyatan hopes that students who complete the course “will be more critical about the information they absorb, have a firmer understanding of the information industry, and,” he added, “be better equipped to analyze and understand reality.”

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