|Patrice Riemens on Tue, 28 May 2019 10:13:56 +0200 (CEST)|
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|<nettime> Adam Entous: How Israel Limited Online Deception During Its Election (The New Yorker)|
Original to: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-israel-limited-online-deception-during-its-electionEarlier this year, Hanan Melcer, the chairman of Israel’s Central Elections Committee and a veteran justice on the Supreme Court, summoned representatives from major U.S. social-media and technology companies for talks about the role he expected them to play in curbing online deception during the country’s election, which took place on Tuesday. Facebook and Google sent representatives to meet with Melcer in person. Twitter executives, who weren’t in the country, arranged for a conference call. “You say you’ve learned from 2016,” Melcer told them, according to a government official who was present. “Prove it!”
When Melcer, two years ago, assumed his role overseeing the election, he expected that covert influence campaigns by foreign adversaries, similar to Russia’s alleged interference during the 2016 U.S. Presidential race, could be his biggest challenge. But, as Melcer and his colleagues looked more closely into the issues they could face, they realized that the problem was broader than foreign interference. Russia’s campaign in the United States demonstrated that fake personas on social media could influence events. In Israel and elsewhere, political parties and their allies realized that they could use similar techniques to spread anonymous messages on the Internet and on social media to promote their candidates and undermine their rivals.
The use of fake online personas has a long history in Israel. In the mid-two-thousands, an Israeli company called Terrogence used them to infiltrate suspected jihadi chat rooms. Later, Terrogence experimented with covertly influencing the jihadis they targeted. More recently, companies in Israel and elsewhere started using fake personas to spread messages on behalf of political parties and their allies.
Laws governing Israeli election campaigns, which date back, in their original form, to the late nineteen-fifties, bar political parties from disseminating messages anonymously in print, on the radio, and on television. But the laws were never updated to cover messages disseminated online.
Around the world, countries have addressed social-media manipulation in different ways and with varying degrees of urgency. U.S. lawmakers have criticized Facebook, Twitter, and other major social-media companies for allowing Russian misinformation to proliferate on their platforms. But Congress has taken few steps to address the issue, wary of impinging on free-speech protections.
An early proponent of modernizing Israel’s election laws was Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a law professor and senior researcher with the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute. In 2018, some of her recommendations found their way into draft legislation, which called for banning political parties from disseminating anonymous messages via the Internet or social media. “I was very satisfied. It was full circle for me,” Altshuler told me in a phone call last week. Then, in October, shortly after the legislation began circulating, a legal adviser in the Knesset told Altshuler that the legislation had been blocked by the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It was stopped by Likud,” Altshuler recalled. An official with the centrist Yesh Atid party, led by Yair Lapid, a prominent former television journalist, confirmed the role of Likud in blocking the legislation, which Lapid supported. “Netanyahu put the brakes on it at the last moment,” a Yesh Atid official told me. Likud officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Lapid has been one of Netanyahu’s most formidable political challengers and, in the run-up to Tuesday’s election, was a frequent target of anonymous online attacks, which his aides attributed to rival political parties. This past September, Lapid met with Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin, and urged him to use the influence of his office to convince all of the country’s political parties to agree to a voluntary moratorium on anonymous campaign messaging. One of the President’s aides told me that Rivlin was already aware of the problem. Shortly after his meeting with Lapid, Rivlin issued a public appeal. “I expect the heads of the parties themselves to commit to a fair election campaign. This commitment should be evident in the content and tone of their statements, and in excluding those who attempt to distort our judgment and warp our perception of reality. We do not want Israeli bots. We Israelis want to hear opinions and facts,” Rivlin said.
Within the Israeli system, Rivlin has moral authority but few executive powers. His appeal was non-binding, and it quickly became clear that the parties would not agree to a voluntary moratorium unless all the parties were on board, particularly Likud, which rebuffed the idea. Lapid’s proposal went nowhere.
Melcer knew little about cyber threats to voting machines, or about the role of social media and the Internet in modern information warfare, when, in April, 2017, his colleagues on the fifteen-member Supreme Court unanimously nominated him to chair the Elections Committee.
Melcer, who is sixty-eight, has never had a social-media account. (Israeli rules prevent sitting justices from having them, a government official said.) His first major decision as chairman of the Central Elections Committee, in late 2017, was to reject a proposal to deploy, in limited numbers, computerized voting machines, citing concerns that the systems could be vulnerable to hackers.
In the United States, election oversight is divided between state and local authorities and a patchwork of federal agencies and intelligence services. The disparate organizations, by tradition, do not readily coördinate with one another, though efforts have been made recently to change that dynamic. Israel’s more centralized system of using senior Supreme Court justices to administer elections dates back to the country’s founding. Melcer, who is required to retire from the court in two years, when he turns seventy, can afford to take controversial positions, unlike politicians and ordinary government officials who are less independent.
Shachar Ben Meir, an Israeli lawyer who specializes in bringing class-action cases, a couple of which have targeted Facebook, was disappointed that Likud had blocked the passage of legislation to update the country’s transparency laws to include campaign activities using the Internet and social media. In January, he and a partner at his law firm, Isaac Aviram, filed a petition with Melcer, arguing that he should simply “apply these very old laws to a new situation.”
Shortly thereafter, in a Knesset hearing room, Melcer presented representatives from Israel’s political parties with an ultimatum: they could either reach an agreement among themselves not to conduct covert campaigns on the Internet and social media, or he would consider banning the practice, unilaterally, through Election Day. Violators could be held in contempt of court and fined. “You know what? If you sign the informal agreement, it would make life easier for all sides. I will not have to give a ruling and you will have some standards to implement before the election,” Melcer said, according to Altshuler, who was present.
All but one of Israel’s political parties said they would accept the proposed restrictions. “Except for Likud, they all said, ‘Yes, we’re O.K. with this,’ ” Ben Meir told me. Likud argued that Melcer did not have the authority to impose a decision, and that only the Knesset could change the rules.
Melcer had come up with the idea of the ban after reading various books about free speech in the Internet age, including a 2016 work by Eric Barendt, an emeritus professor of law at University College London. (Reached by phone, Barendt said he had never spoken to Melcer and was unaware, until I called him, that his book had played a role in the Israeli elections.)
After the political parties failed to reach a voluntary agreement, Melcer imposed a ban in late February. Likud had the option of challenging Melcer’s judgment by filing a petition to the Supreme Court, but chose not to do so, effectively accepting the decision.
In January, representatives from Facebook and Google met separately with Melcer in his private chambers, where he presented them with a choice, similar to the one he gave Israel’s political parties. The companies could voluntarily take down anonymous accounts and unattributed messages associated with foreign actors and Israeli political parties. If they refused to do so, Melcer reserved the right to issue court orders compelling the companies to act. Israeli officials said Facebook and the other companies were noncommittal at first. “They said they had to think it over. They seemed unhappy,” a government official said. But later the companies told Melcer they would coöperate. Under the arrangement, Israeli political parties could identify suspicious accounts and content, and ask the social-media companies to remove them. If the companies weren’t responsive, then the political parties could appeal to Melcer directly for a decision. For weeks, the political parties seemed satisfied. Suspicious accounts and content were removed, and the parties didn’t ask Melcer to intervene.
About two weeks before the vote, however, the party of an Arab-Israeli politician, who asked not to be identified, complained to Facebook about messages that he said were derogatory and false. The politician asked Facebook to take the messages down. When the social-media company did not respond to the request, the legislator’s party asked Melcer to intervene. After reviewing the messages, Melcer ruled that Facebook had to act. Melcer did not address whether the accusations were true or false. Instead, he ruled that the messages should be removed because they were being spread anonymously.
Facebook complied with Melcer’s order, but, soon after, the same allegation against the Knesset member was reposted by others, prompting Melcer to issue a second takedown order. When the same thing happened a third time, the legislator’s party asked Melcer to order Facebook to reveal who set up the anonymous accounts which had spread the messages against him. Melcer has yet to rule in the case. A Facebook spokesman said, “When we receive adequate legal notice from a competent government authority, like a court order requiring the removal of unlawful content under local law, we review that order and take appropriate action.” Google and Twitter declined to comment.
After Israel’s vote, countries that are home to nearly half of the world’s population are slated to cast ballots in 2019. Melcer’s office declined to provide specific data, but an official there estimated that the number of anonymous messages related to the campaign fell by more than fifty per cent. “Israel went first. Everybody was looking to see how we handled it,” a government official told me. “We set a precedent and may be a model.”
(Bwo Eduard de Jong Frz.) PS First Dog on the Moon puts the issue a bit more graphically: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/facebook-google-twitter-theyd-still-be-dreadful-without-the-fascists # distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission # <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism, # collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets # more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l # archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: email@example.com # @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: