Old Fashioned Election Propaganda

| Written By:

When we struggle during election campaigns to enforce a rule against use of private data and building profiles of users in order to target them with personalized messages, we are essentially fighting for the rights of the community of older voters


The Israeli television channels are once again featuring political party broadcasts. Once again, precious airtime of the various television and radio channels, both public and private, have been nationalized in the service of election candidates, giving us all a feeling of “back to the 1980s.” However, this piece of nostalgia also provides us with an opportunity to attempt to understand what really influences elections. Is it Russia and Iran, via online interference, as the head of the Israeli Security Agency warned a few months ago? The bots, fake news, and disinformation that are rife on social media? The precise individual targeting of messages based on analysis of personal data? Or perhaps it is the traditional media—the main news websites, television, radio, and the press?

In a special pre-election survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis were asked the source of most of their information on political issues; and could choose more than one response among the options presented. . Not surprisingly, at the top of the list were the established news websites and television news programs, while social networks came in fourth, slightly above the radio and print media.

Sources of information about politics, Jews and Arabs, %

It is certainly reasonable to assume that there are various sources influencing voters’ thinking ahead of the elections, including both the traditional and digital media. And so, despite the temptation to focus on social media, bots, and Russian intervention, it is still vital to examine the role of the old-fashioned media. It is important to have a discussion about the rules of behavior of the traditional media and how it can be misleading; about its social contract with the Israeli public and the extent to which it upholds this contract; about the business models it is based on; about its level of transparency; and more. Furthermore, we need to discuss the relations between traditional media and social media. When traditional media acts merely as an echo chamber, amplifying activity on social media instead of creating its own significant professional agenda, it pulls the rug out from under itself. When the media cooperates with the spreading of rumors, invasive use of personal information, or other digital attempts at manipulation, it accelerates the disintegration of liberal democracies, which in turn, are the media’s main defense (or at least should be).

However, if we look more closely at the survey described above, we see that we also need to talk about “old-fashioned” media use in another sense—that is, media use by the older population. The survey findings reveal that Israelis’ consumption of news is not related to their gender, political opinions, or voting habits. Rather, news consumption is influenced mainly by age.

The older the age group, the higher the proportion of those getting  their information from television news: 40% among those aged 24 and under; 46% in the 25–34 age group; 53% in the 35–44 age group; 59% among those aged 45–54; and 82% among those aged 56 and over. By contrast, younger cohorts are more reliant on social media: 56% of those up to age 24 r get their information from social media, with this figure dropping to 47% in the 25–34 age group; 44% in the 35–44 age group; 33% in the 45–54 age group; 30% in the 55–64 age group; and just 13% among those aged 65 and over.

On the face of it, there is nothing new here. Young people are active on social media, and older people watch TV. But there is an interesting underlying phenomenon here that’s worthy of attention. A paperAndrew Guess, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua Tucker (2019), “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook,” Science Advances, vol. 5, no. 1, http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/1/eaau4586#F1. published in January in the research journal, Science Advances, which is part of a wave of studies on the dissemination of disinformation via Facebook before the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, reveals two things: First, most of the false information shared on Facebook was distributed by a very small minority of users. Second, the researchers contend, the dissemination of fake news was not related to users’ political opinions, party affiliations, or other intensive activity on social media networks. Instead, the most reliable predictor of spreading fake news was age.

During the period studied, users aged 65 and above disseminated twice as much fake news as the age group immediately younger than them, and seven times more fake news articles than the remaining age groups combined. And the truth is that anyone who has a family WhatsApp group can ask themselves how often they have received unfounded information that was shared by older relatives.

Among other factors, the researchers attribute this phenomenon to the low levels of media and digital literacy among older users. Their findings align with a recent Pew Research Center survey Jeffrey Gottfried and Elizabeth Grieco (2018), “Younger Americans are better than older Americans at telling factual news statements from opinions,” Pew Research Center website, October 23, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/23/younger-americans-are-better-than-older-americans-at-telling-factual-news-statements-from-opinions/. which found that younger Americans are better than older Americans at differentiating opinions from fact in the media.

The message is that if we wish to halt the dissemination of disinformation and to prevent voters being swayed by digital manipulation, we need to pay close attention to the older population, for two reasons: First, because this group is the most vulnerable  to manipulation and influence prior to elections; and second, because this group is also more likely to distribute fake news to other age groups.

And so, when we struggle during election campaigns to enforce a rule against use of private data and building profiles of users in order to target them with personalized messages, we are essentially fighting for the rights of the community of older voters. These voters, who have a low level of digital literacy, will tend not only to share disinformation with others but also to share their own private data, not understanding the significance of a survey that is intended solely to gather information about the user and which is sent in the form of a seemingly innocent- text message. They are also ill-equipped to cope with a well targeted campaign like Netanyahu’s “the Arabs are flocking to the ballot boxes” in 2015. This is no different from other forms of commercial manipulation of older people featured in recent headlines: getting them to buy products they don’t need, take out loans, or sign draconian contracts with service providers. The difference is of course, that in this case, it’s our democracy that’s at stake.

And so, the fight against fake news must include the issue of older users’ media literacy. We must be aware of this issue, since there will no doubt be those who will seek to exploit it for their own benefit, at the older users’ expense. Usually, when we talk about media literacy, we are referring to including it in school curricula. But these recent findings tell us that those who are most lacking in literacy left school years ago. We need to create educational campaigns that are tailored to the needs of older citizens, perhaps even via traditional media outlets, which remain the primary source of information for this population group.