Defending Israeli Elections Against the Digital Onslaught

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Today, Israeli election law focuses on banning propaganda conducted by means of boats and planes (e.g. adverts on them).

Recent Knesset elections witnessed a dramatic change in how parties and candidates market themselves. Employing sophisticated online marketing techniques developed for commercial products, the parties and candidates distributed online propaganda (what is known today as “computational politics”) to an unprecedented degree.

We are not only referring to the distribution of videos on YouTube or Facebook. The major innovation of recent years relates not to the creation of content, but rather to the means of its dissemination (such as networks of bots) and the collection and analysis of personal information in order to target specific sectors and individuals.

The problem is that data analysis, automation, and algorithmic systems are not transparent. Online propaganda based on analysis of big data can result in an unprecedented manipulation of public opinion, and undermine the existence of a public sphere based on free choice and individual autonomy.

Today, Israeli election law focuses on banning propaganda conducted by means of boats and planes (e.g. adverts on them). But it does not include any provisions for dealing with the challenge to democracy posed by computational politics – or digital propaganda. In important ways, the law does not even apply to online election campaigns. For example, until very recently, the entities or individuals behind the publication of election advertisements were required to identify themselves only when such ads appeared in the print media or on billboards, but not when posted on the Internet.

An attempt to amend the law before these elections, based on the recommendations of a public committee created for this purpose headed by former Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, was unsuccessful. Only a month and a half before the elections, the head of the Electoral Committee, Justice Hanan Melcer, issued a ruling mandating that parties must include their identity as the publishers of their political advertisements also on websites and social media. Yet this judicial warrant and Facebook’s launch of new tools to verify the transparency of political advertisements, though important, are not a substitute for formal legislation that will ensure transparency and protection of privacy during elections.

The state must come to its senses and regulate the “Wild West” of election propaganda in Israel. Computational politics upsets the balance established by law between the principle of pluralistic freedom of expression in election campaigns, and protection of equality and the integrity of the elections.

This balance must be restored by amending and updating the law, based on the following principles: (1) protecting privacy as a public value, and banning the use of sensitive personal information during election campaigns; (2) requiring transparency and identification of the sponsors of all political propaganda; (3) outlawing deception and the presentation of political propaganda as news content; and (4) authorizing the head of the Central Election Committee to issue binding orders when justified, and where no other statutory tools are available.

Such an amendment is urgently required to protect Israeli democracy. We cannot – and must not – wait until the next elections.

The article appeared in the Jerusalem Post