Attention Facebook and Outbrain: Paid Content Is Now Political Ads in Israel

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Israel's Central Election Committee made a landmark ruling: promoted content online - even to real news reports - is political advertising


A Netanyahu 'emergency appeal' on Facebook on election day, Sept 17 2019: 'Long queues at Arab polling stations…You must go vote Likud to stop a last-minute leftist-Arab government'

A Netanyahu 'emergency appeal' on Facebook on election day, Sept 17 2019: 'Long queues at Arab polling stations…You must go vote Likud to stop a last-minute leftist-Arab government'Credit: Facebook

If you are an Israeli and have browsed Haaretz’s Hebrew website two weeks ago, you might have run across an article smearing the right-wing Yamina party and its leader Natfali Bennett. The article was not published by Haaretz or one of its writers, but was rather paid content. Appearing in one of two boxes operated by the content promotion company Outbrain, one click would take readers to articles on other sites (in this case, either the Mako website or the Srugim site which caters to religious Israelis).

What both articles had in common, as you’ve doubtless guessed, is that they portrayed the right-wing party leader in an unflattering light, as someone who is rash and has bad judgment. His Yamin party claimed these articles and attempts to drive traffic to them were part of the battle over right-wing voters in Israel. The party asked Israel’s Central Elections Committee to reveal who was behind these smears - as part of the proper disclosure that is required of all political ads.

With three weeks before the election, the election committee made an important decision this week: Its chairman, Justice Uzi Vogelman, ruled that paid promotion, reading recommendations, paid links and content recommendations are all considered campaign advertising and a form of electioneering - and must therefore include disclosures about who is behind them.

Marketing content exposes the user to two separate messages. The first is the promotion, i.e., the recommendation that the user read this content. The second is the content itself.

Vogelman effectively decided that if a political actor is behind the promotion of the content, then the promotion itself must be classified as campaign advertising and include a disclosure of who is behind it. This makes a lot of sense.

Disclosing the name of the advertiser will prevent readers from being misled into thinking that they’re being referred to objective content or receiving an unbiased recommendation when electioneering actually hides behind it. And if the party commissioning the content knows that it must disclose its identity, this might deter negative or unfair advertising.

Vogelman’s ruling is a natural extension of a decision made by his predecessor as committee chairman, Justice Hanan Melcer, prior to the April 2019 election. That decision said that in the absence of explicit legislation to the contrary, digital campaign advertising must be labeled just like campaign ads in newspapers are, including the identity of the person or party commissioning it.

There are various methods for promoting messages on social media. The best known are paid advertising, hidden advertising and marketing content, but there are also techniques meant to circumvent the requirement to identify the person behind the ads to the users.

This is how an industry was born that creates social media “content” that pretends to be “organic.” Outbrain is just one example. Fake accounts whose goal is to give naïve users the feeling that this is “someone who knows” rather than mere electioneering also fall into this category. So do bot networks that create the feeling that lots of people believe a certain opinion.

An industry was born that creates social media “content” that pretends to be “organic.” Outbrain is just one example

Moreover, vast quantities of information about every aspect of peoples’ personal lives – including their location, their health data, their surfing and viewing habits and their economic situation – are used to create precise profiles of voters. These enable parties to know exactly which messages will suit every voter, which emotional buttons can be pressed and where to find the voters in order to influence them.

But for Vogelman’s ruling to be the right step to protect us voters, the Central Elections Committee should set identical labeling requirements for campaign ads by candidates and parties on every medium – online or not – within the next few week. It should also inform media outlets, companies that integrate online ads and digital platforms of these rules. Just imagine what this will do to the whole industry of fake profiles operated by parties.

Looking toward the future, this decision shows how essential it is to amend the campaign advertising law by adding a criminal prohibition on “misleading electioneering” that would bar parties from depicting campaign ads as organic content or as anything other than electioneering. It’s important to note that such a ban on manipulating consumers via marketing content, fake profiles, paid likes and responses and coordinated online echo chambers already exists in many countries, and exists even in Israel in the Consumer Protection Law.

The question is who will protect people when the goal isn’t to sell them something, but to persuade them to vote for a particular party. Including such a provision in the campaign advertising law would not only make parties and candidates criminally liable, but would also allow the head of the Central Elections Committee to impose restraining orders in real time that would either mandate the removal of campaign ads posing as organic content or require them to be labeled.