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Social media enables a fake-news slugfest

  • Paula
I remember my early years in the newsroom when we’d have some harmless fun thinking up some fake news story to broadcast on 1 April, also known as April Fools’ Day.
by PAULA SLIER | Apr 04, 2019

Some of those stories have remained with me. For example, when I was working as a journalist at the SABC, a news editor asked a colleague of mine to go film an art exhibition by Leonardo da Vinci and, if possible, interview the Italian artist. (Sadly, I remain convinced that this was not an April Fools’ joke, but that the editor really meant it.)

These days, one doesn’t need to wait for 1 April to read or watch purposefully falsified information. We’re living in the age of a fake news industry in which disinformation is deliberately spread through traditional and online media. We need to be vigilant about what we read not only once a year, but on each of the 365 days of the annual news cycle.

United States President Donald Trump popularised the phrase, but “fake news” has been around for centuries. And far from helping us sort through what’s true and not, Trump has muddied the waters by labelling any story or news outlet he doesn’t like “fake news”.

Sadly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoes the tactics of his ally by castigating the police who have been investigating him, and the news media who’ve reported on it. Netanyahu doesn’t use a cell phone, so unlike the US president, he doesn’t do late-night tweeting. However, the Israeli prime minister is not shy of also using the terms “fake news” and “witch-hunt” against those he dismisses.

There’s a world of difference between not liking news and deliberately spreading false information. So we find ourselves left to sort through endless fake news accounts, Facebook feeds and Twitter posts, mostly on our own.

Nowhere has the issue of fake news received more attention than during political electioneering. Russia was accused of deliberately spreading false information during the 2015 US presidential campaign.

That charge, which Moscow has consistently denied, claims that people were paid to fill news feeds with false stories aimed at sowing distrust in democracy and helping Trump to win.

Whether true or not, it was later revealed that there was more public engagement with the top 20 fake news stories on Facebook about the elections than the top 20 true election stories from 19 major media outlets.

The same happened during Brazil’s elections at the end of last year. Only four of the top 50 images that circulated in political WhatsApp groups were found to be real. This means that 46 out of 50 were hoaxes or distortions of the truth.

We learn two things from this: digital platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp) are hugely important during election campaigns and there’s expansive room for fake news to flourish on these platforms.

Israel is no exception.

With just days to go before the 9 April parliamentary election, it’s emerged that a network of hundreds of social media accounts, many of which are fake, have been boosting Netanyahu’s re-election campaign online.

This is according to an independent internet watchdog, the Big Bots Project, which claims the network posted more than 130 000 times in Hebrew on Facebook and Twitter. (The network has been found to have no direct link to Netanyahu’s Likud party or any of its staff.) The sole purpose of these posts was to praise Netanyahu and smear his rivals; sometimes the latter was done by spreading false information.

The report found that as Netanyahu’s chief rival, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, became more popular, the accounts worked in sync with each other to discredit him.

One account, for example, posted the false rumour that Gantz was a rapist. Others immediately reposted it until it was picked up by prominent Likud campaign officials and, eventually, the mainstream public.

The same happened with posts about Gantz being mentally ill, gay, and even having a mistress. On the evening before the attorney-general announced his decision to indict Netanyahu, a Facebook post by a US woman claiming Gantz had sexually harassed her in high school was reposted many times online. Despite there being no support for the claim and Gantz denying it, the story spread.

The watchdog found that 154 of the accounts used fake names and another 400 were presumably fake. But still, the posts, all of which were in Hebrew, had more than 2.5 million hits.

And this is the double-edged sword the Israeli elections, and indeed the information age in which we live, face. One can reach huge numbers of people online through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and other such platforms. However, the same technology still hasn’t managed to stop lies and disinformation from spreading.

Facebook is trying its best. It has been actively shutting down accounts responsible for promoting fake news. This it did especially in countries holding general elections, such as Indonesia and India, which are going to the polls later this month.

When it comes to Israel, the social media giant has applied a filter that limits who can post political advertisements to the Israeli public. Interested parties have to confirm their identity with an official government-approved ID.

This means non-Israelis are unable to take out political adverts. Every political advertisement has to have a disclaimer acknowledging the name of the account that funded the advert. Also, an available archive allows users to search for all advertisements paid for by politicians dating back seven years.

But it’s not foolproof, and least of all when politicians are increasingly using social media to reach potential voters.

Gantz has returned attacks on Netanyahu on social media, claiming the prime minister was behind leaks of his private conversations. The former Israeli Defense Forces chief is also calling for an investigation into the fake news network, claiming that “Netanyahu is leading a campaign of terror on the consciousness of the citizens of Israel”.

The two leaders are currently polling neck and neck, although Netanyahu is expected to have a better chance at garnering the 61 seats needed to form a majority government.

As the race tightens, the campaigning has become more personal and nasty, and Israeli pundits have termed this the “most disgusting” election in Israel’s history.

9 April has become less about real issues. It’s fast turned into an election about Netanyahu – and whether or not to keep him in office.

For many Israelis, the mere appearance of Gantz and his party being able to offer a viable challenge to the premier is in itself an electoral advantage. It actually holds strong potential to attract voters eager to send Netanyahu packing.

Israeli law prevents political advertisements from being aired on television until two weeks before the elections, so parties have been flooding social media.

Never before has the latter played such an important part in polling, bringing with it all the promise and pitfalls that the new information age offers.

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