Political activists calling for a boycott of Israel operated a system of phony accounts and automated accounts (bots) on social networks like Facebook and Twitter to exert pressure on singer Lana Del Rey, the stage name of Elizabeth Wooldridge Grant, to cancel her performance in Israel, Ministry of Foreign Affairs sources told "Globes" today. The organizers of the Meteor festival scheduled late this week announced Del Rey's planned appearance on August 15, after which heavy pressure was exerted on her to cancel her appearance, which she did late last week.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy director general and head of public diplomacy Noam Katz told "Globes" that his staff had noticed that some of the posts, responses, and tweets on the subject were not by real people. Katz, 25 of whose team work in the digital sphere, says that this is the result of astroturfing, in which phony accounts are used to impersonate the activity of grassroots organizations in order to create or influence political controversies, a phenomenon that also occurred in the 2016 US presidential elections.
"A limited number of BDS activists with real accounts bolster their actions with bots and create tumult on the Internet on a given issue," Katz says. "Our job is to tell the public, 'This isn't real. Someone here is manipulating you.'"
"Globes": How can you distinguish between astroturfing and authentic activity?
Katz: "There are tools for doing just that. A lot of the work is done by us in-house and we also use software. I won't name names."
Freedom of opinion isn't everything
In recent years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has encountered difficulty in operating its diplomatic apparatus in the digital age. It has 800 official accounts of Israel on a variety of social networks and a staff that works 24/7 in 52 different languages. This does not involve merely delivering messages and public relations in the narrow sense of the term; it is an effort to deal with more difficult challenges.
Astroturfing, a term that has not even been translated into Hebrew yet, is one of the main challenges: detecting this digital activity around the world before it does damage and selecting the appropriate diplomatic tools to deal with it. In the case of Lana Del Rey, the final result was depressing, with or without a connection to bots, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is already looking forward and preparing, among other things, for the expected storm about the 2019 Eurovision song contest in Israel.
Katz says that technology companies are now more attentive to reports by countries of phony accounts, bots, and fake news. In the past, he says, they denied that the problem existed. "We have made progress with them. They are no longer behaving as if there were no problem. 1,000 phony Iranian accounts that tried to distribute misleading information and anti-Israel propaganda were removed from the networks only recently," he says.
In conversations with technology entrepreneurs and companies, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now looking for additional tools to delay the spread of content it regards as harmful. "We are initiating hackathons, scanning the technology market, talking with technological partners in Israel and overseas, and soliciting ideas from technology companies," Katz says. "We claim that the argument about freedom of opinion is not the whole story; sometimes it restricts us in handling questionable materials. The focus should be on development of rules of the technology companies that will lessen the dissemination of dubious opinions."
This is not necessarily a demand for the removal of accounts perceived as harmful. When a person writes questionable things that can be perceived as incitement, the post should not receive extensive exposure and the option of disseminating it further. Katz gives an example from the transportation field: "It's not necessary to take the vehicle off the road. The focus should be on the traffic laws and where to put the no entry or stop sign. In other words, freedom of opinion should be maintained, but not freedom to manipulate. Instead of surfers reporting extreme content, Facebook and Twitter should delay the spread of such content. We're promoting this through dialogue with the technology companies, raising the subject with the public, and trying to lead legislative change."
How to escape the echo chamber
Another difficulty that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is faced with is finding spaces on the Internet in which its staff is not currently present. "The networks are an echo chamber," says Katz. "Every person hears the opinions and topics encompassing his or her natural environment. Among people not involved with Israel, a discourse is likely to take place that we are entirely unaware of. First of all, we locate someone outside our echo chamber. Secondly, we try to give an amplifier for our position in these spaces through another influence on the algorithm for promoting content."
For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is taking digital action among US audiences whose attitude to Israel is extremely negative. When there are Israeli diplomatic visits to Africa, for example, or when Israel contributes to the economy in Africa, they try to disseminate this among minorities in the US, so that it becomes part of the discourse taking place among them.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on September 4, 2018
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