A screenshot of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook page.



“This is a spin of a spin,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shouted Tuesday afternoon after Facebook closed his Messenger chatbot, which asked users who they were voting for.

“They are trying to put you to sleep! Tomorrow you could wake up to [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz sitting here!” the chatbot warned.

“The chatbot is our way to talk to our supporters,” Netanyahu lamented. “They took a five-kilo hammer and used it to crush us in the Likud.”

The prime minister appeared in a total panic about the social media giant’s decision to close the chat, but it was likely for good reason. Facebook had shut down one of Netanyahu’s lifelines: access to data.

Since the start of their campaign, Likud had been using sponsored Messenger ads to collect data on users, according to Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Democracy in the Information Age program.

Facebook Messenger ads are designed to start instant message conversations with a page’s target audience. They are used primarily because they feel more personal than standard display ads and are therefore known for having higher-than-average response rates.

Sponsored messages appear in a Facebook user’s Messenger chat box and prompt a conversation. Combined with Facebook’s ad targeting options to identify the precise users the page wants the advertisement to reach – individuals can be identified by their demographics, interests, hobbies, and behaviors, or even more sophisticated targeting options such as user behavior, interests, life events and more – they create an instant connection between advertisers and their audiences.

Shwartz Altshuler said Likud was asking people who they voted for in the last election and who they planned to vote for in this election. Depending on their answers, they would receive follow-up messages, until ultimately Likud was able to capture enough information that, when extracted, could be meshed with external data sets and used for follow up on Facebook or via other platforms.

The Marker reported earlier this week that the Likud database features the personal details – including identification numbers, addresses and telephone numbers – of senior military officials, judges, journalists, politicians and regular citizens, and that the party was relying on the directory to manage its electoral campaign efforts.

Individuals in the mass database were listed under three categories concerning their political stance: “supporters,” “non-supporters” and “undecided.”

On Tuesday, Likud activists responsible for monitoring polling stations were to use the database to target “supporters” who had not voted and to help keep “non-supporters” who had not voted away from the polls.

Likud allegedly recorded messages already on Monday that were sent out on Election Day to hundreds of thousands of voters’ phones warning them of high turnout among either Arab voters or left-wing supporters. Some messages simply encouraged them to get out and vote if turnout was low. The messages were recorded by Likud lawmakers, settler leaders and others.

“Prophetically, Likud already knows what to say in Tuesday’s message,” a Haaretz reporter wrote in an article about the messages.

But the reality is that these messages were not prophetic at all.

The party analyzed and segmented various population groups and cities based on their support for Likud, prepared lists of their cell phone numbers and planned their messages intentionally.

Shwartz Altshuler explained that “the data Messenger gave them was very valuable – data that they otherwise only would have been able to get if they called these people directly. People are less likely to lie on Messenger than on the phone.”

After the 2016 US presidential election, Facebook acknowledged previous misuse and announced it was tightening its rules around political advertising after revelations that the Russian government bankrolled thousands of fake political ads during the campaign.

But critics said the rules were easy to evade, and Shwartz Altshuler said this is especially true when it comes to sponsored Messenger ads.

“These ads are more under the radar,” she explained, citing the note sent by his Facebook page last week that called on voters to avoid a left-wing government of “Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men – and allow a nuclear Iran that will kill us.”

“That message went to around 150,000 people via Messenger,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “Because Messenger ads are so targeted, they are much harder to catch and are more under the radar.”

A report on Monday showed that Netanyahu spent NIS 500,000 on Facebook ads just in the last week before the election.

Could these methods have swayed the election?

Shwartz Altshuler said that while it is unlikely that Likud could convince a left-wing voter to vote Right, it could influence if they go out and vote. When Netanyahu says, “Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves” or “they are stealing the election” to his constituents at the right time, this can increase turnout and the strength is in numbers.

Israeli political scientist Emmanuel Navon said that Netanyahu has been using digital capabilities quite extensively since April’s election in order to circumvent traditional media outlets and speak directly to the Israeli people and his voters.

His Facebook page has as many followers as Israel’s largest TV stations, so when he goes “live” on Facebook, he has a large and loyal audience.

“For many years, he has tried to bypass the traditional media, which he accuses of being biased against him,” Navon said.

Though he said he believes Netanyahu has become ever-more sophisticated by modeling after some of his closest political allies: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump, two politicians who, like Netanyahu, felt traditional is biased against them.

“Bolsonaro has been very much boycotted by mainstream media in Brazil,” said Navon. “He ran his campaign mostly on social media,” and he won.

However, Navon cautioned that the impact of social media on not only elections, but the aftermath of the elections, can be quite negative.

“Social media contributes to making politics more simplistic and more radical,” he said. “These extreme messages really don’t contribute to the political debate.”

And in the end, maybe they didn’t. With exit polls showing a stalemate between the Left and the Right, Facebook and its big data failed. 


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