Israel might be a small country, but when it comes to cyber-security, it can be seen as a superpower. The Israeli government understood early on that cybersecurity is a sector where Israel has a comparative advantage based on cutting-edge research and unique practical experience. Indeed, in 2017 there were 420 active cybersecurity companies operating in Israel, giving the country the second highest concentration of cyber-defense companies in the world at the time. Collaboration between the U.S. and Israel has helped both sides cope effectively with increasing threats, including successfully harming Iran’s nuclear program significantly. But there is one cyber threat that even cyber superpowers like Israel have trouble dealing with, and that is the digital threat on the democratic process and the liberal values underlying it. With a general election legally required in the next year, and political campaigning expected to be vicious, this issue merits more attention. Last week’s municipal elections were especially telling in this regard.

The municipal elections in Israel offer a preview of what may happen when national elections come around: ugliness, disinformation, fake news and other attempts at manipulating public opinion. But mostly, the local contests revealed a lack of digital resilience and an insufficient understanding by authorities of how to protect the nation’s political discourse from being deliberately polluted by digital disinformation campaigns. This phenomenon, which has overshadowed American elections over the past two years, seems to have been introduced in full force during the municipal elections in Israel. The current situation has revealed both a deficiency in digital literacy and an absence of regulation in the digital sphere.  Now, a digital marketing free zone exists, used by political strategists, parties, and individuals in order to deliberately create election bias. These unfortunate developments seem to have added Israel to the list of cyber superpowers that have been tainted by the spreading of cybernetic information warfare.

In recent years it has become clear that the use of data analysis, non-transparent algorithmic systems, and computational propaganda based on the analysis of huge amounts of data can be used to manipulate public opinion and harm the ability to sustain a public life that is based on the values ​​of freedom of choice and individual autonomy. These manipulations are sometimes expressed in the phenomena of disinformation, which is amplified through the use of planned marketing techniques, or targeting based on personal information processing. A recent investigation by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth revealed a network of borderline-illegal campaign strategies used during the municipal elections to influence voter opinion. Techniques of distributing fake news, creating false “sockpuppet”  profiles or Facebook pages that impersonate opponents, and the use of trolls for anonymous slander were just some of the malicious activities noted.

The reporters learned that one of the key strategies used by these strategists was the mobilization of people through their emotions. Moshe Asolin, the owner of a digital media company in Jerusalem, mentioned that “Hatred can trigger waves of discourse.” Thus, it makes sense that Asolin has worked on several campaigns where fake profiles were created under opponents’ names in order to confuse voters. Another technique revealed was the collection and marketing of personal data by the creation of avatars, fictitious personalities on social media. Ran Tenenbaum, the CEO of Media Group, confessed that his company is currently maintaining around 120 different avatars. Each one has hundreds of thousands of friends, enabling an efficient distribution network. Through these avatars, the company can “create a discourse by force” by producing databases on people based on their opinions, religion, or even sexual orientation. Tenenbaum says that today “you can monitor and identify political opinions, build a psychological profile and influence.” Whoever has the means can mobilize entire groups.

The Israeli news website Mako depicts a similar picture, where “hundreds and thousands of accounts that are suspected of being fake have been serving the political purposes of large parties, and municipalities, including those of Herzliya, Nahariya, Haifa, Tiberias, Yavneh and more.” They revealed, for example, that in Kiryat Mozkin a Facebook profile of Tziki Avisar, one of the candidates, posted a message that said he was retiring from the race, accompanied by a screen shot of matching news from Mynet website. The news was never published and the profile was fake, forcing the candidate to explain, perhaps too late, that he is still taking part in the race.

The Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee organized a meeting because of these problems. During the meeting, Knesset members Roy Folkman, Rachel Azaria, and Yulia Malinovsky expressed concern over how unprepared the authorities are to address the phenomena of fake news and fraud during election time, partially due to what they see as a lack of sufficient digital resilience. Rachel Azaria, who had just withdrawn her candidacy from the race for mayor of Jerusalem, mentioned that “The gap between what we are describing here in the committee and the reality on the ground is enormous. I personally experienced these developments and can see what is happening today in Jerusalem; it’s very disturbing.”

During the meeting, Erez Tidhar, head of the department for market guidelines in Israel’s National Authority for Cyber Defense, revealed that in the last weeks approaching the municipal elections, Facebook took down thousands of fake profiles, avatars, and social media bots that were trying to manipulate public opinion. Tidhar noted that their office’s lead role has always been to protect the country and its citizens from cyber-attacks that may include disruption, damage to functional continuity, the infiltration of disruptive information, theft of information, destruction of information, and so on. However, they do not deal with the world of actual content, which is why the realm of manipulation of public opinion through digital means has been left untouched by cyber security authorities.

While the protection of critical infrastructures or organizations from cyberattacks is a challenge that can be clearly understood, the battle for public consciousness, which can be done by disrupting public opinion and spreading false information, is more complex. This is why one of the major tools that can be used in order to fight this new epidemic is to guide the citizen, the user, to exercise discretion by promoting digital literacy.

Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former head of IDF Military Intelligence, has claimed that  the real cyber-threat comes from those who try to intervene in the democratic process, as occurred when Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. ” Yet,  we have seen in the case of Israel’s municipal elections, this threat doesn’t always come from the outside. Whoever has the means can mobilize the people based on their different motivations, be it profit, ideology, or power. Israel’s municipal elections demonstrate how unprepared the Israeli political system is to deal with new kinds of digital age threats, offering a disturbing preview of what lies ahead when Israelis head to the polls for the next national elections.