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Facebook rolls out Israeli election transparency tool less than month before vote

The new emphasis on private, secure communication could help Facebook deal with complicated demands for content moderation and government data requests, one expert says
Lionel BONAVENTURE (AFP/File)
New transparency tool will allow Facebook to see who has paid for sponsored ads and trace accountability

Facebook will roll out its political advertisement transparency tool on Friday, less than one month before Israelis vote in national elections.

The measure is meant to help stymie online meddling in the April 9 vote by forcing ad sponsors to identify themselves publicly in an effort to ensure that all such advertisers are Israeli, and not foreign actors.

Israel’s election committee last month urged the technology giant to step up its monitoring of subversive practices on its social network and bring forward the launch of the tool intended to prevent foreign meddling.

The request came following a warning by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency of attempts by unspecified “foreign nations” to influence the Israeli vote and amid a global crackdown by big tech companies amid anxiety that social platforms are being used to manipulate elections by distributing fake news reports that inflame political divisions and confirm voters’ biases.

Facebook ads have been at the center of an FBI investigation over Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 US election that saw Donald Trump take office, as well as in votes across Europe.

Israeli campaign managers were informed by Facebook on Wednesday that they would have to undergo identity verification before publishing any ads relating to political figures, political parties and elections.

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

The new transparency tool -- a team of 30,000 people made up of both human and machine intelligence -- will allow Facebook to see who has paid for the sponsored ad and trace accountability.

Each political ad will be filed for up to seven years in libraries that are open to public, providing total transparency on the amount of funding each received and who commissioned it.

The measure has already been deployed successfully in the United States, Brazil, Ukraine and United Kingdom.

Internet giant Google, meanwhile, has reportedly decided to suspend targeted or “personal” advertising for any companies dealing with political advertising.

The proliferation of data pertaining to voting factors such as political views, social connections, sexual orientation and even spending habits makes targeted online messaging an attractive tool for campaigning, or other interested parties seeking to manipulate voting patterns.

Since Israel votes with paper ballots, any cyber election meddling would likely involve efforts to manipulate public opinion by spreading false information online.

AP Photo/Dan Balilty, File

In Israel, campaigning laws generally require that political entities identify themselves in their advertisements. But those rules do not apply to online media, since they were passed before the advent of social media.

An effort by Israel’s Central Elections Committee to apply the same legal standards of transparency to new forms of campaigning, specifically online media, was reportedly agreed upon by all political parties except for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

The reported objection came as Likud launched its own online news channel providing Netanyahu -- who has an acrimonious relationship with Israel's traditional media -- a new platform for promoting his views ahead of the vote.

Netanyahu and his faction have often used fake news tactically to broaden their base, most memorably during the 2015 elections when they launched a non-digital election-day campaign inflaming right-wing anxieties over a massive surge in Arab voter turnout.

Though the spike in Arab voters never materialized, post-election data showed an unexpected surge in right-wing ballots cast during the last two hours of voting.

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