Israel Developing Tools to Fight on Social Media Battlefront

  • Anti-Israel Internet posts bent on delegitimization: Minister
  • National organization needed to counter threat: Cyber expert

Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of another war with Hezbollah are high on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda for this week’s visit to Washington. Out of the limelight, but still of great concern to Israeli policy makers, is the broadening battle the Jewish state faces in cyberspace.

“Israel is in the midst of a cognitive war, which is part of a new strategic challenge,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said in e-mailed comments to Bloomberg. The battlefront is social media, and adversaries range from those inciting attacks against Israelis to non-violent campaigns like Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. All are bent on delegitimizing Israel, Erdan said.

His warning comes as the United Nations increasingly recognizes that information and communications technology are being used for terrorist purposes, and as member states seek partnerships with communication service providers and other private companies to counter the threat. Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Twitter Inc. and YouTube Inc. plan to develop a joint database to facilitate removal of problematic content.

Already in 2012, then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described the web as “a prime example of how terrorists can behave in a truly transnational way," and said states must think similarly to counter the threat. Israel last year joined the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, created in 2001 to pursue a common criminal policy so countries can jointly enforce laws in cyberspace. 

Online Struggle

Israel is a global leader in cybersecurity technology -- a point Netanyahu is expected to emphasize on his U.S. visit -- but has struggled to wage the war for hearts and minds online. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is leading the government’s fight against BDS, “is actively developing tools to further enhance our capabilities,” including by adding social media experts, Erdan said. 

A recent Facebook post on the BDS page applauded Belgian artists and academics who urged their government to end participation in a project with Israeli police. A tweet applauded the cold shoulder given to Israeli dance company Batsheva in Brooklyn, New York. BDS calls for ending Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, ending discrimination against Israeli Arabs, and allowing Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to lands they fled in 1948, which Israel sees as a call to end the Jewish state by demographic means.

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti said Israel’s own policies were leading to its delegitimization. 

“The Palestinian-led, global BDS movement raises awareness about Israeli injustices and presents an effective, nonviolent response to them,” he added.

Facebook Law

Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked are co-sponsoring a bill colloquially known as the “Facebook Law,” which would give the government more tools to demand removal of online postings like those it says encouraged a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis beginning in October 2015. An inter-ministerial task force has been formed and the government is in constant dialogue with companies including Facebook and Google Inc.

The threat of terrorist attacks from individuals radicalized by online material also has been reduced, Erdan said, in part by “improving real-time monitoring and analysis” of social media posts.

Israelis also are accused of online incitement: A Vigo Social Intelligence study carried out for the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement found 675,000 racist posts toward Arabs on Israeli social media last year, up from 280,000 in 2015, and primarily on Facebook.

Tel Aviv- and New York-based Spot.IM Ltd., which manages talkbacks for 5,400 sites in the U.S. and Europe -- including Forbes, Huffington Post and AOL -- employs machine learning to identify aggressive, violent or inappropriate posts. According to company data, three-quarters of talkback posts deleted in Israel insulted or attacked Arabs, while a quarter were aggressive toward Israelis. The situation globally is the opposite, with 80 percent of the posts eliminated consisting of anti-Israel material.

Problematic Content

Facebook said last month it works “aggressively” to remove problematic content “as soon as we become aware of it.” In October, 828 requests to eliminate material were submitted to Internet providers, and 670 were completely or partially accepted, Shaked told diplomats this month.

Israel is also taking the offensive: Ynet reported Israel’s Defense Ministry has launched an Arabic-language website to publish articles discrediting Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Forces established a social media unit in 2009 to boost Israel’s image on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, but the army spokesman’s office denied requests to interview members of the unit. 

Gabi Siboni, a cyber expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recommends that the government set up a National Cognitive Situation Room partnering specially trained soldiers with the civilian sector to wage the cognitive war. The organization would establish guidelines for defending against existing threats, foiling threats in the making, and taking offensive steps against target groups. 

That would mean a tremendous investment in technology and solutions won’t be easy to find.

“You can automate some of the processes, you can use avatars, but to tell you there is a bullet-proof solution to that, or even close? No way,” said Adi Dar, chief executive officer of Raanana, Israel-based Cyberbit, the cybersecurity unit of Elbit Systems Ltd. “The social media network is huge, always changing and very dynamic.”

— With assistance by Fadwa Hodali

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