Netanyahu warns fake news on virus may be used to try to sway elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Sunday said the police and the Shin Bet security agency must be prepared to deal with possible attempts to influence next week’s national election through false news about the threat of the coronavirus.

During a situation assessment at the Health Ministry, Erdan said he had instructed police to prepare for the spread of false information about the coronavirus illness to influence the March 2 elections.

“We can’t ignore that we’re a week and a half before the elections and of course there is a concern there will be implications of the corona[virus] on the elections themselves and elements who will try to harm the integrity of the elections by distributing false reports — fake news — on the matter in order to influence the voting percentage in certain areas,” Erdan said.

He added that “it must be clear that this is of course a crime.”

Netanyahu chimed in that the Shin Bet security agency should also be ready to deal with various actors, including foreign ones, who may seek to influence the election through such means.

Neither Netanyahu nor Erdan identified any potential culprits. US officials said Saturday that there was a Russia-linked social media campaign to spread panic about the virus.

During the meeting, Netanyahu said a ministerial team would continue to work together to prevent the spread of the virus in Israel and to hold daily assessments.

Israel has responded severely to the threat posed by the disease, banning the entry of any foreigners who have been to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Singapore in the past 14 days. On Sunday it said South Korea and Japan would be added to that list.

Netanyahu acknowledged the harsh response, saying, “Israel has so far taken a harder line than any other country.” But, he added, “over-preparation is preferable to under under-preparation.”

The meeting was also attended by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Education Minister Rafi Peretz and many other ministers and top officials in the health, education and security sectors.

On Saturday authorities instructed some 200 Israeli students and teachers to self-quarantine due to their contact with a group of South Korean pilgrims who were found to have contracted the disease after returning home. It is not clear whether the Korean tourists were already infected while in Israel.

The only confirmed case of coronavirus in Israel is a woman who was quarantined on a cruise ship in Japan before being flown home after a test showed her to be clear of the pathogen. All 11 Israelis who returned to Israel from the Diamond Princess, where hundreds fell ill from the virus, are currently under quarantine.

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