The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rich people who own newspapers can shift elections. Israel shows how.

Sheldon Adelson’s newspaper moved Israeli voters to the right. Could a similar newspaper shift votes in a U.S. swing state?

Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of Israeli lawmakers at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem last month.

“Can the ultrarich shape electoral results by controlling media outlets that openly propagate their political interests?” That is the question political scientists Guy Grossman, Yotam Margalit and Tamar Mitts pose in their new paper in the Journal of Politics. Using conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s ownership (while he was alive) of the free Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom as a case study, they conclude that the answer is yes. The newspaper “exerted significant electoral influence,” they find, by increasing support for right-wing party Likud and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister-designate after the Israeli election Nov. 1.

In the following interview, which has been edited and condensed, Grossman, Margalit and Mitts discuss how they measured IH’s right-wing bias, under what conditions other publications would be able to replicate its influence, and whether their study has any implications for Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

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NL: Sheldon Adelson launched IH in 2007. How does IH fit into Israel’s broader media landscape?

Guy Grossman: When Adelson launched the newspaper, the market in Israel was concentrated among two major newspapers, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv, both of which were considered relatively mainstream and centrist.

But just as a mainstream or centrist publication in the United States can be seen by some as very lefty, there was a sense among some people on the right in Israel that the media landscape was tilted to the left.

So when Adelson launched IH, at the behest of Netanyahu, his goal was to create a newspaper that would be widely distributed and represent right-wing positions that were supposedly being neglected by mainstream media.

NL: You characterize IH as having a right-wing bias. How does one measure that?

Tamar Mitts: We first identified language that would be associated with the right and with the left. To take one example in the Israeli context, to talk about the West Bank, people on the right might talk about “Judea and Samaria,” while people on the left might use the phrase “occupied territories.” We quantified terms that appeared in IH by how left or right-wing they were — words were considered more right wing if they tended to appear in party manifestos for parties on the right, and left wing if they tended to appear in manifestos on the left. We then did the same for the language in a mainstream newspaper, so we were able to say how much more IH was slanted as compared to what people considered a middle-of-the-road publication.

We also looked at the kinds of topics the newspaper covered, including the images on the front page. If you cover more security-related news or if you have images that emphasize terrorism, that can move people to the right as well.

NL: You find that exposure to IH had a significant impact on vote share for the right bloc in Israel. Was this primarily by increasing turnout, persuading people of the merits of right-wing positions, or some combination of both?

Yotam Margalit: The effect comes primarily from persuasion rather than mobilization. Readers of IH changed their views on specific issues and improved their view of Netanyahu and his leadership. This was in line with the strategy behind IH, which involved a concerted effort to reach a broad segment of the population. Unlike publications that are targeted to very narrow segments of the population and designed to mobilize like-minded voters, IH sought to reach not just conservatives but also centrists and people on the left.

The World Cup of Democracy might look like this

NL: How was IH able to reach those groups?

YM: First, Adelson was willing to invest large sums of money into IH without any guarantee of a return on that investment, which allowed him to create a product of sufficient quality that people on all sides would be willing to consume. He also invested in a successful distribution strategy, placing IH in train stations and other central areas throughout the country.

In just four years, IH became the most circulated newspaper in Israel. That’s stunning. Also, Israel is a small country, so it’s easier to reach a large portion of the population. Having that kind of reach in the United States, for example, might be a struggle. But the U.S. has swing states that are not much bigger than Israel, so you could imagine an investment in a local newspaper in Arizona or Nevada having a similar impact.

NL: Can your study tell us anything about ultrarich control over technology companies? Can these likewise be tools of political persuasion?

GG: One takeaway from our study is that for the ultrarich to use a media company as a tool of political persuasion, they really need to invest a lot of money into that project, and they have to care more about persuasion than about profit. Musk taking over Twitter might be a similar case.

TM: One important difference is that on social media, the content is being generated by users without editors shaping the output. The closest parallel to editors are content moderation policies, but those are very hard to enforce. So the kind of influence IH was able to exert would probably be very hard to replicate on a platform like Twitter.

Do Twitter users want Musk to ban or censure offensive posts?

NL: What do you see as fruitful avenues for further research?

GG: Our study focuses on print media, but we’re now in the age of digital media, where marketing and media consumption are quite different, and where social media plays an increasingly important role. How does influence work in this environment? We also focus on only one country, so there are questions about what sorts of conditions need to be met for media in other countries to have the kind of influence that IH has had.

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