“Every two minutes a new lie about Israel is shared online. You can put an end to this. Influence the conversation!”
So says Israel’s latest effort at influencing millennials: the Act for Israel smartphone app.
Gilad Erdan, Israel’s strategic affairs minister, presided over the app’s official launch at a gathering post-Celebrate Israel parade on June 4 in New York. Erdan called the app the “Iron Dome of Truth”.
The app is being marketed as a virtual toolkit for Israel activists; a means to push back on the delegitimization of Israel via the state’s maintenance of the occupation and constant oppression of Palestinians. Erdan echoed this pressing fear among the pro-Israel community at the act.il launch, saying “our cell phones are the number one weapon against us.”
The act.il campaign website implores users to take sixty seconds and download the app to defend Israel, extending a sense of existential urgency to the global pro-Israel community.
Of the roughly 2,500 current registered users, it appears the majority signed up this month, following the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s official launch.
The app is a joint venture of the Israeli American Community (IAC), the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC) and Maccabee Task Force, hardline Zionist organizations funded in large part by Jewish-American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. (http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.795169) Adelson also owns the rightwing newspaper Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely circulated daily.
According to promotional material, the inspiration for act.il comes from the actions of Israeli college students and volunteers during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge.
As bombs dropped on the impoverished coastal strip less than 70 miles to the south, tech and engineering students at the IDC in Herzliya “worked around the clock for Israel on social media networks,” according to Yarden Ben Yosef, act.il’s CEO and founder.
These student volunteers aimed to invert the narrative on millennials’ preferred news sources: social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. They worked in real time, before the “anti-Israel” press could spin thousands of casualties of Gazan civilians and repeated hospital bombings into biased stories, somehow unfavorable to Israel.
On the realization “that when many people work together, it is effective,” Ben Yosef says, IAC and IDC partnered and founded act.IL.
Unlike Israel’s earlier assaults on Gaza in 2008 and 2012 when international media—largely barred from entering the heavily fortified strip—were forced to rely on state narratives, in 2014 cell phone footage and the proliferation of social media allowed Gaza’s own residents to record and share their firsthand experiences under siege.
Shared on social media millions of times, the footage subverted Israel’s tight control over the official narrative on a large scale. Hasbara has been in full attack mode ever since.
State of Slacktivism
Combining military-language with an advanced technology sector—two things that Israel prides itself on—the app allows users to choose from a long list of “missions” and receive points upon completion. The tasks can be as simple as liking a Facebook page called “Uncovering Bias and Real Human Rights Abuses at the UN” or sharing a tweeted photo of Mariah Carey landing in Israel.
Once a user signs up and connects the app to Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts, one becomes an official “social activist for Israel.”
New users are directed to watch a short how-to video featuring Stefanie, an act.il blogger.
Stefanie welcomes users and warns about the many groups trying to slander Israel online as logos of New York City Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) and Israeli Apartheid Week appear behind her.
Finally, Stefanie proclaims, “the time for action has come!”
The main menu presents some 30 available missions that ask users to like, share, follow, report, retweet, comment, email and sign petitions.
Big points are earned, for example, by signing a petition that requests a full apology from Chicago Dyke March organizers for excluding Zionist marchers or another that calls for the boycott of Roger Waters over the musician’s active BDS support.
A user earns 30 points by sending a personal email to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, demanding recognition of Jerusalem as the exclusively Jewish capital.
Cumulative points are reflected in the Leaderboards section, where you see your own rank in comparison to that of the month’s “top activists”.
At 1,800 points the number one activist of June is none other than Aviva Klompas, the current Associate Vice President of Strategic Israel Engagement at the Boston-based Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Klompas previously served as director of speechwriting for Israel’s permanent mission to the UN and has ardently defended Israel in publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and the Jerusalem Post.
Because each individual mission varies from 10-30 points, even at an average of 20 points, Klompas completed roughly 90 missions in June.
It’s all very mundane but for the occasional brain-melting comment fight in which users call each other “terrorists” and “anti-semites.” Readers familiar with news and commentary of the region won’t likely be surprised by much of it.
And it’s no scandal that the Israeli government leans heavily on Hasbara—or propaganda—to cultivate an image of the state that is inclusive and democratic, deflecting attention from Palestinians and the 50-year long occupation.
But the app itself is clunky and low-tech, especially for a product of the Startup Nation. The promotional material on the other hand, is slickly produced.
In one video, a voiceover appeals to tropes about entitled and lazy millennials, without a hint of irony.
Dubbed over contrasting images—one side a raucous pro-Israel rally, the other a college-aged woman passively listening to her headphones in a park—the voice offers this as an example of “the gap between our desired levels of activism and our actual involvement in social activism.”
“Then you decide to do something. Really do something. But you’re on your own. You need more people. You need a community.”
Fear not millennial, for act.il is here.
The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) “Sewer System”
Where the act.il app marks a significant change in strategy from previous Hasbara is that it takes particular aim at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and asks users to actively report “incitement,” providing step by step instructions for each specific platform. “Let’s clean Facebook from incitements” reads a mission description.
This shift comes amid plummeting support for Israel on US college campuses as the occupation drags on (http://www.jpost.com/American-Politics/Israel-dramatically-losing-support-among-Jewish-college-students-in-US-497605) and the further separation of Jewish identity from a nation state.
Yet in 2016 alone, the year in which this study was conducted, numerous US states wrote anti-BDS legislation into law and a Palestine solidarity group was even banned by a university administration.
Social media speech monitoring is not new—especially in Israel and the West Bank where Palestinians are routinely arrested for Facebook posts —but it does signal a slippery slope in which those in power impose selective limits on free speech with help from deputized private citizens.
Some of those behind the app, such as Yaron Fishelson, 4IL’s head of product and community, appear cognizant of and even eager to use this power dynamic to Israel’s advantage, with the efficiency of act.il.
“Our main objective is to create a united community of Israeli activists. An organized community of thousands of people working online to act for the State of Israel,” Fishelson explains in a promotional video.
“We create the tasks and they implement them.”