Release the Trolls

Israel is weaponizing social media in order to wage a propaganda war against BDS.

Hamza Butt / Flickr

In New York City in June 2017, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs Gilad Erdan stood in front of a crowd celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the annexation of East Jerusalem. Addressing his mostly Jewish-American audience, he declared “our cell phones are the number one weapon against us.”

With the rising visibility of Palestinian solidarity, and especially the growth of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS), pro-Israel actors have increasingly depicted social media in the terms of a battlefield, in which the spread of “lies” against Israel is regarded as a serious threat on par with rockets from Hamas. To meet this challenge, Erdan announced a new initiative he referred to as an “Iron Dome of Truth” — an app — that promises to intercept and neutralize offending content.

With the mobile application and online platform Act.IL, Israel aims to recruit a mob of slacktivists and trolls to join their war against the most insidious forms of violence: pro-Palestinian tweets and Facebook posts.

Users of the app are presented with quick daily missions that they complete for points, earning their way up the leaderboards. Missions include “liking” and commenting on specific Facebook posts, retweeting pro-Israel accounts, and signing petitions. It provides users with suggested comments that they can copy-and-paste to spam discussion boards, and satirical videos and cartoons that are shareable (if cringeworthy).

In this way, the app identifies and directs users en masse to engage in propaganda online, both affirming pro-Israel sentiment and “revealing” the supposedly terrorist character of BDS. “Inciting” content is identified with the help of the Israeli Defense Forces and the Shin Bet, revealing the close collaboration with Israel’s military and security forces, but users can also suggest specific posts to be targeted.

With this technology, Israel is given the power to actively manage online discourse, taking direct command of its army of volunteer internet warriors and deploying them wherever is seen fit. It is Israel’s friends, however — a diverse network of non-state actors willing to collaborate to advance the state’s goals — who make this possible.

Tech and State

The Act.IL app is the product of deliberate efforts by the Israeli state, in collaboration with universities, American nonprofits, and Israel’s tech sector, to develop an infrastructure for incubating anti-BDS technologies.

One feature in recent years has been the rise of anti-BDS “hackathons,” multi-day events which tend to be hosted by Israeli universities in conjunction with pro-Israel think tanks and advocacy groups, such as the Reut Institute and StandWithUs. These are competitive events, with significant cash prizes, in which Israeli and international teams of high-school and college students meet to develop new algorithms and applications, with the intent of identifying and responding to anti-Israel content on social media more efficiently.

These events have seen interest from a range of influential bodies, including Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and the World Zionist Organization.

This past March, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs held its own hackathon in connection with Israeli Hub, itself an incubator sponsored by the ministry which is run by international volunteers developing tools to fight “incitement” against Israel. The ministry has started to rebrand these initiatives as “algorithmic diplomacy.”

The Act.IL app is certainly the most successful product to come out of these efforts. It is the latest form of a project — also called Act.IL — based out of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC), a private Israeli university near Tel Aviv. During the assaults on Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, IDC students formed a war room of volunteer social media users to coordinate responses to negative coverage.

This model proved so successful that the founder, Yarden Ben-Yosef, folded it into a new academic program. At the IDC’s Public Diplomacy program, students work as “interns” for Act.IL and are awarded scholarships for creating anti-BDS content. The program features “virtual situation rooms,” in which students are trained via simulated exercises to manage volunteers from their computers. In one video for the program, the sound of gunfire is superimposed over students typing on keyboards, as “Israel is Under Attack on Social Media” flashes across the screen.

The IDC has also started to replicate the model in the United States, opening a “virtual situation room” in Boston, which is supervised by IDC staff and operated by students who receive scholarships for their work. Presumably, the introduction of the Act.IL app will help these war rooms manage a greater number of volunteers.

Both the Act.IL app and the Public Diplomacy program at the IDC are funded by two American pro-Israel lobby groups, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Maccabee Task Force. The IAC was formed in the aftermath of the 2006 invasion of Lebanon; described as “Israel’s soldiers,” its political arm is active behind recent legislative efforts to curtail the right to boycott Israel. The Maccabee Task Force is a group formed in 2015 to fight BDS on US campuses, led by the former executive director of Christians United for Israel. Both organizations are overwhelmingly financed by mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, a noted critic of the two-state solution who has called the Palestinians “an invented people.”

The final partner of the Act.IL app is the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is also the primary state body responsible fighting so-called “delegimitization.” It directly funds pro-Israel groups internationally for their initiatives to fight BDS.

Boosting start-ups for Israel is only part of the ministry’s story, as its classified operations reportedly include funding Israeli technology companies to develop “digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts,” and other alleged “black ops” against BDS activists. Looking at home, the minister has plans to create a database of Israeli citizens who support boycotts. In its secretive character, the ministry is reminiscent of apartheid South Africa’s Department of Information, which was formed in 1961 to carry out a covert propaganda war around the world, employing journalists and creating front groups and fake magazines to affect public opinion.

The ministry has made the Act.IL app a central feature of its recent campaign, and has been promoting the app by placing a series of articles as “sponsored content” in YNet News, the Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel. In fact, most of what we know about this app comes from sources that collaborated with the ministry.

Digital Militarism

At first glance, the narrative structures behind the app appear contradictory.

At the basic level of the users’ experience, the app transforms social media debates over Israel — which is generally an insufferable experience — into a form of gaming, with incentives for users to compete for the most points and badges. The missions themselves are simple to complete; the basic pitch in one of the app’s promotional videos is that you can stand up for Israel “the easy way,” trivializing the “activist” function of the app.

However, this playful format belies the high stakes that are invoked. The app itself uses military rhetoric, and Israeli ministers have characterized BDS activity as “the new face of terrorism.” In this context the app can hardly be seen as just a game; in effect, it weaponizes online activity, directing a mass of activists to swarm against pro-Palestinian sentiment, aided by the IDF and security forces.

In this app, it is easy to see how “ordinary social media practices and users are being conscripted into the state’s military project,” a process that Kuntsman and Stein have described as “digital militarism.” In a way, the façade of game-play facilitates this process of conscription by creating a comfortable and familiar experience for users.

Choreographing the Internet

Despite heavy promotion of the app, there are indications to suggest that it hasn’t received much pickup; my own half-hearted experimentation with the app brought me to the rank of 382nd “top activists” of July. It may even be dominated by paid activists, rather than casual users.

Nonetheless, because it consolidates and directs global traffic towards specific local content, the app could have a real impact in certain instances. Since the activity instigated by the app is done without brand or identification, it can create the false impression of an organic consensus on an issue. To observers, this is assumed to be spontaneous online activity by interested individuals, not the work of highly motivated activists whose collective action is choreographed by state and community actors.

Ultimately, however, the strategic worldview behind the app is based on a conceit — the idea that most criticism of Israel is based on lies and misinformation. If this was the case, the task would be to simply promote the truth, which the app is designed to do.

Unfortunately for Israel, Palestinians are more than capable at sharing their own stories on social media — stories of occupation, of displacement, of apartheid. This was best demonstrated during Operation Protective Edge in 2014; although Israel tried to justify its assault on the people of Gaza in terms of proportionality and self-defense, social media allowed Palestinians to circumvent the gatekeepers of traditional media, broadcasting the horror of the attack to mobile phones everywhere.

Ironically, Israel’s incursions into Gaza since 2008-9 have done the most to push Palestinian narratives into public consciousness, as they have dramatically exposed the gap between Israel’s rhetoric of existential threat and its ability to punish entire populations. Just as South Africa’s massacres in Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976 brought apartheid to TV screens across America, becoming flashpoints for the anti-apartheid movement, the events in Gaza have profoundly deepened public understanding and pro-Palestinian sentiment. This may be why a new study shows that “the more Americans learn about Israel, the less they like it.” No Iron Dome can intercept reality.