October 24, 2020

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The Virtual War (Divest This!)

This recent story on Tablet, which laments that Israel is losing on the important social-media battle-front, got me thinking about why a “movement” like BDS – which has accomplished so little with regard to actual boycotts, divestment and sanctions – seems to continue to capture headlines.  How does a project that has found it virtually impossible to win any genuinely significant victories still manage to get its self-characterization of “unstoppable momentum” into the news?

A credulous media (including US and European papers ready to print BDS press releases verbatim) might provide some explanation for this phenomenon.  And we shouldn’t underestimate the power of the BDSers’ relentless inconsiderateness which allows them to barge into anyone else’s space they like to gain attention (those other peoples’ needs be damned).

But there is one aspect of the competition between Israel’s defenders and detractors that needs to be highlighted, one area where Israel’s foes have traditionally outclassed its friends: the use of the new media (including blogs, social media and other Web 2.0 communication tools) to get their message out.

This disparity hit home a few years back when dueling stories regarding BDS success and failure (the latter written by me) appeared in the online Israeli news daily Ynet.  This piece(written in an emotional frenzy by an Israeli supporter) managed to generate over 1000 Facebook recommendations and was Tweeted close to 250 times.  My rejoinder, in contrast, barely broke the hundred mark on Facebook and never got past low double digits on Twitter.

Assuming every connection generates another round of re-forwarding and re-Tweeting, it’s safe to say the ten-to-one disparity between the two stories meant the original tale of BDS success found a home in thousands of more places than the corrective.  And thus, another BDS-preferred storyline got to travel around the world at the speed of light while the truth was still trying to find its socks.

Given how every BDS debate attracts at least one argument about how people truly interested in boycotting Israeli will have to give up their computers, their cell phones and the Internet as a whole (since much of that technology is based on Israeli inventions), I’ve often wondered why we marvelously inventive Jews haven’t managed to use all this technology half as well as our opponents.

Part of this might be an age issue.  While there are plenty of young people involved with pro-Israel activism, my sense is that average age skews a bit higher on this side of the divide vs. the other.  If this is the case, you’ve got a pro-Israel community comfortable with some aspects of online communication (such as blogging and e-mail blasts) but not others (such as social networks, Twitter and other technologies that are in the process of replacing mail as the prime communication vehicle for young people).

I can sympathize since I am part of that older cohort, someone who is happy to spend more than an hour writing a blog entry who is not ready to spend 10 minutes recommending and relinking stories (mine and others’) in order to elevate them in Google search rankings.

Fortunately, there has been some movement in the right direction over the last several years.  Grassroots activists and organizations have always been nimble and fierce warriors on social media platforms, and that skill set seems to be moving up the food chain of Jewish activist organization and even the Israeli government.  For example, the IDF’s Twitter feed has actually managed to influence some news cycles – at the expense of our enemies – a key component of today’s InfoWar tactics that, until recently, was the monopoly of Israel’s foes. 

At the same time, attempts by BDSers to exploit the openness of new online platforms demonstrates one additional advantage Israel’s foes have over its friends.  For just as our opponents steadfastly demand we open every conceivable forum to them or face accusations of “muzzling” and censorship, they will never reciprocate by opening their online spaces up to potential critics (in the form of maintaining open or unrestricted comments sections or any other option that would give critics the same freedom they demand for themselves).

Thus Web 2.0 savvy combines with general BDSholiness provides the forces of boycott, divestment and sanctions a bit of an edge.  But given that we’ve been winning so many other battles over the boycotters, there’s no reason to believe we won’t figure out a way to win this one as well.

We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.

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