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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Social media’s advocacy power – and its limits

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Students held a pro-Israel rally at the University of Michigan during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence.

At the height of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence last November, pro-Israel students on campuses across America felt the need to act, and to act fast.

At the University of Michigan, students from the group I-LEAD, which focuses on leadership, education, advocacy and dialogue, decided to hold a pro-Israel rally.

To attract a substantial turnout in a short time, group leaders took to their social-media accounts. According to Barak Kaufman, the president of I-LEAD, student organizers inundated their networks, including “Facebook, Greek life and academic email list-serves, and any other list-serve we could access.”

In just three hours on a Friday afternoon, I-LEAD organizers were able to draw more than 175 students who supported Israel to the rally. The rally was deemed a success and included songs, prayers, candlelighting and a general swell of camaraderie and support. The rally revealed a strong pro-Israel community on a campus traditionally considered antagonistic to the Jewish state.

Word of the impromptu rally’s success spread through posts and pictures on social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and the rally was duplicated on other campuses. “Channel 2 News in Israel shared a picture from our event on their Facebook page,” Kaufman said. “The photo got literally thousands of likes and comments from Israelis. It was extremely moving.”

Reflecting on the event’s success, Kaufman said, “Without social media, none of it would have been possible.”

This kind of activism unites people with a shared cause, allowing community members to feel connected or empowered to take action, said Erin Fox, assistant director of new media for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). “Through social media we are able to build and engage with our community in a way that was never possible before.”

As more people get news and information through sites such as Twitter and Facebook, Israel activists must update their advocacy techniques for the nascent digital age. It does not take an advanced marketing degree to recognize that social media is a platform Israel activists cannot afford to ignore.

While students at the University of Michigan used social media to promote a real-life event, sites such as Twitter and Facebook have become arenas of Israel advocacy unto themselves. According to Aaron Marcus, the Northeast campus co-ordinator for the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Twitter and Facebook are crucial fronts in a holistic campaign on Israel’s behalf. “When I talk on campuses, one of the things I always say is Israel is engaged in two wars – a physical one, against enemies who seek its material destruction and a war of public relations,” Marcus said.

Increasingly, this public relations war is waged through Tweets, Facebook statuses and memes. Student activists are indispensable soldiers in the war against those seeking to delegitimize Israel. “American students live on social-media platforms; it is where they communicate with friends, share ideas, promote issues and organically create an image or brand of themselves,” Seth Kroll, the video and new media co-ordinator for the David Project, shared.

How does social-media advocacy compare to its real-world counterpart? Can a post on a site such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Google+ have the same impact as a speaker on campus or tabling with materials in university student centres?

Sometimes virtual messages communicated through social media have the potential to reach countless more people than any real-life program or speaker. David Bernstein, the executive director of the David Project, said that a video produced at an advocacy seminar for college students got 15,000 views in its first week. “If you think about that,” he said, “there’s no program that you can do on any college campus that would get 15,000 people. It would have to be held in the basketball arena to fit them. You’re able to get to more students through this type of media than you ever could in any traditional setting.”

Marcus similarly shared: “ZOA makes sure that facts about Israel are out there and accessible to anyone with a computer, iPad or smartphone. This way, we are able to instantly put that information right into people’s hands.”

College Israel activists in particular used social media to spread pro-Israel messages and reports during and after Operation Pillar of Defence. One popular trend involved Facebook users changing their profile pictures to a red square, a nod to the “red alert” siren that indicates incoming rocket fire from Gaza. In places like Sderot, the siren gives Israeli civilians approximately 15 seconds to find shelter.

For those in the know, switching a profile picture to the red square can be a meaningful gesture, symbolizing allegiance and sympathy with Israelis in danger. But Marcus cautioned against overestimating the impact of social media. It is tempting and self-congratulatory to think that retweeting a message from Israeli ambassador the United States, Michael Oren, or changing your profile picture to a red square, will change the opinions of your friends or followers. “Changing your profile picture to a red square isn’t going to do anything to refute claims of apartheid,” he said.

While advocacy through social media is decidedly convenient and accessible, some deride it as “slacktivism” and armchair advocacy. Social-media messages often entail a cyclical “preaching to the choir” effect when Facebook and Twitter posts are “liked” or retweeted by those who already agree with such messages. Facebook is even organized to show you postings by the profiles and accounts you most often visit. Thus, social media does not necessarily reach those important sectors of the campus community who don’t already support Israel.

Although this may be one downside to social media, Talia Rotman, Israel engagement co-ordinator for Hillel of Greater Toronto, said it can lead to conversations and thus awareness of issues. For example, while making your Facebook profile picture a solid red square to represent solidarity with Israel wouldn’t mean anything to someone who wasn’t aware of the campaign, they might ask what the picture meant, and that could spark a discussion.

Additionally, she said, social media has been particularly valuable for maintaining communication among Israeli engagement interns at the various universities and colleges in Toronto, thus ensuring they are sending strong, consistent messages.

Effective Israel advocacy on campus in 2013 and beyond must embrace the potential of social media, but Facebook statuses will not do the work by themselves. To be most effective, Israel advocacy must be a fluid process, taking shape through both personal and virtual connections and campaigns, to develop within the community strong support for Israel.

– With files from The CJN

Israel Campus Beat is a student-written online publication that covers campus Israel trends and events.

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