The Power-and Limits-of Social Media Advocacy

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Published in Israel Campus BeatJanuary 11, 2013

At the height of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense 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-span, 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 amassed over 175 students in support of Israel. The rally was deemed a tremendous success and included songs, prayers, candle-lighting 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 like 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 remarked: “Without social media, none of it would have been possible.”

As more people get news and information through sites like 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 likes Twitter and Facebook have become arenas of Israel advocacy unto themselves. According to Aaron Marcus, the Northeast campus coordinator for the Zionist Organization of America, 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.”

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. As Seth Kroll, the video and new media coordinator for The David Project, shared: “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.”

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 centers?

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, stated that a video produced at an advocacy seminar for college students got 15,000 views in its first week. “If you think about that,” Bernstein remarked, “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 smart phone. 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 Defense. One popular trend involved Facebook users changing their profile pictures to a red square, nod to the “red alert” siren, which 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 the US 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.

Yael Rabin, in charge of communications and public relations for the Binghamton University Zionist Organization (BUZO), recognizes these challenges and affirms that her group uses social media as a “tool for keeping our group members updated” about events on campus and news in Israel. “For BUZO, social media plays a crucial role in sustaining communication and support for Israel within and beyond our community,” she said, rather than in changing peoples’ minds.

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 a deep holistic support for Israel.