The dozen or so Israelis sitting around a conference table at a Jewish community center in Tenafly, New Jersey, on a recent Wednesday night didn’t look like the leading edge of a new Israeli government-linked crowdsourced online propaganda campaign.
Tapping on laptops, the group of high school students and adult mentors completed social media “missions” assigned out of a headquarters in Herzliya, Israel. Later, some planned the shooting of a pro-Israel video that weekend. At the end of the evening, adult mentors filled out a form to send a report back to the office in Herzliya.
Call it a pro-Israel human “botnet.”
The Herzliya headquarters is the base of Act.il, a hybrid Israel advocacy effort and online information operation. A joint project of two Israeli not-for-profits, it is led by former Israeli intelligence officers and has close ties to Israel’s intelligence services, its Ministry of Strategic Affairs and American Jewish casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Act.il’s leaders frame the program as an effort to counterbalance anti-Israel attitudes online.
Act.il aims to “build a strong and effective online community that will act to change the narrative,” said the project’s founder and CEO, Yarden Ben Yosef. The project comes amid a wave of Israeli and American-Jewish efforts to push back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
As Russian bots and hackers demonstrated in 2016, governments and other actors are increasingly interested in seeking ways to distort the information landscape and mold online discourse. Act.il is a new entry into this online propaganda war. But instead of Russian-style bots and hackers, it has thousands of mostly U.S.-based volunteers who can be directed from Israel into a social media swarm.
Act.il’s tools include a mobile app and volunteer teams in America. Fully operational only since June, its work so far offers a startling glimpse of how it could shape the online conversations about Israel without ever showing its hand.
It’s an effort in which Israeli security officials are playing a strong supporting role, at the very least. Ben Yosef, an eight-year veteran of Israeli army intelligence, initially told the Forward that Israel’s military and its domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet, “request” Act.il’s help in getting services like Facebook to remove specific videos that call for violence against Jews or Israelis.
Later, Ben Yosef walked back that statement, saying that the Shin Bet and the army don’t request help on specific videos but are in regular informal contact with Act.il. He said that Act.il’s staff is largely made up of former Israeli intelligence officers.
“We know each other,” he said of his group’s relationship with members of Israel’s intelligence community. “You don’t get [sent] a link to [a specific video]. We talk with each other. We work together.”
Act.il is a joint project of the Israeli university IDC Herzliya, the private Israeli university, and the U.S.-based Israeli-American Council. Begun as a community group for Israeli Americans, Sheldon Adelson has sought since 2013 to turn IAC into a hard-line alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The Maccabee Task Force, the Adelson-backed fundraising group for anti-BDS efforts, is also a major funder of Act.il.
At the center of Act.il’s operations is an app, made public in June. The app assigns Israel advocacy “missions” to its users, which they complete for points.
In November, one of those missions was to comment on a specific post on the Facebook page of the pro-Palestinian website Electronic Intifada. The post linked to an article that criticized the Dutch Embassy in Israel over a promotion it was running in the Israeli supermarket chain Shufersal, which has locations in the West Bank settlements.
Act.il asked users to “Leave a COMMENT to uncover ei’s biased reporting,” and to “Feel free to LIKE other comments you agree with.” The mission offered sample text to leave on the page. Electronic Intifada’s Facebook post quickly drew an odd array of comments, many of which consisted of the same stilted language from the samples.
“Promoting different cultures and foods in Israel is a great way to bring people closer to one another,” two commenters wrote, using the app’s sample text.
“Shufersal and the Dutch Embassy take public diplomacy to the next level,” three more wrote.
Electronic Intifada’s executive director, Ali Abunimah, said that he hadn’t noticed the strange commenting pattern. Even if he had, there would have been no way for him to know that Act.il had targeted his site.
The tactic resembles a well-documented online propaganda strategy called “flooding,” employed at a much larger scale by states like China. According to David Pozen, a professor at Columbia University’s law school, “flooding” constitutes blasting a large amount of content into a particular web space.
“You just distract attention away from messages that you don’t want to get focused on, and take advantage of the scarcity of listener attention to dilute the force of messages,” Pozen said. He cited a study by a Harvard political scientist that found the Chinese government pays workers to post hundreds of millions of pieces of content a year to flood Chinese social media sites.
Act.il, of course, is not operating at anything close to that scale. Volunteers acting of their own volition, not paid workers, do its work. Ben Yosef said that the involvement of real activists is key to the concept. Companies in Israel had offered to build him a botnet to automate the sort of social media tasks his app assigns to users. He said he chose not to do so. “We believe in real people,” he said.
Despite the project’s limited scale, Act.il’s ambitions are large.
Other outlets whose Facebook posts Act.il has recently targeted include RT, ABC News, The Kuwait Times and The Telegraph. The app has frequently requested that users “like” comments by a poster named “Wendy Wa,” whose Facebook profile identifies her as a student at IDC Herzliya, and whose writing at times reads like a diplomatic communiqué.
Other missions ask users to report videos that calls for violence against Jews or Israel. Ben Yosef told the Forward that Israeli government officials have told him the Act.il app is more effective than official government requests at getting those videos removed from online platforms.
The Act.il app has also assigned missions that go beyond cyberspace. In one recent instance, a mission asked users to contact their U.S. senators to support a federal anti-BDS law. Ben Yosef said that Act.il does no lobbying, and that the “mission” was likely a mistake.
Federal law in the United States requires that individuals trying to influence American policy on behalf of foreign principals register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents. Legal experts told the Forward that Act.il’s activities as described likely would not require registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
“Even if it did, it’s not the kind of case historically that would raise the government’s dander,” said Steve Vladeck, a law professor at The University of Texas at Austin.
In addition to its informal ties to Israel’s intelligence apparatus, Act.il has an even closer relationship with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a relatively new office that focuses on opposing the BDS movement. The minister, Gilad Erdan, promoted the app’s impending launch at the Celebrate Israel Parade in February, and the ministry placed paid articles boosting the app in the Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.
A spokesman for the ministry said that Act.il “is a separate entity from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.”
Ben Yosef said that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs is a partner but does not order specific missions. He said that his team is on a Ministry of Strategic Affairs email list that highlights issues selected by the ministry.
Act.il says that its app has 12,000 signups so far, and 6,000 regular users. The users are located all over the world, though the majority of them appear to be in the United States. Users get “points” for completed missions; top-ranked users complete five or six missions a day. Top users win prizes: a congratulatory letter from a government minister, or a doll of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister.
In addition to the app, Act.il produces pro-Israel web content that carries no logo. It distributes that content to other pro-Israel groups, including the Adelson-funded Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and The Israel Project, which push them out on their own social media feeds.
As its app continues to get off the ground, Act.il is also building a network of local “media rooms” in cities across the United States. The media rooms are the human side of the Act.il operation, community-building efforts for local Israeli Americans. But they also serve as ways to bring Act.il’s online tool to local activists, and local fights.
In November, the Boston media room created a mission for the app that asked users to email a Boston-area church to complain about a screening there of a documentary that is critical of Israel. The proposed text of the email likens the screening of the film to the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and calls the film’s narrator, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, a “well-known anti-Semite.” While some Jewish activists had campaigned against the film screening, local Jewish establishment groups, including Boston’s Jewish Community Relations Council, pointedly did not.
Tammy Levy, an IAC employee, runs the Act.il “media room” in Tenafly. On the Wednesday the Forward visited, Levy opened the evening session with a PowerPoint presentation. Going around the room, Levy asked the adult and high school student volunteers for advice for a few of their number who were being sent out that weekend with a hired professional videographer to shoot a pro-Israel video in Washington Square Park.
“Enjoy the mission,” one adult mentor said.
The Boston and Tenafly “media rooms” are two of five planned or active in the United States. The Boston wing operates in cooperation with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston; another, soon to open in New York City, will be hosted in Manhattan by The Paul R. Singer Foundation, funded by the Republican hedge fund billionaire. In New Jersey, Levy also runs regular Act.il advocacy-training sessions at The Frisch School, a local Jewish day school.
“We go a little bit deeper so they actually understand everything they’re doing,” Levy said.
Much of the work of the “media room” seemed to be managed closely by Ben Yosef’s headquarters in Herzliya. Levy said that ideas and material for the weekly sessions come from staff at headquarters. One adult volunteer was busy filling out a spreadsheet sent from Herzilya with time slots for posting content on the local “media room’s” social media feeds. And at the end of the weekly session, the adult mentors fill out a “weekly update” form that is sent back to the headquarters in Israel.
Act.il is difficult to contextualize within traditional frameworks of online propaganda campaigns. Ido Kilovaty, a cyber fellow at Yale Law School’s Center for Global Legal Challenges, said that it seemed to be a “form of information operation, enabled by crowdsourcing techniques, paired with a strong ideological motive, backed by authoritative appeal.” In other words, an attempt to manipulate online media with the help of a large number of ideological volunteers.
Despite early hiccups, it could be the future of Israel’s online efforts to improve its international image. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has been embracing secretive data-focused programs in its efforts against BDS. Initiatives in cyberspace seem likely to increase.
“It’s a beautiful initiative that brings the supporter of Israel to the same place under the same vision of helping the State of Israel online, and doing it in a simple and smart way,” Ben Yosef said.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.