Above: A picture of the “apartheid wall” taken from the Heinrich Böll Foundation on Flickr.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs have denounced the global BDS campaign as anti-semitic and have fought it tooth and nail. Now, they have adopted a new strategy that combines the addictive nature of video games with the insidious cacophony of internet trolling. Kyle Mulholland gets down in the mire and takes a look.
On June 7th a strange advert appeared on social media. It was an obvious piece of propaganda that framed all of the negative press Israel receives as lies and slander. The video shows a nerdy looking young man accosted by two women, ‘You’re smart’ they tell him, ‘You know the truth about Israel’. They lead him on an exodus to show the world the real Israel, embarking on humanitarian missions and other wholesome activities. It’s all to no avail, when he gets home all of his good deeds have been twisted by the media into yet more fake news. He’s dejected, but the buxom models return to tell him there’s an easier way, downloading the 4IL app on his phone and fighting the good fight for Israel online.
4IL is a smartphone app that rewards users achievements for interacting on social media with certain pre approved coverage of Israel. Users can earn badges for sharing positive coverage, and flagging negative press to get it taken down. The target media is designated as a ‘mission’ within the app. The more missions you complete the more you level up your account. There is a social aspect, users are encouraged to personalise their profiles, join groups, and compete with other users to get to the top of a leaderboard.
This kind of reward-based incentivisation is called gamification, the use of systems usually found in video game design to promote desired behaviours. Gamification is becoming increasingly common in app design, even if you haven’t realised it, you have probably fallen under its spell. Duolingo, a popular language learning app, uses levelling up and daily login awards to keep its users coming back. The technique employed in 4IL is called a reward loop. Completing missions unlocks a badge, each subsequent badge will take a little more work to unlock. This is the same type of gameplay loop employed by games like World of Warcraft and Nintendo’s Pokemon, it’s inherently addictive with each achievement giving the user a little shot of dopamine.
Eventually this starts to wear thin, this is where their second game system takes over; the leaderboard. As the number of actions between achievements grows, users can start to slowly drift away but the leaderboard helps draw them back. It’s similar to how Call of Duty became popular by constantly regenerating progression system that shows your skill level.
This type of gamification creates value and uses it to hook a user’s attention, pushing them into performing the tasks you want them to. It is for this reason that more and more companies are using gamification systems to motivate their employees and squeeze a little more productivity out of them, using the little dopamine boosts that videogames are so good at providing.
Russia has become notorious for maintaining one of the largest internet troll armies on Earth. These so called “web brigades” wage an information war across the internet. They use a legion of fake social media accounts, a host of blogs, and an avalanche of comments to flood the internet with pro-Kremlin propaganda. The comment sections under articles critical of Russia are often overwhelmed with the troops of web brigades, drowning out all opposition. The journalists who write these pieces can find themselves the targets of massive harassment campaigns.
A piece published in The New York Times detailed one such campaign aimed at Finnish journalist, Jessica Aro. She had attempted to expose the influence of the web brigades and found herself their target. They harassed, doxxed, and spread lies about her; going so far as to dig up old police records and frame her as a drug dealer.
The digital age has changed the rules of engagement, and an army of internet trolls is a powerful propaganda machine. The web brigades are a branch of Russia’s intelligence agencies, carefully trained and controlled with strict guidelines. This is one way to compete in the online war. What Israel has done, is crowd source its own web brigade.
Fatin Al Tamimi, Chairperson of The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, says that 4IL is merely the latest cog in Israel’s propaganda machine, ‘The Israeli state, like all states responsible for gross breaches of international law, war crimes and human rights violations, obviously wishes that the world would simply ignore its crimes against the Palestinian people, and would instead treat it just like any other normal state, and not the apartheid state that in reality it is. Israel and its appendages spend millions, if not billions, on propaganda – which it terms ‘hasbara’ (a Hebrew word meaning ‘explaining’) – every year, with one aim: to get people to ignore Israel’s crimes.’
Hasbara comes in many forms, from PR style promotion of Israeli exports and friendly relations with other countries, to legions of pro-Israeli trolls who in many cases are students paid to comment on social media. A common target for hasbara is the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a group that works to assist the Palestinian people in their struggle against illegal Israeli settlers.
“4IL appears to be simply Hasbara 3.0, sponsored by the Israeli government and mogul Sheldon Adelson” says Fatin. Adelson is an American billionaire and outspoken Israeli activist. “The app is clearly targeted at young people with its unlocking of achievements and other such video game-related features” Fatin continues.
“Perhaps what is most interesting about it is the military-style language being used: ‘missions’, ‘cyber strikes’, ‘Iron Dome of truth’ and so on. It seems the Israeli state is clearly trying to export its military-orientated obsession and the language of occupation to online millennials.”
Ultimately Fatin feels that 4IL will make little difference, and ultimately no amount of trolling in Facebook comment sections will distract from the illegal occupation and human rights abuses the Israeli government inflicts on Palestine every day.
Fatin feels that this is why the app will fail. “Growing numbers of people all over the world are supporting them via the BDS movement. It is the very success of the BDS movement, which cuts across the failed ‘peace process’, that is the reason for the creation of 4IL in the first place. But 4IL will not stop Palestinians from achieving our freedom.”