The Israel-Loves-Iran Facebook movement, the latest in a string of causes spreading over social networks in Israel, has been stirring up conversation in Tel Aviv in recent weeks. While it’s nothing new or surprising that Israelis are eager to talk about the threat (or lack-thereof) posed by a nuclear Iran, there’s something about the emerging solidarity group and its online declarations of love which has caught the public interest.
Social media activism isn’t new to Israel; the process of an issue coming up online, picking up steam, spreading to mainstream media and eventually impacting policy at some level has repeated itself in recent years. The blend of 21st-century activism and Israel’s security concerns, however, is unique, and it’s pushing buttons Left, Right and Center.
The online campaign was launched by an Israeli graphic designer last month and has grown to over 50,000 Facebook fans in less than three weeks. At this point, the new media efforts are raising awareness and stimulating dialogue, making use of the forum which Facebook provides for minority opinions to be heard, popular messages to be spread, and to foster connections between people who are otherwise geographically, culturally and politically removed from each other.
While these stages are certainly important, the No War on Iran movement’s efficacy should be judged by its likely future impact; the most pertinent stage in this new and emerging form of activism is what comes after the initial rumblings. Local examples are likely to be the best indicators, though there are certainly parallels in other countries. That is to say, if we’re to predict possible outcomes from the Israel-loves-Iran movement, the best clues are going to be found in cottage cheese tubs and tent cities.
Social media had its first mass influence on Iranians in 2009, when such networks proved to be crucial tools in organizing anti-government protests which broke out after the June elections that year. For Israelis, 2011 was the big one. What started as grass-roots grumbling about the high cost of living in this country, specifically staple consumer goods and rent prices, ended in a summer of unprecedented protests across the country. And it all started on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.
At first people came together around individual posts which pulled increasing attention. The cottage cheese boycott of June 2011 quickly went from a Facebook group to a Knesset debate. Social media, traditional media and the general public were all abuzz with the word “monopoly,” and public dissatisfaction with a system that allowed mega companies like Tnuva, Strauss and Tara to dominate central industries grew. Then Daphni Leef pitched her tent on Rothschild, the #j14 hashtag started trending and the rest is (very recent) history. Aided by media attention and popular support, the revolution rolled itself off the World Wide Web and onto the streets of Tel Aviv.
There are various versions of the last chapter of the story, if it has in fact yet been written. As the summer came to an end, protesters packed up their tents and went back to school, rallies died down and Israeli media outlets busied themselves covering the country’s next massive story – Gilad Schalit’s release. Simultaneously, the Netanyahu-appointed Trajtenberg Committee got to work on recommendations for reforms to meet protesters’ demands. Today, most of those recommendations have been ratified but not implemented, making an full analysis of the eventual impact of the protests difficult.
Nonetheless, these case studies are emblematic of a new process of social media activism: Regular people express dissatisfaction online. They hit a button, post something others can relate to, something that perhaps everyone else been thinking too, but felt powerless to do anything about. They hit “Like,” they comment, share and retweet. Personal posts go viral. News stories are written, and how many members a new “issue” group on Facebook garners becomes part of that news story. That is to say, traditional media begins tracking social media as a source.
And then at some point, presumably when enough buzz has been created, the virtual revolution becomes a rally.
For the “We love you Iran” folks on Facebook, that first rally took place the week before last in Tel Aviv. Obviously one event is unlikely to change the very real threat that could be posed by a nuclear Iran. It did, however, bring the campaign into the public eye, and give like-minded people various ways in which to add their voice to the chorus. Photographers and graphic designers – professional or otherwise – are making their points visually online, the more energetic social activists attend rallies, leaders gather Twitter followers and give media interviews, and so forth.
So will the movement affect Jerusalem-Tehran relations then? Unfortunately the public’s voice is seldom heard in the places where it’s most important. In dictatorships the people on the street can write as many tree-hugging hippy peace-loving odes to their enemies as they want, but all they’re likely to do is get themselves into trouble. The chances of affecting regime policy are low.
In fact, even in a democracy the potential impact is questionable. Who we vote for or which products we choose to buy are moves which are arguably far more influential than what we tweet, or which frame we put around a photo and post on Facebook.
What happens next in the diplomatic and military spheres when it comes to Iran remains to be seen, as does the question of whether the Israel-Loves-Iran movement will follow in the footsteps of its dairy predecessor. If so, we could be in for yet another summer of protests, with Israelis who feel that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is hell-bent on the idea of bombing Iran taking to the streets to proclaim that they don’t want such a war carried out in their name. Protests could also spring up in other locations around the world; the city with the most Israel-Loves-Iran fans on Facebook, for example, is Berlin.
It seems unlikely that such protests, even if they were to match turnout from last year’s rallies, will affect security decisions that are made at the highest echelons.
But perhaps that’s not the only end goal; these online overtures aim to personalize the issue and bring awareness to the reality that Iran is filled with Iranians, not just Ayatollahs. In other words, if this message is spread then the movement will have achieved its aims.
By choosing provocative language and new media as key tools, the movement demonstrates an understanding that “war is bad” sentiments are old news; using the word “love” to describe an enemy and spreading the message around the world is far more likely to grab attention in this desensitized climate.
Social media and associated activism efforts give Israelis a chance to express their contradictory fears both of Iran achieving nuclear arms capacity and of Israel carrying out a preemptive strike which would place a massive target right over Tel Aviv. And so they “Like” Iranians on Facebook and wait for the group invitation to the next rally, because increasingly, in today's "click of a button" society, that’s how the people’s voice is heard in between elections.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk manager