Student startup gives pro-Israel advocates a unified voice
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Student startup gives pro-Israel advocates a unified voice

Through fresh content, media strategy rooms, and a new app, ACT.IL helps combat violent and anti-Semitic vitriol online

Yaron Fishelson, left, and Gur Yalon in the ACT.IL offices in Herzliya. (Times of Israel)
Yaron Fishelson, left, and Gur Yalon in the ACT.IL offices in Herzliya. (Times of Israel)

In 2012, during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense, and again in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge, a student at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya realized that Israel’s casualties were not limited to the battlefield during times of war – they had the potential to extend to the media, as well.

Now, just a few years later, a large “situation room” within the university is humming with the activity of over a dozen young staffers combing the web and pumping out content, with two similar hubs operating on a smaller scale in the United States, and the ACT.IL mobile and computer app is garnering thousands of downloads a day. A new situation room is slated to open soon in New York, joining its sisters in Boston and New Jersey.

It was in order to protect the Jewish state from the less tangible – but no less harmful – threats of online misinformation during wartime that Yarden Ben Yosef established ACT.IL, a dynamic online community working together to positively influence public opinion when it comes to Israel. But, as it turns out, the battles are always raging against propaganda machines such as BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movements).

“We saw this it was something we needed to be doing on a day to day basis, not only during times of war, and also we need to reach more people. Because it was great having people here and 40 million people is a nice number, but it’s nothing when it comes to reaching out to the masses,” says Yaron Fishelson, the ACT.IL head of product and community.

Fishelson is referring to the 40 million people ACT.IL reached during Operation Pillar of Defense.

Under the auspices of the Israeli American Council (IAC) and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), and with the guidance of Prof. Uriel Reichman and former Israeli ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, ACT.IL has quickly turned into one of the fastest growing Israel advocacy groups ever.

Gur Yalon speaks with interns who are clearly excited about what they do. (Times of Israel)
Gur Yalon speaks with interns who are clearly excited about what they do. (Times of Israel)

“Professor Reichman fell in love with the idea straightaway,” says Fishelson. “He’s a really strong Zionist who has a lot of different initiatives here that promote Zionism and public diplomacy.”

ACT.IL’s quick rise to the top can at least partly be attributed to the community’s simple and effective three-pronged strategy: create good original content, teach people to help others make use of the ACT.IL tool kit, and galvanize people into action.

The media rooms in Israel and the US mimic those used by the Israel Defense Forces and help staff coordinate and work on the local level to maximize reach. The initiative – which looks and runs just like any other tech startup commonly found in Israel – has been so effective that in 2015, Time Magazine rated one of ACT.IL’s campaigns as among the top 10 most influential that year.

Meet the crew

Fishelson takes a supervisory role in the IDC headquarters, working alongside Gur Yalon, Mor Dagan, and Yael Tzur who cover training, content, and media room projects, respectively.

Fishelson brings with him experience working in digital marketing and as a “shliach,” or emissary, on behalf of Israel at Stanford University in California. He was in a managerial role back in Israel with the shliach program when he encountered ACT.IL.

“I was here with a Birthright group I was leading, and was so impressed with what was going on I simply had to contribute,” says Fishelson.

The staff and interns hard at work at Act.IL in Herzliya. (Times of Israel)
The staff and interns hard at work at Act.IL in Herzliya. (Times of Israel)

Now, he’s directing and guiding a group of interns – mostly third-year students at the IDC – as they energetically throw themselves into the work of online Israel advocacy.

“We asked students about their skills, and then divided them into groups,” Fishelson says. “Some were good at social media, some good at languages and translation, others at graphic design, video editing, web monitoring, creating new materials, and more. Harnessing the power of the student initiative, we’ve been able to reach people in 100 countries, 35 languages, with an exposure of 40 million unique users to date.”

While the training, media and content sides of ACT.IL are still very much active, the newer app is snapping up the limelight lately.

Discussing strategy at the offices of ACT.IL. (Times of Israel)
Discussing strategy at the offices of ACT.IL. (Times of Israel)

“How many app downloads did we have yesterday?” calls Shira Reich, a Jerusalem-born intern who studies law and business.

“Five thousand,” says Fishelson.

Reich is busy creating a “mission” for the app which takes users to a YouTube video containing instructions on how to stab Israeli military or police forces, and walks them through the process of reporting the video as a violation.

The interns are already seasoned professionals and go about their business of rooting out anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda – much of it quite disturbing – as if they were filing quarterly financial reports.

“Look at this,” says Reich. “There’s a lady sitting on a globe, and she has a Star of David on her chest, and she’s breastfeeding Satan. And the caption says, ‘Israel, mother of terrorism.’ This is actually pretty bad, I actually wasn’t expecting this one.”

A violent YouTube video that ACT.IL made a mission to take down. (ACT.IL)
A violent YouTube video that ACT.IL made a mission to take down. (ACT.IL)

She picks up her laptop and shows it to her fellow interns, who glance at it blankly and return to work.

“Nobody even says anything,” says Reich.

Across from Reich sits Jeremy Danzig, composing a preemptive solidarity statement for university student unions to adopt before BDS activists attempt to have them sign boycott pacts.

A 22-year-old native San Diegan who made aliyah three years ago, Danzig is in his final year at the IDC. When he graduates, he intends join a combat unit in the IDF.

“This is a potential mission I’m working on, a declaration of solidarity for universities that may be facing BDS resolutions in the near future. So this would help various student bodies understand our position on academic freedom and the interactions between different universities,” says Danzig.

In addition to the missions, the situation room is buzzing about a new video featuring a montage of homemade clips of people doing a variety of extreme sports – the catch (spoiler alert): all of the athletic feats are taking place in Israel.

Interestingly absent from the visually stunning video is any trace of branding.

“We use what we call the ‘no logo strategy,’” says Fishelson. “This way people can feel free to view and share the video without any prejudice, no judgment or conclusions. People are more likely to keep and open mind about something that doesn’t announce what it is beforehand.”

Fishelson says that the approach works – in fact, he says, numerous pro-Israel advocacy groups have adopted the tactic since.

The out-of-the-box thinking that drives ACT.IL is in a way a metaphor for the very country the initiative swears to defend – a dynamic, results-driven approach that focuses on goals rather than the obstacles in front of them.

With the ACT.IL app and initiatives such as the www.4IL.org.il site launched six weeks ago, more and more individuals are invited to find their voice and help fight against the anti-Israel narrative sweeping the web today from the comfort of their own homes.

The plethora of tools, guidance and factual information provided strengthens the formally “speechless” individual and empowers them with the ultimate weapon: the truth.

This article is published in collaboration with the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

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