ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Guy Rolnik interviewing a social media executive speaking on condition of anonymity for a scene in the "Rolnik Report." (Kan)
Guy Rolnik interviewing a social media executive speaking on condition of anonymity for a scene in 'The Rolnik Report.' (Kan)
Interview'They don’t give a crap, as long as they keep making money'

Delete your account: How social media may be metastasizing terror in service of Hamas

Influential economic columnist Guy Rolnik says hatred of Israel and Jews is being spread online to an unfathomable degree, creating an algorithmically sustained shadow October 7

Amir Ben-David is a journalist and senior writer at Zman Israel, The Times of Israel's sister Hebrew website. He's also a musician with the Israeli rock group “Avtipus” ("prototype"), a screenwriter and a novelist.

Guy Rolnik interviewing a social media executive speaking on condition of anonymity for a scene in 'The Rolnik Report.' (Kan)

It was still October 6 for Guy Rolnik when he began to hear of Hamas’s brutal onslaught on southern Israel. Preparing for bed in his Chicago home, the Israeli journalist and academic slowly began to realize the enormity of what was happening half a world away.

“The first thing I did was call all my family members in Israel,” he recalled recently. “After ensuring they were okay, I made one request: please don’t go on social media.”

The request was not a new one for Rolnik, a professor of strategic management at the University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business. For the past several years, he had investigated the impact of social media platforms on the economy, society, and global politics. Through writings and lectures, he has become something of a prophet of doom on the lurking threat to humanity posed by allowing companies controlling social media to amass power.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, he followed his own advice.

“Not Facebook, not Twitter, not Instagram, not Telegram, not TikTok. I also avoided clicking on any videos that I got on WhatsApp. Nothing. And I made the same request to my kids: ‘Don’t click. Don’t open.’ I said almost immediately, to anyone willing to listen: ‘Social media will be a disaster,'” he said.

Yet in the days immediately following October 7, amid the shock of invasion, violence, murder, sexual assaults, and kidnappings, Rolnik initially believed that the issue he had been so passionately investigating would be overshadowed.

After all, who would have the mental bandwidth to delve into the algorithms of Facebook and the targeting mechanisms of YouTube when such horrifying events were going on?

But as online forums became cesspools of antisemitism and swiftly translated into hundreds and even thousands of violent incidents targeting Jews and Israelis worldwide, he realized the issue was as important as ever.

“A few days after October 7, a family member shared with me that some of her friends from Europe and the United States had suddenly turned against Israel,” Rolnik recounted. “She said to me, ‘I’m looking at their Instagram — people who are good friends of mine — and I’m shocked.’ That’s when I first learned about the developments within the circles of Black Lives Matter and climate activists. She is socially connected to both of these groups.”

Thousands of people march down Washington Boulevard in downtown Detroit, Michigan to call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, October 28, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP)

A few weeks before the massacre, Rolnik had finished editing the first two episodes of “The Rolnik Report,” an investigative series commissioned by the Israeli public broadcasting corporation Kan. They both focused on the topic of social media.

Rather than shelve the report, a Kan executive asked Rolnik if he would be willing to go back to the editing room and adapt the footage to cover the October 7 attack as well.

“I told her, ‘Absolutely. Almost everything I’ve been warning about for almost 10 years materialized on October 7,'” he said.

Bots and sock puppets

The events of October 7 were unprecedented, though not because of the scale of murder and other atrocities – sadly, history is replete with such horrors. Rather, it stands out for being accompanied by a secondary wave of terror using the power of social media to aim at victims’ loved ones.

In the first episode of “The Rolnik Report,” Rolnik conducts interviews inside the charred home of Bracha Levinson, one of Kibbutz Nir Oz’s many victims.

On October 7, Levinson’s daughter Shahar Bayder and her granddaughter Mor Bayder woke to sirens in central Israel, where they live. They immediately called Levinson to make sure she was safe. The grandmother, hiding out in a safe room, was annoyed that the sirens were disrupting her morning.

A short time later, Shahar Bayder received a frantic phone call from her niece who was on a trip in Japan. She had gone on Facebook and witnessed, via the platform’s live video application, the brutal murder of her grandmother by Hamas terrorists.

Mor Bayder and her grandmother Bracha Levinson, who was gunned down in her home in Nir Oz. (Courtesy Facebook page)

Family members told Rolnik that the horrific images broadcast by the terror group will remain etched in their memories forever.

Aside from live videos, Hamas disseminated footage of murder and other atrocities captured on GoPro cameras strapped to many of the terrorists, loading them onto victims’ social media accounts for all their loved ones to see and be scarred by.

The videos, sometimes edited in diabolical ways, were part of a premeditated and orchestrated operation to spread the effects of their campaign of terror far beyond southern Israel.

“Hamas recognized that, on the ground, they could reach and harm 10,000 people,” said Orit Perlov, a social media analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, who is quoted in the series. “But online, they could reach the consciousness of 10 million Israelis, 400 million viewers in the Middle East, and potentially the entire world. The power of this tool is sometimes stronger than the power of a rifle.”

Destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz seen on October 19, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Rolnik alleges that anti-Israel sentiments that have exploded online, sometimes metastasizing into antisemitism, are part of a carefully planned and heavily financed campaign. He pointed to conversations he had with senior figures from social media platforms who revealed to him, often under cover of anonymity, what was really happening behind the scenes.

“I met with a senior figure from a social media platform who initially refused to meet me at all. He insisted that we leave our phones in another location, and when I started talking to him, he blew up at me,” Rolnik said. “He told me that I didn’t understand how severe the situation was. From him, I first learned about the number of views that pro-Hamas and anti-Israel content had in the United States, Europe, China and Russia.”

The source told Rolnik that within three weeks of the war, anti-Israel content had racked up the kind of exposure that would cost a quarter of a billion dollars to buy.

“Everyone now says that Israel invaded Gaza, killed more than 20,000 people, half of them children, so what’s the wonder that there are protests against Israel all over the world? But that’s not what happened here – what happened here is that a huge campaign against us started on October 7th, while our people were still being slaughtered.”

Guy Rolnik at an anti-Israel demonstration at Columbia University in New York City in November 2023. (Kan)

According to Rolnik, the campaign involved exploiting the precise targeting tools of social media platforms to quickly incite large audiences in different places using customized propaganda. The propaganda was disseminated using a massive army of bots, avatars, and sock puppet accounts.

A bot is a profile on a social network operated without human intervention, like a robocall for the internet. Avatars are fake profiles operated by humans, which can be expensive. Most sophisticated are sock puppets, which are fake profiles outfitted with a convincing backstory, complete with an online footprint, capable of operating for extended periods in a way that appears entirely legitimate.

A sock puppet might spend weeks posting innocuous content or expressing compelling opinions on topics that other group members are interested in. So when it starts posting anti-Israel content, for example claiming that Hamas didn’t kill civilians, it will have already earned the trust of the group, giving its claims a sheen of fake verisimilitude.

When tens of thousands of sock puppets, avatars, and bots simultaneously initiate attacks on Israel, Zionism, and Jews, they can swiftly reach millions of people online.

Exterior of Georgetown University’s medical and dental school, August 5, 2007 (Wikimedia commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ Workman); Screenshots of antisemitic social media posts by medical students at Georgetown University following the October 7 Hamas atrocities. (Courtesy)

Often, the claims will be tailored to the group being targeted. For instance, Black Lives Matter activists were inundated with messages and videos depicting Israel as a “white” country oppressing those with darker skin. Climate activists, concerned about the future of the planet, were targeted with messages portraying Israel as a colonialist entity destroying the natural environment. Those focused on wealth inequality were bombarded by a campaign presenting Israelis as capitalist imperialists crushing the poor.

To Rolnick, the intelligence failures in the lead-up to October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists streamed into southern Israel practically unchallenged, killing 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage in an unprecedented paroxysm of violence, “pale in comparison” to Israel’s inability to grapple with the online campaign against it and against Jews around the world.

“It stands out as our most significant failure. Why? Because, in that arena, we are essentially irrelevant,” he said. “And you can see that even now, despite everything we know happened on October 7, Facebook, Google, and all these entities are still undermining us. It drives me crazy. What else needs to happen?”

‘This thing is toxic’

In Israel, Rolnik is primarily recognized for founding and serving as the first editor-in-chief of TheMarker, the Haaretz broadsheet’s financial supplement. He’s widely recognized as among the most influential economic columnists in Israel over the last two decades.

In 2013, at the age of 45, he was honored with the Sokolov Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Israeli equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.

Rolnik started monitoring social media platforms with a wariness that quickly transformed into concern nearly a decade ago. Like many others, he initially saw social media platforms and tech companies as forces for positive change, helping decentralize power and give voice to the masses.

Guy Rolnik, left, with ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt in a scene from ‘The Rolnik Report,’ November 2023. (Kan)

Things changed in 2014, when he joined Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute as a fellow and started following tech companies more closely.

“It was a process,” he said. “If you revisit my columns from that period, you’ll notice an increasing focus on the problems associated with digital monopolies, and the realization that tech companies might not be the solution, but rather the problem.”

His transformation into social media naysayer was partly fueled by his own increasing popularity, he said. In 2015, he was featured on the first episode of “Magash Hakesef,” a hit documentary series examining financial issues in Israel. But he realized that social media, while ratcheting up engagement, also lowered the discourse.

“I found myself, for the first time, in a situation where my exposure on social media exploded — relatively speaking, of course, for someone writing about finance. I could reach hundreds of thousands of people, but very quickly I understood that I didn’t like this online popularity,” he said.

Rolnik realized that he could dumb down his writing to make it friendlier for social media platforms to pick up on. “I understood that Facebook essentially forces me to write differently and think differently,” he said.

“I saw that when I write something complex and valuable, I get X comments and shares, and when I write something simple and divisive, it jumps by a factor of ten,” Rolnik recalled. “And when I understood this, I also understood that it’s not the place for me. I began to understand that this thing is toxic. And I started reducing my presence on social media.”

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes his seat during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 31, 2024, on child safety. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

He started writing about the need to break up Facebook and Google in 2016 and by the next year he says he was singularly focused on “digital monopolies and their dangers to democracy and the economy.”

Despite his efforts to sound the alarm, the period saw social media platforms deploying ever-more sophisticated algorithms.

“Our addiction to [social media] also grew, making these companies much more harmful and dangerous to the world,” he said. “This is how we reached a reality where talented people working in these companies, including in Israel, make a lot of money to operate an algorithm that could become a weapon in the hands of Hamas.”

Some have discounted Rolnik’s warnings, noting that social media is a fact of life. But he says his Luddite bent toward social media is justified given the dangers presented.

“Just because we need electricity, do we need corrupt electricity?” he asked. “Do we need electricity that targets us? Do we need to connect to an electric network that spreads Hamas murder videos and arouses antisemitism in the world?”

Graffiti showing Palestinian photojournalist Motaz Azaiza is seen in Leake Street railway arches in London on Friday, January 26, 2024. He became a social media star with his reports of the war in the Gaza Strip, and his Instagram following has grown from 27,000 to over 18 million over the first 100 days of the war. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

His interviews during the making of “The Rolnik Report” have led him to believe social media companies will not make any changes to guard against these dangers unless forced to.

“They don’t give a crap, as long as they keep making money,” he said.

“My message to everyone is very, very simple: disconnect from social media as much as you can. Go on social media only if you really, truly need it for your work.”

While few have taken notice of the social media manipulations in service of Hamas, Rolnik thinks the upcoming US presidential election will be a different story.

“The amount of lies, fake news, and manipulations in the upcoming elections there will be like nothing we’ve seen before,” he predicted. “Maybe after that, the world will wake up. And maybe it will already be too late.”

This article initially appeared in Hebrew in The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael. Read it here.

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