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Students expose fake social media reports on Israel-Gaza, to set record straight

Around 180 students from Israel and around the world staff situation room at Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, looking out for false anti-Israel coverage and explaining facts

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)
Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)

Some 180 students from Israel and overseas studying at an academic institution in Herzliya, in central Israel, are working from morning to night to monitor and foil fake news and anti-Israel propaganda on social networks and to advance the country’s point of view amid the conflict with Hamas and other Gaza terror groups, the school said.

Doing shifts of several hours each within a situation room, volunteers from various schools within the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya are trying to root out falsehoods and present the facts.

They estimate that their messages have already been received by over two million internet surfers.

The volunteers — Israeli students and graduates, as well as international students at IDC’s Raphael Recanati International School — have identified numerous examples of fake news. They have also succeeded in blocking the Twitter account of a senior member of a Gaza terror group, who was using it to incite violence against Israel. The students are producing texts, stills and videos in some of the many languages they speak, including Arabic, as well as using their graphic design and video editing skills.

Students in the situation room at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel, May 2021. (Courtesy, IDC )

The student situation room began as a spontaneous action during the 2012 Israel-Gaza war, Operation Pillar of Defense, springing back into action in 2014 for Operation Protective Edge, which also pitted Israel against the Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip.

Several years ago, the initiative was incorporated into IDC’s Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy, which runs Act-IL, an online program that operates year round to counter international Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaigns and antisemitic and anti-Israel activities in general.

Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)

An Act-IL spokesperson noted that while those spreading anti-Israel falsehoods frequently resort to flooding social media via automated bots and trolls, “our posts are written only by real people with real feelings.”

Bots are automated messengers and trolls are people, sometimes paid, who spread inflammatory material. Both are used to amplify particular points of view or attack people with opposing views.

The spokesperson went on, “Our approach is ‘no logo, no ego.’ We want other organizations to use the material. We want it to go viral.”

Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)

The initiative, supported and encouraged by IDC president and founder Prof. Uriel Reichman, is independent of official Israeli agencies. “It’s not our job to work on the messaging of the army or the Foreign Ministry,” the spokesperson said.

“We are an academic institution with people from all over the world and we celebrate diversity. It’s important to advocate for values of tolerance and responsible public discourse and to advocate against antisemitism and hatred in all of its forms.

“Beyond contributing to the national effort, students active in the program learn in practice how the world of information works in the age of social networks, and come out with meaningful tools for conveying messages and changing attitudes in this world. These tools will be used in the future to explain Israel to the world, as well as in professional fields, in Israel or abroad.”

Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)

“We bring a younger voice to the public discourse and try to counter at least some of those waves of hatred in the most genuine and effective way possible.”

Fake news uncovered by student volunteers at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy IDC)

Act-IL, which carries out joint activities with the Israel America Council, forms part of IDC’s Public Diplomacy Track, but students from other disciplines can volunteer to intern there as well. During the current round of hostilities, involvement has been open to all.

To encourage people in Israel and overseas to respond both to negative and positive online information, Act-IL has an application which can be downloaded via the App Store and through which the project can call for action online.

It also communicates its findings through WhatsApp, the various social media platforms, and other organizations within Israel and abroad.

An example of the factual information about Operation Guardian of the Walls made available daily by students at the IDC Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, central Israel. (Courtesy, IDC)

Students are supervised and also receive support and information from IDC research institutes dealing with counter-terrorism and with policy and strategy.

Said Johan Zarbiv from France, one of the student activists, “When Israeli citizens are attacked by rockets and at the same time Israel is constantly receiving attacks on social media, I could not stand aside so I joined the other students here in Act-IL. By battling to expose Hamas’s fake news and false information on social media, we help strengthen Israel’s position, its legitimacy and its right to self-defense.”

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