Web 2.0-conomic Warfare and Israel-Palestine
Corporal Carl Larson is a 30-something Iraq war veteran (Charlie Company, 54th Engineers) who lives in a working class suburb of Seattle. He has a dry and matter-of-fact demeanor that tells you he is not easily impressed or excited. But there's an infectious twinkle in his eye when he talks about the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
"In Iraq during the initial war I blew up a lot of arms caches, guarded a lot of prisoners, manned a lot of checkpoints," Larson recalled when I asked what drew him to the issue. "But I talked to a lot of Iraqis and learned that maybe there were a few holes in our foreign policy."
It was April 2008, and I was on a 20-state tour promoting a campaign for the Washington, DC-based American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights (AAPER). Prior to my arrival, I had contacted several people in Seattle, including a friend, hoping to find someone who could connect me with grassroots activity there.
Larson was that connector.
He picked me up from the airport in a rickety pickup truck, and within 10 minutes had tasked me with photographing downtown street corners where a demonstration against a pro-Israeli occupation group was planned. In the next 12 hours, I would meet, among others, Adam Horowitz, from the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia; Eitan Bronstein, director of the progressive Israeli group Zochrot; Muhammad Jaradat, co-founder of the Badil Resource Center in Palestine; and an academic and grassroots organizer from Hawaii. These were all people I had intended to meet for months, and I never expected to find them there. Had I remained with Larson in Seattle another week, I would have met writers Norman Finkelstein and Ali Abunimah ahead of my own schedule.
None of this happened because Larson is a formal community leader, although everyone in Seattle, Olympia and Portland, Oregon knows him in one way or another. And it wasn't because I had known Larson previously, which I hadn't. Nor was it merely because Larson is concerned about peace, justice and U.S. foreign policy.
It happened because Larson is a social mechanic. A copper wire in the world of grassroots activity. I didn't stay with him and his wife, Kate - a gentle-natured Czech woman with a proclivity for techno music - because I hate hotels, I did so because I had chanced upon the perfect connector. If I stayed close to this guy, I would learn something.
At this point in the article, you're beginning to wonder what Larson has to do with Web 2.0 strategies and the crisis in Gaza. I lead with this anecdote because online organizing is nebulous and vague, even for those who practice it, and analogies are helpful: Larson is the human version of an exemplary online campaign.
More on him soon.
Ever since late December when Israel began bombing Gaza, the internet has come alive with activity over how to contact elected officials or donate to humanitarian relief. Organizations like American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), the United Palestinian Appeal (UPA), JStreet, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation have inhabited and maneuvered in these spaces like never before.
And since Israel barred all journalists from entering Gaza, the media and public have largely relied on non-traditional sources for information about the growing crisis. Traffic to the online magazine Electronic Intifada (EI) - whose contributions come from journalists, academics, humanitarian workers and activists on a pro-bono basis - has more than doubled in two weeks. On December 27, an Al-Jazeera correspondent called yours truly to ask for humanitarian contacts in Gaza, knowing I was in touch with the EI community.
The story in Gaza itself is a moving target. Civilian mortality rates change hourly. The outrage of Israel blowing up a mosque is soon topped by that of a school. The Orwellian PR campaigns of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Israel Project can't keep up with their own military's actions. Even John Stewart is pressing the bullshit button.
But it's not just the story that can't be nailed down, it's the story's consumption. You email me a Daily Show clip or Sky News video footage from Gaza, and I email it to my friends and family, post it to my Facebook profile, comment on it in my Twitter "micro-blog," "dig it" through my Digg account, add it to my Youtube favorites, and share it on my Facebook fundraising Cause whose charitable beneficiary is the UPA. Each step multiplies the consumption of that initial media item by untold exponents, and I did it in less than a minute. This is the phenomenon of social media.
How many times have you had that conversation with your parents about how journalism has gone to hell, replaced by the chaos of blogs and social networking sites? If you nodded along respectfully, thinking that something was wrong, then you were right.
What we're seeing with this era is the triumph of journalism. It used to be that the story began and ended with a piece in the New York Times. Today news is valued as much by the action it inspires as the thought it provokes.
Welcome to the echo chamber that is Web 2.0-conomics.
You had me at hello, but
Web 2.0 is a term that misleadingly suggests a new version of the Web, when, in fact, it refers to the dynamic Web you know and love, complete with sites like Facebook, Youtube, Travelocity and Craigslist. The term was hatched from the O'Reilly Media Web 2.0 Conference of 2004, where people started conceiving of a new era, post 2001 dot-com bubble burst.
Not to worry, the term still retains pomo chic.
When people talk Web 2.0 strategies, they're referring to the "architecture of participation" and "network effects" created by the competing sources and action pathways of online content. A less fancy term for it is the echo chamber effect. And an even lesser fancier way to understand it is the way you might understand a conversation.
For instance, what happens when I walk into a room full of rich environmentalists, announce that I have a solution for global warming, leave my business cards on the table and split? I'm not Al Gore, so I'd be lucky to get one phone call.
Now suppose I do all of the above, but hang around for a 2-hour Q&A, hashing out my plan and making arguments that hold up to scrutiny. Does this help my case? Might I acquire contacts for my email list and potentially appeal for donations? In theory, yes, but only because I was there for the conversation.
So if the theory is that simple, then all we need to know about are the tools and strategy that make it all happen.
This was at the front of my mind when I attended the New Organizing Institute's (NOI) Washington, DC Organizers' Summit last July. NOI is a non-profit organization that grew out of the internet successes of John Kerry's 2004 Presidential Campaign. Its Organizing Summits are held throughout the country and feature non-profit gurus from groups like MoveOn.org, Rock the Vote and M+R Strategic Services. At NOI summits, geek isn't chic, it's totally sexy, and I've never felt as humbled by my non-profit peers as I did by the attendants at that conference.
Among these non-profit X-Men was Michael Crawford, a known blogger and LGBT neo-lobbyist, who Clark Kents it at Public Citizen. Crawford caught my attention because I noticed him asking the same question to everyone he met: "What do you like about the conference so far?" to which people quite often replied, "I'm learning a few new things, but I mostly just find it affirming."
I spoke with Crawford later that day, and we both found this somewhat disappointing. We came here for new ideas, not affirmations. But then something dawned on us. There is no such thing as a definitive expert in Web 2.0 strategy. There are only best - and better - practices. If you do them, you know them, and if you don't know them, you're not doing them.
More importantly, if you're doing them, you inevitably learn more as you go.
The Culture War
Last July, I was sitting in a cafe with Cecilie Surasky, JVP's Communications Director, for a non-profit therapy session while she was briefly in town from Berkeley. Since attending the NOI summit, I was overcome with the Cassandra complex: The World Wide Web had endless possibilities but my superiors wouldn't listen.
"You know what it is," Surasky said. "People treat Israel-Palestine as a foreign conflict, and not as the domestic culture war that it is. That could be why they're not listening to you or using the tools they should be using."
Among Surasky's brilliant contributions to this culture war is a blog called Muzzlewatch.org whose subheading reads, "Tracking efforts to stifle open debate about U.S. foreign policy." (At the time this article went to press, Muzzlewatch's homepage featured John Stewart's "Gaza Strip Maul" - the essence of cultural warfare.) Through the art of exposure - which oftentimes merely requires publicizing a story from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz - and timing, Surasky has managed to tear down bogus muzzle campaigns around the country.
A notable example was in 2007, when Muzzlewatch, through a tireless censure and letter writing campaign, turned the tables on right-wing Jewish groups that attempted to have South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu barred from speaking at St. Thomas University in Minnesota. In an open letter, Muzzlewatch effectively invented a new crime -- anti-Semitism fraud:
Ultimately, groups like Minnesota's JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council), the right wing fringe group Zionist Organization of America, and the increasingly embarrassing Anti-Defamation League, who have all attacked Tutu for his criticism of Israeli policies, will face the consequences of smearing Tutu - a hero to millions and leader of a movement that was known for the massively disproportionate involvement of numerous South African Jews.
If exposure and timing are key elements in waging a culture war, few have handled this more brilliantly than JStreet, the new progressive Jewish lobby that is changing what it means to be pro-Israel: supporting diplomacy and multilateral solutions over military action. At the end of eight disastrous years of Bush Doctrine, the organization's timing couldn't be better. JStreet, of course, doesn't espouse the most daring political views in this culture war - like a single, democratic state for Israelis and Palestinians - but they have mastered the most enterprising techniques in the field.
One of JStreet's first targets was John Hagee, the self-styled "Christian Zionist" and mega-church evangelist from Texas who founded Christians United for Israel (CUFI). Academically, Hagee's affinity for Israel and end-of-times eschatology is a stage for the absurd.
But politically, Hagee works. CUFI draws thousands of Christian fundamentalists to its annual conferences and has become the great "Yes, but" pragmatic ally of the right-wing American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In addressing Hagee, JStreet avoided the academic argument altogether. Rather, they hit the Hagee machine early and often through video-embedded email campaigns revealing the skeletons in Hagee's closet: homophobic pronouncements, apologetic statements about Hitler and the Holocaust - all matters that resonate viscerally and immediately with Jewish Americans, a largely liberal constituency.
According to Isaac Luria, JStreet's online director, the efforts yielded "crazy good press, just absolutely wall to wall." Even Senator Joseph Lieberman, the born-again hawk from Connecticut, was forced to publicly acknowledge Hagee's toxicity.
Another matter owing to JStreet's success is the deliberation that went into its formation. Its founders, who include Morton Halperin, remain doggedly tight-lipped as they raised about $1.5 million to launch the new project.
Those who know non-profits know that strategic staffing is one of the most critical building blocks in the industry. Perhaps borrowing from the NOI legacy (recall, this preceded Obama's online revolution), JStreet prioritized hiring an online director third after its executive director and chief of staff.
From the perspective of people like this correspondent, who listened closely to JStreet's pre-existent rumblings, the debut of their website elicited a collective, "Are you serious?" Bereft of activist porn imagery like Israeli tanks and concrete walls, the three-tone, Sesame Street-like design was kind of unbelievable. It was the cheap spirit T-shirt of some high-school cheerleading squad. But aside from its fool-proof navigability, and wildly sophisticated software, there was more genius than met the eye.
"I just don't like those cluttered websites that are busy with too much information," commented Luria. "If you think about it, we get about 500 visits to our site per day, and we have about 100,000 people in our email list. All of our activity happens in the emails, while the site is just a repository."
Online directors are terribly fun to talk to. They scheme and conspire, constantly. My favorite is ANERA's Michael Austin, who used to work at the Human Rights Campaign. In a few excitedly nerdy observations, Austin once convinced me to restructure AAPER's entire campaign website. "It's all about the ladder of progression," he said, seemingly talking to the website. "Don't make me sign in or you'll lose me. When I take one action, don't leave me hanging - give me things to do."
Austin is right. It's his job to be right about these things. His advice reflects the principles that one sees in JStreet's email campaigns: The text has a graduated format, leading with basic points and take-action links. Next is a paragraph that elaborates on the basic points, followed by another take-action link. Then comes a personal anecdote, something about when Luria spent a summer on a kibbutz blah blah blah. Closing salutations, a blurb with JStreet's mission, how to join them on Facebook, and so on.
If you click on a JStreet take-action link, you're brought to a screen with a form letter that you can edit and send to an elected official, editor or media producer. After you send that letter, you're asked to spread the word. Throughout the process, which never really ends, JStreet collects email addresses and builds its list, increasing its power in the culture war.
When I spoke with Luria, he mentioned a tricky new device that would connect people's phones directly to their members of Congress and Senators. A few hours later, it arrived in my inbox.
Connecting the dot.org's
Bashir Abu-Manneh is a Palestinian from Israel who teaches English Literature at Barnard College in New York City. On the day that Israel launched its ground strike on Gaza, he published a moving article stating that "[m]ass Palestinian and Arab mobilization and organization is the only way forward."
I asked Abu-Manneh what he thought needed to be done to counter the statements of powerlessness that permeate this movement.
"Organization from below is essential, using all sorts of instruments, including the internet," said Abu-Manneh. "But it's also about formulating strategies that are effective and that can work. For example, does the boycott work? How can it be made to work effectively? How de we tell existing organizations about what's going on, like unions and grassroots?"
Abu-Manneh's words made me reflect on my first epiphany about Israel-Palestine. I was a U.S. news correspondent in South Africa, and it was 2002, a year when people there were talking about two things: the Israeli massacre in Jenin, and the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. The movement was led by yesteryear's anti-apartheid heroes, like Archbishop Tutu and Dennis Brutus, and the toy-toying masses that filled the streets were youth from places like Soweto, Alexandra and Khayelitsha.
I used to think that if only South Africans spoke out about the parallels between the Israeli occupation and apartheid; if only Palestinian non-violent resistance got some press; if only progressive Jewish Americans and Israelis were heard; if only a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign were launched...
But all of these things happened. In fact, hybrids of these things have happened and continue happening.
This is where people need to ask questions like Abu-Manneh's, and take a few notes from JStreet, ANERA, MoveOn.org and, of course, Obama. And it wouldn't be fair to say they are not. The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, or U.S. Campaign, which long ago adopted anti-Apartheid era tactics like boycott and labor union outreach, has recently incorporated best practices into their email campaigns, using open letters, online fact sheets and platforms like change.gov to contact Congress. However, their emails still lack the "ladder of progression" sensibility that is needed.
Smaller, local groups like Adallah-NY have made headway in the boycott movement, getting under the skin of Lev Leviev, the American diamond magnet who develops illegal settlements in the West Bank, not to mention some shady gentrification settlements in New York. Adallah-NY has discovered the power of Youtube, but could do much more with a savvy Michael Austin or Isaac Luria behind the scenes.
On the humanitarian front, the scrappy, charismatic staff at UPA has popped up all over Facebook, marketing itself through various Facebook groups and - this part is unprecedented - marathons. The kind people run.
Last October, UPA saw over $30,000 roll in from people who ran the Baltimore and Washington Marine Corps Marathons under the banner of Iqraa (Arabic for "read"). Thanks to Facebook's Cause function that allows anyone to choose UPA as a charitable beneficiary, the organization became the recipient of multiple Iqraa-inspired marathon runners around the world, including a two-person marathon between Ramallah and Nablus in the occupied West Bank (they blogged about it here: http://www.toomanyspoons.org).
And it wasn't for a lack of courage that those runners, Gergey Pasztor of Switzerland and Gerard Horton of Australia, raised only $2,000 for UPA. They deserved a proper publicity campaign.
"You know, we're still a fringe movement," Larson told me last Monday evening over the phone. He had just gotten out of a night school class - he's going back for his bachelors at Washington University - and was filling me in on the U.S. Campaign's plan to make him a regional representative. "This is why I study marketing, not social organizing."
Last July, the U.S. Campaign somehow caught wind of the superhuman force that is Carl Larson, and flew him to Washington, DC for their annual convention. Now they're courting him to take on a regional leadership role.
The effort is a revival of one that U.S. Campaign National Advocacy Director, Josh Ruebner, instigated years ago, where designated "Congressional District Coordinators" would effectively act as autonomous regional executives.
"Did you ever read Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point?" Ruebner asked me one day in 2007 when we were discussing his CDC model. "Once you reach a critical mass, things become unmanageable, and the leadership needs to be distributed and granted autonomy. That was the idea of the CDCs, anyway, we just didn't have the tools to sustain it."
Perhaps now they do, if their increasing online sophistication is anything to go by. However, their website is still fairly noisy, and one tends to get lost in its navigation. JStreet, in contrast, scarcely has the ground operation to match its online arsenal, although Luria alluded to future plans to build one.
Regardless of who does what, and when, the key to change lies in bridging the digital divide. This means fighting the culture war online, and moving people to action offline. The non-profits that excel in 2009 will have online directors at their offices, and superhuman superconnectors - like Larson - in the field.
There have also been calls to bridge the humanitarian-advocacy divide, such as Just Vision's Ronit Avni, who paired take-action links to JStreet and UPA in a recent email campaign.
"We know the leaders of these two organizations and thought they were worthy of mention," said Avni. "But we recognize that our supporters are based in multiple countries and have varying perspectives on the issue, so we encouraged them first to do what they regarded as ethical, but not to remain passive."
Avni was wise to make this call. For as long as we stand by passive or powerless, Gaza will burn, and all we can do is watch.