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Can Israeli left fight back through Facebook?

A private Facebook group is quietly working to promote the positions of the political left and influence the public discourse on Israeli social media platforms, which its leaders say are misleadingly dominated by an aggressive and hateful right-wing discourse.

Ori Kol, one of the administrators of a secret Facebook group called "Reinforcing the Left on the Web," addressed the group's members June 22 in an impassioned video uploaded under the heading "We have won!" Kol's declared victory was over a fundraising drive by the Nachala settlement movement to rehabilitate an illegal building in the West Bank outpost of Givat Gal near Kiryat Arba, demolished by the Israeli Civil Administration. The activity initiated by the leftist Facebook group included an unrelenting bombardment of the Facebook page of the Headstart crowdfunding website with harsh posts blasting the drive, eventually forcing the website to take it down.

"Congratulations to our friends who have been involved in the activities against the settlers. Well done!'' said Kol in the video. ''It's thanks to you that we have managed to torpedo the drive. We have been active on Facebook; we have sent emails; we have updated each other in the group; and we created a momentum that eventually forced Headstart to take it down."

In reaction, Headstart CEO Yossi Meiri told Al-Monitor, "We host on our website all sorts of ventures from all social classes and all political hues. There is no discrimination of any kind. As for the Kiryat Arba venture, we received complaints concerning its legality. We checked the complaints with the Civil Administration and subsequently removed the venture from the website, the way we would remove any venture that is deemed illegal by the state authorities."

Asked about the group's activity in an interview to TV Channel 10, right-wing activist Daniella Weiss was disdainful, stating, "They are a bunch of leftists who feel that their days at the helm are about to end soon. … In fact, their days are numbered." But in this particular case, at least, she was wrong. As noted, Headstart did remove the drive from its website, despite the online counterattacks led by Weiss.

The local Israeli social platforms seem to be dominated by an aggressive and hatred-inciting right-wing discourse. Judging by a casual sample of comments on political Facebook posts and comments in response to online news articles, it looks as though the extreme right is setting the tone. The high online visibility of these positions makes it seem like most Israelis are leaning far to the right.

The Facebook group "Reinforcing the Left on the Web" — which operates under the media's radar, yet already has about 8,000 members — seeks to voice the positions of the political left on social media and to show that the silent majority holds positions that are quite different from those commonly presented in comments on news articles and social media posts.

''The group aims to reinforce the presence of the left on the web and thus influence the public discourse in the country," reads a statement published by the group on its Facebook page. "Just imagine a post by [HaBayit HaYehudi leader] Naftali Bennett with five leftist comments that get the largest number of likes … and are therefore the most prominent." The group's members are quick to comment on posts by right-wing figures and on media reports, and they believe that they are succeeding in changing the online discourse in Israel.

The group leaders not only refer its members to specific posts, but also suggest how response comments should be formulated and offer talking points. For instance, one of the group's leaders recently directed the group to a post about the 2011 social justice protests on the Likud's Facebook page. "You are welcome to attack the troublemaker sitting on the premier's chair for trying to undermine the most significant protest in Israel ever," she wrote, "and for the more than 30% rise on the average in housing prices. … The cost of living hasn't changed, while Netanyahu is making a laughing stock of us all."

Responding to the call, many of the group members added links to their comments on the post by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so the other group members could like them and increase their visibility on the Likud page.

The group leaders declined to be formally interviewed, but one of them told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the group members are free to respond any way they see fit. "As for me, I state whatever I think about any issue I find worthy of comment," she said.

This group leader added that she has felt a change among moderates on the right. "They too are beginning to wonder what exactly the right has to offer besides incitement, and the change may be [partially] attributed to our presence and our promotion of leftist messages. It is an interesting awakening that has probably not been triggered just by the group, but our activity is certainly a contributing factor. We also strengthen left-wing politicians. [Positive] comments on their Facebook pages would relieve their concerns and help them stop worrying and muffling their messages to pander to the imagined voice of the crowd. It is the policy of the right, advocating the continued occupation, rather than that of the left, that is damaging the State of Israel."

She added, "The group psychology strengthens us. We feel less alone. There is a feeling that the left is in the minority. They keep charging that we are traitors, that we are not patriots. They wish us to be raped. … Therefore, we should not surrender this arena nor give up. We have power and we have good arguments. All we have to do is voice them."

Orit Perlov, a social media analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, doubts that the group's initiative has been all that effective. "Usually, the discourse on the social networks reflects what's happening on the outside world," she told Al-Monitor. "There are two things you can do: You can log in and start a discussion that would reduce to some measure the presence of the right, or create an alternative outside the social media. Once that happens, it is bound to generate a corresponding presence on the web. The problem is that the left sticks to an outdated paradigm and instead of fixing it, they carry on the old discourse on the new platform. It is not going to work. They are dealing here with the symptom. If the product offered outside the web is not good enough, it will be difficult to create a positive dialogue on the web."

"We have no illusions that we can topple or, conversely, raise governments to power. It is not in our hands to establish a leftist government," the group leader concluded. "The immediate concrete goal is to make room for the left on the web. None of us has expected to achieve so much in such a short time. It just goes to show the power of the masses, which may be realized constructively rather than destructively." 

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