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Israeli think tank holds anti-BDS ‘hackathon’

Pro-Israel activists have vowed to fight back against a growing global boycott campaign, using new technological “tools” proposed and developed at a recent “Legitimacy Hackathon.”

The gathering, held on January 4-6 in Tel Aviv, was organised by Israeli think tank the Reut Institute, who in 2010 produced an influential report on fighting what they termed “delegitimisation” – the growing support for Palestinian rights and opposition to Israeli Apartheid.

The ‘Hackathon’, supported by Jewish philanthropy organisation UJA-Federation of New York among others, gathered “more than 100 developers, cyber experts, Israel activists, marketing and PR professionals” from the likes of the U.S, Canada, UK, and South America.

Also present were representatives of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and advocacy organisations such as J Street, Israel Campus Coalition, NGO Monitor, and StandWithUs. In a separate development, it was revealed this week that StandWithUs will receive more than NIS 1 million “to help spread government-backed advocacy messages”, especially on “social networks.”

According to Reut, the ‘Hackathon’ was intended to “leverage [Israel advocates’] technological strengths and compensate for our numerical disadvantage.” The winning project was the “Virtual War Room”, developed by students behind the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya-based ‘war room’ that defended Israel online during the summer assault on Gaza.

Other project examples considered include ‘Map the Casbah’, which “maps and analyses different terms in the context of Arab public opinion”, and a “Discourse Heat Map”, which uses a “Richter scale” to illustrate both “where delegitimisation is geographically spreading.”

The Reut Institute’s motivation for holding the ‘Hackathon’ was spelled out by the think tank’s Director of Policy and Strategy Daphna Kaufman in late August 2014, two days after the end of Israel’s unprecedented assault on the Gaza Strip.

“The Internet in general, and social media in particular, have contributed to exponential growth in the delegitimisation campaign”, Kaufman wrote, acknowledging the weakness of Israel’s propaganda “in an ecosystem populated with social networks, virtual communities, and extreme diversity.”

Improving Zionist groups’ “toolbox” in the fight against Palestine solidarity campaigners means “develop[ing] methodologies to be able to penetrate, with messaging and for other purposes, often protected and niche internet-mediated worlds” – as well as identifying “those individuals that organize drive boycotts, protests, and other forms of delegitimisation.”

This is important for gathering intelligence as well as for developing strategies to discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of these individuals and organizations.

This focus on targeting individual activists is repeated on the ‘Hackathon’ website, where one area of interest is named as “Outing, naming, and shaming” the so-called delegitimizers. “What are their funding sources?” Reut asks: “What activities do they engage in or causes that they support may expose their fundamentally illiberal values?” A YouTube clip promoting the gathering refers to Twitter and Facebook as “open source intelligence.”

Like Reut’s long-standing work aimed at undermining a global movement for Palestinian rights, the ‘Hackathon’ was a recognition that BDS activists and others have already “made inroads in eroding Israel’s international image” and “in some instances exacted a tangible strategic price” on Israel. Believing that this trend can be halted through a techno ‘toolbox’ while the apartheid system remains is at best optimistic, if not grossly deluded.

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