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WhatsApp and the Micro-Organizing of Israel's Protest Movement
The ubiquitous role of the WhatsApp messaging service there is a case study in how tech platforms subtly shape political processes, making protest easier but leadership harder.
A week ago, Simcha Rothman, a member of the Israeli parliament who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party and is one of the key authors of the effort to “overhaul” the Israeli judiciary and eliminate its independence, went to court for an unusual reason. He was seeking a restraining order on 400 anti-government protestors who, he said, were “persecuting” and “spying” on him. His complaint came after Israeli activists created a WhatsApp group called “Searching for Rothman in the Golan Heights” and sought to zero in on him and his family while they vacationed at a nature preserve. “Are you in the area? Let’s tell him that fascists like him that destroy democracy are not welcome anywhere!” read a message shared across the group. “In the skies, on the land or in the sea, and don’t forget to pass on confirmation [of his location] so that we spread this shame to the masses,” it read.
The judge denied his request, saying that the protests were legitimate because Rothman was a public figure and that he was misapplying the law, which is supposed to be used to protect people under an immediate threat. But the court also ordered the police to summon the leaders of the WhatsApp group for a hearing, told Rothman he should file a civil lawsuit against them, and urged the protestors to respect the privacy of Rothman’s children. As Michael Horovitz of the Times of Israel noted in his report on the matter, “Hounding the homes and locations of government ministers has been a staple of anti-overhaul protests from the get-go, echoing tactics employed last year by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led opposition that eventually toppled the previous government and returned the Likud party leader to power.” Earlier in August, hundreds of activists attempted to surround a farm where Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was vacationing with his family, prompting a heavy police response. As I finish writing this post, activists are bird-dogging far-right security minister Itamir Ben-Gvir as he visits the boardwalk at the southern town of Eilat.
As I wrote a few months ago, there are some intriguing similarities in the politics of Israel and the United States, along with obvious differences. Both countries claim to be democracies and have some aspects of democratic rule, but also deep histories of racist, settler colonialism and overlarge military-industrial complexes. Both are dealing with reactionary social movements rooted in their country’s majority religion, but also have vibrant opposition cultures rooted in minority, feminist, LGBTQ and anti-colonial or anti-war movements. The independent media and judiciary matter in both countries, while Murdoch-type tabloidism and efforts to capture the courts for the right are also on the march in both places. And Netanyahu and Trump are both dominant and domineering populist demagogues who are hugely popular with their base.
Yes, Israel is much smaller than the US – 9 million inhabitants to 330 million – and it is a unitary system, not a federal system like ours. That, plus the reality of living in the Middle East pressure cooker, may make its populace far more politically engaged than ours, in proportional terms. But the fact that the pro-democracy movement there has managed to sustain more than 35 weeks of continuous protests since January, with roughly 2-3% of the population rallying every Saturday against Netanyahu and his far-right government, ought to impress pro-democracy advocates everywhere. How are they doing that? Could the answer be, in part, the way that everything in Israel is conducted over one dominant tech platform, WhatsApp?
Here in the United States, large-scale political engagement largely takes place in the context of centralization. Information about who is doing what in the political arena at any scale is tightly held and comparatively expensive to access—whether that’s high-quality polling, voter files, or contact lists. At the same time, people use a wide variety of tools to get information, connect with others, and coordinate their efforts, including email, Facebook, Twitter/X, Instagram, WhatsApp, Signal, Slack, TikTok, Twitch, and specialized platforms like ActBlue, WinRed or GoFundMe for fundraising, and Mobilize for meetings. In Israel, by comparison, information about who is doing what is largely decentralized. Zazim, a campaigning group founded about a decade ago to work on the MoveOn model, has nowhere near the same heft in the political ecosystem there. Everything just happens through WhatsApp messages and groups.
“We use WhatsApp for everything,” Noam Vidan, the head of IDEA, a network working to build support for liberal democracy from all sectors of Israeli society, told me. “I have my family group, my brother’s group, my staff group, part of my staff, my department—three of us just on one project right now, we open a new WhatsApp group. I’m in hundreds of groups and I can’t remember the names of them. Before my grandfather died, when he was 100 years old, he was on WhatsApp to get pictures of the family.”
I got a fascinating email the other day from Azi Lev-On, a professor of communications at Ariel University who studies the role of the internet in politics, participation and collective action. (I should note that Ariel University is located in the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the occupied territories, but while I oppose the occupation I do not subscribe to the idea that boycotting or ignoring the work of scholars advances Palestinian rights.) After noting my recent article about some of the unusual characteristics of the mass protest movement, he wrote:
“I wanted to introduce you to an alternative perspective on the situation in Israel – one that delves into the realm of micro-organizing, a realm that seems to resonate with your writing. Notably, WhatsApp has taken an incredibly significant role in these recent events. This platform has become a central hub for communication and coordination among the participants.
Three key factors are converging to shape this phenomenon. Firstly, the widespread adoption of WhatsApp across phones in Israel has created a nearly universal communication channel. Secondly, the simplified process of establishing WhatsApp groups—where recently initiating a group and inviting people can be as straightforward as sharing a link—has streamlined the setup of protest-related groups. Thirdly, the protests have persisted for 33 weeks, affording participants ample time to build infrastructure (which will help the liberal camp in Israel in the coming years), and fine-tune its organization and coordination.
Notably, there have been widespread but relatively small-scale demonstrations targeting VIPs such as ministers, MPs, and heads of media organizations who support the reform. These demonstrations occur whenever these figures leave their homes or attend events, with a group of protesters awaiting them. Even if only one person spots them, the news quickly spreads through word of mouth and social media channels. An illustrative incident took place a few months ago when Sara Netanyahu, for instance, visited a hair salon in central Tel Aviv, a bastion for opposition to the reform. As soon as she was spotted and the information was spread through WhatsApp, thousands of people gathered.
Similar occurrences transpired yesterday [August 15] when the couple embarked on a vacation to Ramot in the Golan Heights. Demonstrators tracked their movements closely, following them wherever they went. On one occasion, when the couple discreetly entered a restaurant in Tiberias, the information rapidly disseminated via WhatsApp, leading to a substantial gathering around the restaurant. Reports indicate that the Netanyahus remained in the restaurant for hours before eventually departing. In addition to these demonstrations, dedicated WhatsApp groups have emerged with the purpose of tracking other politicians. As soon as these politicians are sighted, a multitude of opponents swiftly converges, facilitated by the rapid spread of information through WhatsApp.
Another striking facet of this online mobilization is the effective documentation of instances of violence. This has been aided by the emergence of WhatsApp micro-groups dedicated to legal support, facilitating swift legal assistance for individuals apprehended during the protests. Additionally, WhatsApp groups offering psychological support have gained prominence. In cases of arrest, demonstrators have displayed ingenuity by orchestrating rallies outside detention centers. WhatsApp serves as a vital tool in coordinating actions that advocate for the release of detainees. Recent reports have indicated that the police have attempted to confound protesters by transferring detainees to unexpected detention facilities, located far from their original arrest sites. However, these detainees employ the WhatsApp location tracking feature, allowing others to remain informed about their real-time whereabouts.
Moreover, these micro-organizing groups have played a crucial role in a wide array of tasks. They have been instrumental in activities ranging from the preparation and distribution of protest materials, such as flags and shirts, to the creation of eye-catching graphics and signs. Notably, they have orchestrated significant marches, including the recent prominent march to Jerusalem. These marches are meticulously planned, encompassing provisions, music, and even tents to ensure the comfort and resilience of the participants.
Not confined to these actions, WhatsApp has also fostered the unity of groups spanning fields like academia, military reserve units, and medicine. Through these platforms, individuals have come together, pooling their expertise and resources to amplify the impact of the movement.
As you are well aware, historical disparities between grassroots movements and established institutions have frequently arisen from the latter's advanced organizational capacities. Nonetheless, a significant reduction of this gap has been achieved through the astute incorporation of WhatsApp and more legacy technologies into the movement's toolbox.”
Compared to the post-2016 anti-Trump mobilization in America, which also began with a massive outpouring of grassroots protest but then got captured by national organizations and funders, Israel’s anti-Netanyahu movement seems remarkably decentralized and self-reliant. Thousands of small groups built around a shared identity, either a locality or a profession or an identity or maybe being parents of kids in the same school, are devising roles for themselves inside the larger movement without being subsumed. “The fact that citizens are now so involved,” Vidan said to me, “is because this is decentralized and people can feel like they are part of something because they are doing it in their own neighborhood group or hobbyist group.”
Ron Gerlitz, the executive director of aChord-Social Psychology for Social Change, a research outfit at Hebrew University, also argued that Whatsapp groups were good for the movement, “since it is a huge mobilization platform that causes significant and positive politicization processes. Many people who have never been part of a political WhatsApp group are now part of those groups. For the first time they choose to join something which is ONLY political (unlike social media which has many things). It mobilizes them and most important - causes their politicization. It makes dealing with politics and struggle something which is normative. These are critically important for the main opportunity now – to mobilize people and build a liberal democratic camp in Israel.”
What WhatsApp Doesn’t Do Well
At the same time, there may be some downsides to such a heavy reliance on WhatsApp. A conversation in an active WhatsApp group doesn't aggregate the way, say, a Wikipedia page with a large number of editors produces a relatively stable document, which means -- unless the group has strong administrators -- it can become impossible to follow what is being discussed, let alone decided. The same is true for Facebook groups, by the way. So the tendency for a streamed conversation to be taken over by a few loud voices and turn into an echo chamber where more extreme versions of the group’s purpose take precedence is a real danger.
It's not coincidental that in other contexts, like intra-communal conflict in India or the anti-Arab street attacks that took place in some Israeli towns in 2021, heavy dependence on WhatsApp has resulted in mob violence against minorities. Rumors spread rapidly on word-of-mouth platforms (as opposed to moderated or edited platforms), while facts take time to be verified, so WhatsApp groups become very effective vectors for rumors. So, while the WhatsAppification of the Israeli movement has enabled a lot of small-group autonomous creativity as evidenced by the swarming behavior tracking Bibi and other coalition leaders, that behavior may also be detrimental to the larger movement. The swarming of Sara Netanyahu's visit to her hairdresser was not popular in public opinion polls, for example, compared to many other tactics used across the movement.
Lev-On agrees that, “WhatsApp activism is not without its downsides. Its potential to inadvertently foster the spread of conspiracies and rumors, the format of conversations within these groups that might hinder the aggregation of perspectives, and the possibility of WhatsApp activism devolving into self-regarding cliques that overlook larger and more strategic objectives – these points are all well taken. Additionally, while WhatsApp can certainly serve as a powerful tool for coordinating opposition movements, it might not be the optimal platform for constructing sustainable alternatives.”
But he still believes the near universal accessibility of WhatsApp and its widespread use has not just enhanced the organizational capabilities of protestors, it has also spread that knowledge quite widely. “The unprecedented continuity of the protest – the prolonged duration of the protest has allowed people enough time to comprehend ‘how things work’ and has provided organizers with the opportunity to devise innovative solutions,” Lev-On argues.
Ariel Beery, a young tech entrepreneur who was on sabbatical after selling his second start-up and then decided to volunteer close to full-time with the “tech for democracy” wing of the protest movement, had a more critical view. After I shared Lev-On’s perspective as well as my own questions, Beery wrote me that “from the perspective of someone who has both participated in and managed dozens of groups during the past 7 months with the focus of safeguarding democracy in Israel, I agree with both of your assessments that WhatsApp has had significant impact on shaping the movement through its underlying logic.”
“It is absolutely true that WhatsApp has created an opportunity for true grassroots engagement like never before. It has enabled any individual, no matter their age or demographic background to participate in the project of protesting against the governing coalition's overreach. The ubiquity of the use of the tool, from the age of 7 to 97, has enabled a multi-generational engagement that I have never seen in my decades of activism.”
But Beery also said that the fleeting nature of Whatsapp messages, the inability to manage conversational threads, and the total lack of data about who is participating and why, were major hindrances. “One of the key requests I keep hearing from people on the organizing side of the movement is to have better analytics to understand who is actually involved and how. From my own perspective as an organizer and coordinator of the groups that I have run, I can tell you that they generally fit into a pretty simple pattern. A small handful of people become extremely active, sending dozens of messages a day, drowning out important announcements, leading to new groups that are announcement-only which then sprouts additional discussion for between people who have prior relationship who then repeat the cycle all over again.”
He also thinks there’s a danger that protestors won’t be able to see the larger picture beyond the horizon brought to them inside their WhatsApp group screens. The features and limitations of WhatsApp, he says, are shaping “the movement’s inability to have a reasoned and forward-looking vision for the day after, the movement’s lack of clear leadership on an ideological or value-based level, and the movement’s inability to drive political organizing to ensure that the massive and impressive regular outpouring of everyday citizens into the streets translates into a sufficient majority in the municipal and later national elections to ensure that liberal democracy is protected in Israel.”
It’s an old problem, isn’t it? New digital communications technologies have opened up the political arena to much more personal participation, but our tools are shaping us more than we are shaping them. When masses of people are in motion, we can coordinate towards a goal if we already agree, but when lots of people get politically active, they inevitably also discover how much they may disagree. The Internet is very good for saying “No” or “Stop” and not very good at helping large groups of people get to “Yes” and “Go.” For that, we need a new generation of toolmakers. It’s not a coincidence that after his immersion in the challenges of tech and participation in the protest movement in Israel, Beery has set his sights on creating a next-generation incubator for democracy tech. It can’t come soon enough.
—Related: Rightwing activists in Israel, who also used Whatsapp to target politicians in the run-up to the most recent election there, are now allegedly reporting pro-democracy activists to Facebook and Whatsapp as spammers, causing their accounts to be blocked, Bar Peleg and Omer Benjakob report for Ha’aretz.
Odds and Ends
—Bookmark this article by Noami Nix and Sarah Ellison in the Washington Post about how Big Tech platforms are “receding from their role as watchdogs against political misinformation” as 2024’s election comes into view. It isn’t just Elon Musk’s aggressive re-platforming of the alt-right, either—they note that “YouTube, X, and Meta have stopped labeling or removing posts that repeat Trump’s claims [about the 2020 election being stolen from him], even as voters increasingly get their news on social media.”
—This essay by Jason England in Defector about the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and its co-optation by capitalism is a tour-de-force of cultural and political criticism.
—Go subscribe to my friend Susan Crawford’s new Substack Moving Day. It takes off from her terrific new book Charleston: Race, Water and the Coming Storm, which I just finished reading and which remains very much on my mind as this year’s hurricane season starts to intensify.
How many times will you click on this?