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The Facebook campaign that may save the mullahs

What's not to 'like' about the 'Israel Loves Iran' initiative? Well, for one thing, it's detrimental to the efforts of the Iranian opposition to topple the regime

Social media and public diplomacy are a match made in heaven. Their combined power, as the recent changes in the Middle East have shown, cannot be overstated. The government-to-people strand of public diplomacy can work, if done right; Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs using Twitter during Cast Lead or President Peres’s recent launch of a Facebook page with a hip YouTube video are two prime examples.

But  government communications, even when dressed differently, are seen as (and to an extent are) propaganda. And so, it is authentic people-to-people public diplomacy that, with the seemingly limitless power of social media, can help transform public opinion and lead to political action.

That’s why, on the surface, the Israel Loves Iran campaign makes sense. Netanyahu is likely gearing up for a 2012 military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli public, while somewhat confused on the matter, by and large does not favor military action absent a green light from the White House (here’s an interesting discussion on how internal Israeli and Iranian politics play into this).

Israel Loves Iran was started by Israeli couple Ronny Edry and Michal Tamir. The campaign aims to defuse the recent escalation in rhetoric between Israel, Iran and the U.S. and to prevent an Israeli attack, which is increasingly seen as inevitable, by mobilizing enough Israeli voices against it.

The original campaign poster, featuring Ronny Edry and his daughter
The original campaign poster, featuring Ronny Edry and his daughter

The campaign tactics are simple. Last week, Edry created a poster that featured him, his daughter and the caption, “Iranians, we will never bomb your country, we love you.” He created a video explaining the anti-war message and a Facebook page to go along. He asked others to create similar posters and spread the message, which they did.

It is a clever campaign for many reasons.

First, to date, no connection between Edry and an NGO or government exists or has been revealed. Though this is clearly an attempt to affect Israeli government policy, the campaign’s people-to-people (Israeli-Iranian), bottom-up, authentic grassroots feel give it enormous power. Invisible Children could have spared much of the public outrage over transparency and other issues had it not tried to position the expensive, almost flashy Kony 2012 video  as Jason Russell’s own guerilla video.

Second, the activists strategically launched the project at a time when the issue is still at the center of media attention, but the story has been covered in every which way. With journalists pressed to find creative, colorful and new ways to cover the intensifying standoff between the Israeli, American and Iranian governments, what better angle than Israelis and Iranian people communicating directly and sharing the love online? This explains why, within days, the campaign was covered by CNN, the blogs of The New York Times, The LA TimesThe Washington Post, The Times of Israel, 972, and many other media outlets. More will follow. Traditional media coverage increased the YouTube movie views from 3,000 on Monday to almost 170,000 by Thursday.

Third, the campaign provides a simple and clear call to action. Edry, a graphic designer, made it easy for any Israeli to create a poster of his family and share an anti-war message with the Iranian people. Much has been written about how Facebook has redefined activism, mainly by lowering the bar for engagement (in fact, a negative term, “Slacktivism,” has been coined to define how little is required from citizens interested in participating in online social or political change). Thousands of Israelis have responded to the call for action. Hundreds of Iranians have done the same.

Many have also embraced a lighter approach to the matter. Spoofs such as Spock vowing, “Klingons, we will never bomb your country,” are spreading like wildfire. Though this may not have been an intended outcome, the ability to have fun with online political campaigns is a critical success factor.

Fourth, the campaign takes a page out of the Kony 2012 book. YouTube and Facebook are only the beginning; Edry has greater aspirations. According to a New York Times blog, Edry has set an ambitious one million dollar fundraising goal “in order to buy media: billboards, major magazines, TV ads and finally Times Square screens.” Integrating online with offline marketing is critical.

It is also morphing into “real” political action. On March 24, according to one tweet, Tel Aviv will see its first peace rally focused on Iran — not Palestinians. However, attracting the masses will be difficult.

What’s not to ‘like’?

If it’s all good, you may ask, why is the title of this article “The Facebook campaign that may save the mullahs?”

Because Edry employs great social media marketing tactics but his strategy and message miss the mark in a big way.

As any bar mitzva boy will tell you, Israel’s beef is with the Iranian regime — not people. Many government officials have stressed that, and a similar message has recently come from Obama. In fact, under the Shah, Iran and Israel had close ties. I’m all for Israelis and Iranians opening a channel of communications and sharing the love. But what does this have to do with the current government-to-government crisis? Edry says, “Iranians, we will never bomb your country,” but then how do we go about ending the Supreme Leader’s dangerous nuclear adventure?

Instead of buckling under international pressure, Iranian leaders seem to be even more determined to complete the program. If sanctions and diplomacy fail, regime change becomes the only way to avoid a military confrontation.

Feeling the love (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
Feeling the love (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

There are plenty of young, secular Iranians who have been trying, since the summer of 2009, to protest, demand their basic freedoms and bring down the current regime. Why did they fail where the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya succeeded? One reason is that Iranian protestors have been oppressed and silenced in the most brutal ways.

While the revolution has largely died down, activists are still begging for outside help. Why not use this social media campaign to support them and to help their voices be heard?

A campaign of this sort – instead of the current one – could give the Iranian opposition movement moral support and perhaps bring the masses back to the streets in a final, effective, wave of protests. A big enough movement may also affect whether our governments support the protestors with words, and perhaps with weapons, training or money (covertly of course, as to not incur the wrath of Iranian proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah).

In its current form, however, the pro-peace campaign is clever and creative, but unfortunately, and quite paradoxically, will have unintended anti-peace results. In reassuring the current Iranian regime that Israelis will not accept a government decision to target Iran’s nuclear facilities (not “bomb your country”) it decreases the chances of this regime dropping its nuclear program while increasing the chances of a preemptive Israeli strike, or worse, a full-out confrontation with a nuclear Iran.

Most Israelis love Iranians (some of us are, in fact, Iranian). Many Iranians love Israelis (though certainly not these). But, unfortunately, this anti-war message will not help Israelis or Iranians live in peace.

About the Author
Ari Applbaum is Director of Israel Operations for The David Project, a non-profit that positively shapes campus opinion on Israel, and has been with the organization since 2007. Ari manages all aspects of the organization’s work in Israel such as overseeing operations and budget, a staff of three, strategic partnerships with other organizations and all educational programming. He also lectures to thousands of Americans visiting the Jewish state each year. From 2008 to 2010, Ari served as a Middle East Analyst for The David Project. Based out of Boston, MA, Ari travelled extensively throughout the U.S. and Canada to educate and inspire effective supporters of Israel. He spoke to thousands of adults and students and lectured at hundreds of venus, including Ivy League universities such as Harvard and prestigious conferences such as AIPAC’s Saban Leadership conference. While in Boston, Ari also served as marketing and communications manager for the organization. In this role, Ari was responsible for the organization’s overall media, public relations and marketing activities. Prior to The David Project, Ari served as Senior Account Executive at the Israel branch of Ruder Finn, one of the world’s largest marketing and communications consultancies. There he specialized in strategic planning, media and analyst relations, marketing material development, market research, and branding. Ari provided these services to non-profit organizations, global telecommunications and technology companies (including several Fortune 100 companies), Israeli start-ups and financial institutions. As a student activist, Ari was sent numerous times by the MFA, The Jewish Agency for Israel, and other organizations to represent Israel in the U.S., Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, and The Netherlands. Ari holds a Master of the Arts degree in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in Communication & Journalism and Islam & Middle-East Studies from Hebrew University. Ari is currently working on his first book, a compilation of inspirational Zionist quotes. He is married to Na'ama; Their twin sons Yuval and Roni were born in Boston but are eighth-generation Jerusalemites.