While social media holds a great portion of the world’s population under its influence, one kind of algorithm specifically is at the heart of the unwithering appeal of online experiences: micro-targeting. By definition, micro-targeting is a strategy that utilizes the user’s demographic, psychographic, geographic, and behavioral data to predict his or her interests and opinions. Thus, it enables the social media platform to individualize and customize the user experience by dictating what news feeds, events, and groups would be displayed on his or her personal page. For example, if a user likes a page about baking, the algorithm will subsequently make recommendations, such as accounts that post baking recipes or bakeries nearby.
However, this algorithm of micro-targeting has become controversial, if not harmful, in the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has come to society’s attention that many cases of violence, whether conducted in an organized manner or carried out by lone wolves, are sparked because social media platforms have become matchmakers and middle-men between organizers of violence and the masses who are vulnerable to the influence of radical contents. On October 13, 2015, multiple passengers were stabbed and shot on a bus in East Jerusalem. Following the attack, the family of one of the victims initiated a class action lawsuit, joined by more than two thousand Israelis, against Facebook under the charge of incitement and its “intentional support and assistance” of the various terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians that continuously take place in Israel. While it has been three years since the lawsuit was brought forward, social media platforms have incessantly been used both as the primary outlet for Palestinians speaking against the Israeli occupation and as the dominant means of organizing acts of violence, known as the “digital intifada.”
Indeed, the algorithm of “micro-targeting” has connected a substantial number of inciters with people who have the potential tendency to engage in violent attacks. For example, users who have expressed an interest in Facebook pages or groups under the themes such as the “Knife Intifada” or “Stab a Jew” will be more likely to be exposed to other inflammatory content, such as “anatomical charts showing the best places to stab an Israeli citizen” and Facebook group pages that promote campaigns of violence “in the form of videos, photos, diagrams, and text containing detailed instructions on how to achieve the maximum bodily harm and create the most lethal weapons,” according to a report released by the Middle East Media Research Institute. Undeniably, micro-targeting has drastically amplified the reach of inciters, under whom both extremist organizations and lone wolves are rallied.
However, micro-targeting is in no way merely utilized by Palestinians in the ongoing conflict. Multiple stories broken previously have unraveled organized digital campaigns that have been promoted by pro-Israel groups to sway the international public opinion in Israel’s favor as well as to combat pro-Palestine activism. For example, multiple pro-Israel advocacy organizations, such as Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), have used targeted ads to degrade the image of Palestinian public figures via false social media campaigns. “With the anti-Israel people, what’s most effective, what we found at least in the last year, is you do the opposition research, put up some anonymous website, and then put up targeted Facebook ads,” said ICC executive director Jacob Baime in an unreleased Al Jazeera documentary.
More importantly, according to Baime’s statement in the very same interview, ICC officials “coordinate” or “communicate” with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a department that aims to combat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement around the globe. Thus, micro-targeting, although not widely applied to provoke Israeli civilian acts of violence against Palestinians, is still used to gather support for the various policies of the state from not only Israeli citizens, but also international social media users.
As the class action against Facebook gradually raises national awareness of online extremism, the fact that micro-targeting is being actively employed as a tactic promoting extremist propaganda has been fully acknowledged in Israel. Various Israeli government agencies and research institutions that focus on the Middle East are diving into and monitoring the calls for acts of violence on the social media platform. For example, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) keeps a detailed database with the translation of various forms of violent messages calling for actions against the Israeli presence in the West Bank.
Outside of Israel, micro-targeting is still prevalently perceived merely as a campaign strategy employed by political parties or a way of commercial advertising in countries like the United States. However, the case of Israel and Palestine has demonstrated the uncontainable and unpredictable influence it may have on the resolution of global conflicts and the maintenance of both local and international security beyond the Middle East. Currently, micro-targeting is doing more than gathering people who share the same hobbies or love the same genre of novels: it is spreading inciting content in an unchecked manner far and wide, many of which have directly resulted in attacks and civilian casualties.The image featured with this article exists in the public domain and is not subject to copyright law. The original can be found here.
Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.