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Saturday, September 5, 2015

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Going viral over #BringBackOurBoys

Tags: Columnists #BringBackOurBoys David Gurevitz twitter

Barely an event can happen nowadays – from trivial to tragic – without it being noted and commented upon on social media sites. Shortly after Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaer. Naftali Frankel, and Eyal Yifrach were kidnapped while hitching a ride in the West Bank, the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys appeared on Twitter urging international support for their release and wishing them a safe return. 

Online advocacy (and the inevitable digital feuding) are not new. Just go to Wikipedia entries for Israel or Palestine and click on the “Talk” tab to see the multiple revisions reflecting each side’s version of reality. But the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag has also resulted in a fascinating backlash.

Three criticisms have been levelled against its use:

• By creating this campaign, pro-Israel activists have been accused of inadvertently opening the social media floodgates to their opponents.

• A hashtag clearly associated with the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian teenage girls has been unfairly misappropriated.

• And does anyone really believe that a hashtag campaign will make a difference in the boys’ release?

The #BringBackOurBoys hashtag was created by graduates of the University of Haifa’s “Ambassadors Online” project. The program, which began in 2012, trains its participants to “engage in a dialogue with anti-Israeli activists and improve Israel’s image abroad by expanding the positive knowledge about the country. The project’s pioneering approach emphasizes new media as a common ground for establishing a direct link of Israelis with target audiences overseas.”

In relation to the hashtag, Ambassadors Online founder David Gurevitz states, “The organizers of our initiative wanted to make it clear that terror cannot include kidnapping children – not in Nigeria and not in Israel. Surfers all over the world connected to that simple message.”

As you scan the tweets that use the hashtag, some familiar names and organizations pop up:


All of #Israel is with the families of Naftali, Gilad & Eyal during these difficult times #BringBackOurBoys


Alleged Palestinian kidnapping of three Israeli youths is a war crime. The laws of war prohibit the taking of hostages. #BringBackOurBoys


We will pray for you, we will cry for you, until your safe return. #BringBackOurBoys

Ma’an News, the Palestinian wire service, recently ran a piece titled, “Palestinians cynical as Israel mobilizes #BringBackOurBoys campaign”. In it, Khaled Quzmar, a legal adviser at Defense for Children International-Palestine, argues that while many Palestinians sympathize with the suffering of the families of the missing boys, the double standards are staggering. “We support the right to life of all Israeli children, but not at the expense of Palestinian children,” he told Ma’an. “1,400 Palestinian children have been killed by Israel since 2000, and more than 200 are currently in prison, suffering from all kinds of torture,” he added.

You can find similar – and stronger – views using the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag to make their point:


RT @IsraelWC1: Palestinian boys being kidnapped by Israeli soldiers. This is so heartbreaking. #BringBackOurBoys pic.twitter.com/czQCPTAccv


5,000 prisoners inside the #Zionist jails, including 202 kids and you’re wailing about three that we’ll keep safe! #BringBackOurBoys pic.twitter.com/HapmDWqrIL


#EyalGiladNaftali bring back ALL our boys. Thousands of Palestinian children are rotting in Israeli jail cells. pic.twitter.com/zQfnsgk5P3

Is this use of the hashtag fair? Emily Neilson doesn’t think so. Neilson is one of the student organizers of the Bring Back Our Boys page on Facebook (now with over 100,000 “Likes.”) “Some people have taken our hashtag, #BringBackOurBoys, and hijacked it,” she told NBC News from Israel. “I think it’s shameful.”

In the rough and tumble world of social media, when you create a campaign like this, one of the risks that you run is that anyone and everyone can chime in.

Sigal Samuel has called the #BringBackOurBoys hashtag campaign “offensive” for a different reason. While expressing her wish for a speedy release of the boys, she opposes adopting a hashtag associated with the kidnapping of the over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls (#BringBackOurGirls). “It’s wrong to capitalize on the virality of one nation’s desperate and grief-soaked social media plea in order to increase the virality of your own campaign. Especially when that initial plea has yet to be answered.”

Responding in Forward.com, Mordechai Lightstone argues that #BringBackOurBoys is actually the “perfect” hashtag. Are we playing some game of tit-for-tat over human suffering and terror? When ‘Never Forget’ became the rallying cry after Sept. 11, did it take away from the cry to ‘Never Forget’ the Holocaust?”

Echoing those thoughts, Ebbe Bassey Manczuk, who does media work in New York for the #BringBackOurGirls effort, told the JTA, “Any missing child in any area of the world is the concern of every citizen of the world.”

Although Mordechai Lightstone doesn’t have a problem with the hashtag itself, the rabbi and blogger does question its efficacy. “It lulls us into thinking we’re actually doing something. #BringBackOurGirls may have garnered positive media coverage for the plight of the 200 girls, but it has not set them free, and #BringBackOurBoys will do no more for the three students. These are, you know, just hashtags. A series of characters shared online, as much for the excitement of feeling like part of a movement or a cause as for any actual true calling.”

On the same lines, it’s hard to disagree with the critical tweet by @galbeckerman: “One problem with campaigns like #BringBackOurBoys is the speed of trivialization. Exhibit A from a Tel Aviv cafe.” Exhibit A is a photo of a frothy cup of coffee with #BringBackOurBoys traced in the foam.

Despite his earlier reservations, Lightstone concludes, “That does not mean that I am despondent of the Internet’s power to effect change. Rather, it is the voice and message behind the hashtag, the call to action that galvanizes me to do something, that has true power: a power that is not diluted by the actions of others, but rather grows as we fight for a common cause of justice and peace.” 

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