The BDS Twitocracy

Before giving the Presbyterians a rest for the next couple of years (wouldn’t it be great if the BDSers could ever bring themselves to say/do the same thing?), some momentary reflections on not the content of the decisions made during last week’s General Assembly, but the medium in which those decisions were communicated.

As background, I first started using Twitter in 2010 in order to follow what was going on at UC Berkeley when the student council was making decisions on a high-profile divestment resolution.  Because those debates were not public, Twitter seemed like the only way to obtain real-time information on what was happening at ground level 3000+ miles away.

At the time, I believe I would have been referred to by other Twitter users as (what’s the technical term I’m looking for?), oh yes – an imbecile.  With no followers and no understanding of the importance of hashtags and at-symbols, I spent my first 20 minutes as a tweeter shouting out messages into the void, oblivious to the fact that no one else on the service knew I existed, much less was seeing what I was typing.

Fortunately, I quickly switched to listen mode, and was able to read about debates and votes as they were happening, an experience I repeated just a few months ago when the Park Slope Food Coop shot down an Israel boycott “live” on Twitter.

By the time both Park Slope and the two big church votes came upon us earlier this year, I moved from being a complete Twitter dolt to someone who knows how to use the service adequately, still mostly listening but occasionally contributing commentary (with appropriate hash tags this time around).

Those who are experienced Twitterers can skip this paragraph, but for those unfamiliar with the service, Twitter allows you to post short, 140-character (or less) messages (called tweets) which can be seen by anyone who chooses to follow you.  In addition, you can mark your messages with hashtags (words in front of the # number/hash sign), and ask Twitter to show you an ongoing stream of all tweets that contain that hashtag.  In addition to typing your own Tweets, you can also “re-tweet” a message you like, which means it will get rebroadcast to everyone who follows you.

In the case of both the Methodist and Presbyterian divestment votes, hashtags were selected by those interested in covering the debate (#churchdivest for the pro-BDS folks and #investinpeace by Israel’s supporters).  You could also follow the debate on general Presbyterian hashtags such as #presbyterian and #ga220.

I’ve noted in the past how Israel’s foes seem to be more adept at using this new technology than her friends, something that manifests itself when following streams such as #churchdivest and #ga220 where pro-BDS tweets and re-tweets seemed to outnumber anti-divestment messages by as much as ten to one.

But as I looked at a dizzying dashboard of messages, I began to see the same generic BDS messages appearing again and again (Repression! Apartheid!!  Justice demands!!!, yadda,  yadda, yadda), reflecting the dozens or even hundreds of times these messages were passed on via re-tweet or hashtag-laden repost.  It was only then that I realized why this communication technology has been so effective for the BDS types.

For if you’ve got a small group, no more than a few dozen people, dedicated to repeating the same talking points ad infinitum, Twitter rewards you by not just filling up all relevant timelines with your posts, but by giving higher weighting to frequently re-tweeted tweets.

But this ability to dominate the airwaves comes with some unexpected downsides.  With both the Methodist and Presbyterian votes (as well as the Twitter coverage of the Berkeley vote from two years ago), the BDS bombast was coming fast and furious, implying that a vote in their favor was just moments away.  But once the vote went against them, suddenly there appeared the new voices of “lurkers” (people who had been following the Twitter discussion, but not contributing to it) bewildered as to why they had just lost a vote that seemed to be going their way until mere moments before.

The instantaneous content creation and dissemination nature of Twitter also provides an electronic paper trail of what people are actually thinking when events unfold, vs. the spin they try to put on things later.  The ALL-CAP curses with lots of exclamation points that hit the airwaves the minute after the Methodists and Presbyterians voted no are an example of this.  But so too were the tweets before the big divestment votes insisting that divestment was the only issue that mattered.

Now with regard to the recent Methodist and Presbyterian Assemblies, this sentiment happens to be completely accurate.  The Jewish community was far more concerned about a repeat of the PCUSA’s 2004 divestment vote vs. symbolic votes regarding, for example, boycotts companies like Ahava.  And given that anyone who knew church politics understood that BDS forces were assured of winning these symbolic votes, the fact that BDSers spent thousands and flew people in from around the country to lobby at both church events demonstrates that they too understood that divestment was the only game worth winning.

Which is what makes all the post-GA spinning that says “the settlement boycotts are an even bigger victory than divestment” or making hay of some last minute “relief-of-guilt” option the Presbyterians voted on that means less than nothing is not only contradicted by the facts.  It is also contradicted by the BDSers own statements made during the heat of battle (one of the few times you can fish a little bit of truth out of what they say).