October 20, 2018

How one 16-year-old Brit mobilized a mobile app against Israel

Buycott, a one-year old mobile app that allows consumers to support various social and political causes by purchasing some goods and avoiding others, wasn’t built to facilitate anti-Israel consumer activism. Until recently, its most popular campaign was focused on an effort to label foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

But over the last three weeks since Israel began its ongoing operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the overwhelming majority of the app’s growth has been focused on one anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian boycott established by a British 16-year-old.

“Without any sort of promotion from me or from him, it just started getting a lot of traction,” Ivan Pardo, the L.A.-based developer who developed Buycott, told the Journal. “Before we knew it, the app was in the top 10 in the UK.“

That was thanks in part Luke Burgess, who lives on the Southwest coast of England and is still in high school.

“I felt pretty appalled by Israel's actions in the west bank and Gaza,” Burgess told the Journal in an email last week. Following in the footsteps of his closest Jewish relative, his maternal grandfather, Burgess became active in the Palestine Solidarity movement, and when Israeli bombs started raining down on Gaza – never mind Hamas’s provocations, never mind the Israeli military’s efforts to spare civilians – the teen went straight to the Buycott app, which he had heard about during Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula earlier this year.

“I joined a few buycott Israel campaigns,” Burgess said, “but I couldn't see one with a list that was complete or had the right companies on it, I decided to create the campaign.”

Burgess’ list urges members to support three Palestinian companies (and one pro-Palestinian one), but the thrust of the campaign is a list of companies to boycott that includes Israeli outfits (like Osem), global firms that have made investments in Israel (like Coca-Cola) and still others (like Estee Lauder) that are owned or run by prominent Jewish and pro-Israel leaders. He even urges a boycott of UK supermarket companies like Sainsbury’s and Tesco, which sell produce from the West Bank.

It’s a dramatic turn for Buycott, which Pardo launched in May 2013 to help facilitate consumer activism. Users can photograph a product’s bar code with a smartphone and, thanks to its constantly growing database of tens of thousands of products and a proprietary algorithm, the app will determine which company makes the product and whether the user has signed up for any boycotts or “buycotts” that include those companies.

Yet for the first year of its existence, the app – which empowers would-be boycotters to target any country, support any cause, or blackball any company – seemed to treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an afterthought. While more than 232,000 people have signed up for the anti-GMO campaign, which encourages users to avoid products made by 36 large companies that helped defeat a 2012 ballot measure that would have forced all food sold in California to disclose the presence of GMOs in food products, the combined membership of all the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel campaigns on app hovered at around 4,000 users.

But while the GMO campaign took off thanks to an article about Buycott that appeared in Forbes last year — it took a month to get to 100,000 members, Pardo said – Burgess’s “Long live Palestine boycott Israel” campaign grew by 100,000 members in just five days earlier this month. As of July 28, the campaign counted 134,000 users; the resulting traffic turned Buycott into the most popular app in a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Malaysia, Jordan, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

“There were no articles written about the campaign or anything,” Pardo said, speaking from his home office in East L.A. People who had likely never heard of Buycott were downloading the app after their friends shared links to the campaign on social media. “At one point, it was getting a couple of shares every minute.”

In this media-saturated and bloody war, where reporting on (and about) social media has been the norm, in which every tweet is being counted and parsed, many commentators have speculated that Israel has already lost the war for public opinion. Some have argued that battle is one the Jewish State could never have expected to win.

What the explosion of traffic to this still-growing Buycott campaign – which Burgess created in about three hours – demonstrates, is that while there are pros among the warriors waging the battle over Gaza in parallel form online, many are not located in either the IDF’s Twitter “war room,” nor do they have author pages on Electronic Intifada. No, as the tools of online activism become ever easier to use, these civilians look a lot like the flag waving, banner carrying folks taking to the streets at demonstrations in cities around the world.