An Israeli government-backed propaganda initiative is attempting to rig another online poll about whether there should be a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv later this month.
This desperate effort to manipulate public opinion comes as Israeli organisers are struggling to unload thousands of unsold tickets to the event.
The Irish publication thejournal.ie put up a poll asking readers whether they support the boycott.
On April 30, the results of the poll were at 56% in support of the boycott and 38% in opposition.
The astroturfing campaign on the Act.IL app was launched sometime between April 30 and May 1, according to researcher Michael Bueckert, who runs the Twitter account @AntiBDSApp to track and expose the app’s activities.
During that time, the results of the poll dramatically changed direction.
At the time of writing, the poll showed 39% in support of the boycott and 57% opposed to it.
The app is also trying to manipulate the results of another Twitter poll, as highlighted by @AntiBDSApp.
This is not the first time the Israeli app has manipulated a poll by thejournal.ie.
Last year, the app’s operators took credit for successfully rigging a similar poll asking whether Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE should respect a Eurovision boycott.
This raised questions about whether Israel could have used similar methods to secure its victory in the 2018 Eurovision contest, which is decided in large part by telephone and SMS voting by television viewers.
Act.IL is an Israeli government-funded smartphone app that directs users to take actions online that make it appear Israel has much more grassroots support than it actually does.
This tactic is known as astroturfing.
The app has also been directing users to sign petitions and make pro-Israel comments on Eurovision-related posts.
The app’s focus on Ireland is not surprising given that there has been a strong campaign there in support of a boycott.
Almost 6000 people have signed a petition calling on Irish entrant Sarah McTernan to withdraw from the contest.
The Eurovision contest needs all the support it can get, given “that the expected wave of tourists has failed to materialise,” according to a report by Israeli business publication Globes.
As a result, thousands of Eurovision tickets remain unsold, and Tel Aviv hotel and flight prices are plummeting.
“The situation in Israel is not normal,” William Lee Adams, a Eurovision blogger and enthusiast, told The Jerusalem Post.
“I’ve never seen a situation where there are so many unsold seats this close to the show.
“Tickets to the live shows typically sell out immediately after each wave of tickets is released,” Adams observed.
Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster that is producing the event in Tel Aviv, was forced by the Israeli government to take out a loan to cover the expenses of the concert.
This resulted in very high ticket prices that “even Israelis on Israeli salaries aren’t willing to pay,” according to Adams.
Sharon Ben-David, Kan’s Eurovision spokesperson, said the broadcaster was “not worried,” adding that “people will buy tickets.”
The Tel Aviv municipality is subsidizing certain costs in an attempt to attract more tourists, “but it seems that these moves might be too late to counter the city’s reputation,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
Tel Aviv is seen as a high-cost destination for tourists.
Celebrating ethnic cleansing
Eurovision is set to begin on May 14, Israel’s so-called Independence Day.
On the same day, Israel is planning to name a train station in occupied East Jerusalem after US President Donald Trump for transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem last year, Israeli transport minister Yisrael Katz announced on Twitter.
On May 14 last year, the day the US embassy opened, Israeli occupation forces shot dead dozens of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza and injured thousands, as tens of thousands protested along the eastern perimeter of the besieged territory.
Held on the eve of Nakba Day — when Palestinians commemorate the ethnic cleansing of their homeland to make room for Israel in May 1948 — the demonstrations were among the biggest ever in the territory.
The May 14 killings remain the largest single-day massacre Israel has committed in the Gaza Strip during protests held under the banner of the Great March of Return.
Crossing the picket line
Dozens of international cultural figures and business people signed a letter opposing the Palestinian call to boycott the contest.
The effort apparently involved Weber Shandwick, a major global public relations firm.
The letter states that “the spirit of togetherness is under attack by those calling to boycott Eurovision,” adding that the cultural boycott campaign is “subverting the spirit of the contest and turning it from a tool of unity into a weapon of division.”
The signatories calling on people to undermine and cross the Palestinian picket line include Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, British comedian Stephen Fry and British reality TV personality Sharon Osbourne.
The letter does not mention that Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Palestinian refugees forcibly exiled outside their homeland, cannot attend the song contest due to Israel’s discriminatory restrictions.
In spite of these facts, the letter claims falsely that Eurovision “embodies this unifying power” to “help bridge our cultural divides and bring people of all backgrounds together.”
More than 100 Palestinian artists signed a letter in March calling on contestants to boycott Eurovision and “avoid participating in Israel’s explicit agenda of using international artists’ appearances to whitewash its crimes against humanity.”
“Just along the coast from Tel Aviv is the besieged Gaza Strip, where Israel has caged two million of us,” the letter states.
Calls to withdraw
Earlier this year, British personalities signed a letter urging the BBC to cancel its coverage of the event, citing Israel’s human rights abuses.
“Artists who insist on crossing the Palestinian boycott picket line, playing Tel Aviv in defiance of our calls, cannot offset the harm they do to our human rights struggle by ‘balancing’ their complicit act with some project with Palestinians,” the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, told the group.
“The most meaningful expression of solidarity is to cancel performances in apartheid Israel.”
Israel was contemplating banning the Icelandic band for its plan to protest Israel’s abuses during the contest, as well as its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.
Meanwhile, Madonna is facing a backlash for her planned appearance at Eurovision in Tel Aviv.
Eurovision’s Israeli producers are also trying to convince American actor Will Ferrell to appear on stage.
[Reposted from The Electronic Intifada.]