Conflict Apps

by Noah Kulwin

Red Alert: Israel is currently the second-most downloaded news app in the US, just below Yahoo. A selection of reviews from the App Store:

Red Alert Review 2
Red Alert Review 3
Red Alert Review 1

And one from Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC):

Why do I want the App? So that I can pray for Israel as well as understand, as a policy maker, the magnanimity of the threats and the conflict.

Can you imagine living under this constant threat?…

This speaks to the existential threat that the people in Israel live with constantly.

Red Alert’s creator is Kobi Snir, an Israeli developer who worked with the people behind Yo! to build an app that would send push notifications when rockets are launched into Israel. Initial press reports in American tech media focused on this angle in particular — how the useless-yet-VC-funded Yo! suddenly developed a very real and practical application.

The app is visually and functionally simple: When a rocket is fired, some sort of information pipeline between the Israeli military and Red Alert, which the app’s creator declined to discuss in an interview with The Times of Israel, lights up, and a notification is sent. A sample alert might read “Rockets Attack: Kiryat Malakhi.” You can narrow down the areas you want to monitor, or monitor them all. In theory (and in practice thus far), the notifications give an Israeli enough time to hurry into a bomb shelter.

For users of Red Alert here in the US, where it seems to be wildly popular, the app does something else: It simulates panic.

It lends non-Israelis a kind of performative empathy for Israel while reifying Israel’s “siege mentality” — the country’s inability to make the necessary concessions to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians, as it feels besieged by critics at every turn. For the many reviewers who translate their “annoyance” with tens of alerts in a single day into empathy for Israelis living under rocket fire, the experience is tidy: ever-so-slightly visceral, affirming, and unchallenging.

The Israeli government has used Red Alert as part of their campaign to sell the morality of their airstrikes on, and potential ground invasion of, Gaza. Israeli ambassador to the US Ron Dermer’s interview with Bob Schieffer was on message and right on time. From the Israeli news service, Yedioth Ahronoth:

The rocket alert siren interrupted Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer’s interview on CBS’s “Face The Nation” on Sunday, in a vivid demonstration of what life is like in Israel under rockets threat from Gaza.

Dermer told interviewer Bob Schieffer about a smartphone app that plays out the rocket alert siren the moment it is sounded in Israel, and tells the user where in Israel the rocket is headed.

Not long after that, Dermer’s phone sounded the alarm. “The rocket is heading for Gedera, where my mother was born,” Dermer told Schieffer.

Since the violence escalated on July 7, there have been 209 Palestinian casualties to a single Israeli killed by mortar shrapnel. (The Palestinian equivalent to something like Red Alert would make your phone vibrate consistently but softly — enough that it can’t be ignored, but at a volume inaudible to everyone around you.)

None of this is meant to detract from the danger that the rockets pose to Israelis who live within firing range, as their fear is real. For the Israeli families in Sderot, Ashkelon, or Be’er Sheva (where I once lived), Red Alert is palliative.

But Red Alert commodifies the pain of war, and helps render invisible its toll on Palestinians. It turns the conflict into a monetized app, with Google-powered ads scrolling at the top of the screen and furious, scattershot comments crowding at the bottom. Red Alert, in addition to assisting Israelis on the ground and gathering advertising dollars, serves the purpose of a government that has the privilege of being able to sufficiently protect its citizens. The people of Gaza have no such luxury.

Noah Kulwin is The Awl’s summer intern.