Living in a Siege State: There’s an App for That

A screenshot of the author’s iPhone lock screen with notifications from Red Alert, August 25, 2014 (Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon).

Israel and Hamas have held a tenuous cease-fire since August 26th. In the ‘final’ 20 minutes of the conflict my phone buzzed 36 times thanks to Red Alert: Israel, a smartphone app that sends real time notifications to users whenever a rocket, mortar, or missile attack is predicted to hit Israel. The app provides the time and approximate location of the strike and each event has a user comment section.

I discovered the app while keeping in touch with a dear friend who currently resides in Israel. I downloaded it out of curiosity and thought it would allow me to know whether or not someone I knew was in danger. I experienced, as many users have reported, a range of emotional responses with Red Alert: anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, or a sense of control or solidarity. Despite not being physically in Israel and experiencing rocket fire first hand, this application solicited an empathic response by solely providing me with the knowledge of the attack. The emotional effect of this app, regardless of design, may set a new precedent in the application of communication technology in times of war.

A screenshot of the author’s iPhone lock screen with notifications from Red Alert, August 25, 2014 (Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon).
A screenshot of the author’s iPhone lock screen with notifications from Red Alert, August 25, 2014 (Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon).

Red Alert has received over 1 million downloads with users all over the world. The original app was only available in Hebrew until Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US, was testifying before a congressional subcommittee and his phone went off. Subsequently, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) asked if the app was available in English and so Dermer contacted the app’s developers. The app has been popular in the US and worldwide, as well as in Israel where the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) encourages its installation. Though the app is developed independently, it gathers data from IDF intelligence. Therefore, there is no perceived intermediary between the information and the people.

Some observers have questioned whether or not the app simply creates “unneeded hysteria” considering that those under the threat of rockets are warned by sirens and the app does little to change one’s ability to find cover in 15 seconds. As it was explained to me by a friend: “even with the Iron Dome intercepting a rocket the sirens still go off and you need to find cover… the falling debris is still dangerous.” Furthermore, the app does not give precise locations and in that regard is no more informative than existing channels of information.

The comment section provides a relatively unfiltered look at how other users feel with the ability to comment on each individual rocket attack. The majority of comments are positive displays of solidarity and hope for an end to the conflict. However, there is certainly a persistent minority of users whose comments reflect the vitriol that can only perpetuate the cycle of violence that has plagued Israel for decades.

As summer drew to a close, the conflict between Hamas and Israel seemed intractable. In the final week of the conflict my phone went off constantly. I would awake to dozens of notifications of rocket attacks. Just before the ceasefire, my friend informed me: “I had to switch off Red Alert. It was making me miserable. I figured I would notice the siren anyway.” I too felt miserable and helpless since every notification reminded me of what I knew already: the situation is awful for all involved.

The recent rise of the Islamic State, specifically the videotaped beheadings of three British and American journalists, showed the world how the evolution of social media and mobile technology can effectively be used for (repulsive) propaganda. With Red Alert,the technology has entered the political domain of war in a unique way by successfully managing to reduce the emotional distance, albeit in a limited fashion, between those living in a conflict and those who are observing it. The consequences and future applications of social media and mobile apps in warfare are hard to foresee at this point. Will a renewed connection to war and the common space for sharing reactions spark pacifist sentiments or increase acrimony and aggressive behavior?

The views expressed by these authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.


Alessandro Sassoon

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon earned a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California on a Trustee (full tuition, merit) scholarship. In 2012, he researched Arctic politics and ecological security in Sweden, Finland and Russia. His particular interest is in the relationship between climate science and policy making. Additionally, in 2013, he researched post-genocide democratization challenges in Rwanda and presented the findings at the University of Minnesota. As a student, he served as Glimpse from the Globe’s Media and Content Manager and was a member of the USC Varsity Sailing Team for 3 years. Alessandro is currently serving a Princeton in Asia Fellowship to work as a journalist for The Phnom Penh Post. He can be followed on Twitter @alemzs.