National pro-Israel groups have spent over $1000 sponsoring Facebook ads against a referendum that will appear on the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) spring ballot.
The referendum, sponsored by the president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine (PCP) Eric Periman ’23, calls for the University to boycott the usage of Caterpillar machinery in ongoing and future campus construction projects “given the violent role that Caterpillar machinery has played in the mass demolition of Palestinian homes, the murder of Palestinians and other innocent people, and the promotion of the prison-industrial complex.”
USG approved the language of the referendum on March 27. It will be on the ballot during spring elections, held April 11–13.
Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) funded a Facebook campaign between March 30 and April 5 encouraging Facebook users to sign a petition on their website that calls the referendum a “nefarious resolution that would foment antisemitism and threaten Jewish students.”
According to its website, ACF is an organization of alumni from universities across the nation who aim to fight antisemitism at their alma maters “in the face of unprecedented attacks on Jewish and Zionist students, staff and faculty.”
Avi Gordon, Executive Director of ACF, said in an email to The Daily Princetonian that ACF has “more than 30,000 members across the country and over 150 in our Princeton chapter.”
“We spent $1,000 over the past week to raise awareness among Princeton students and alumni about this troubling attempt to boycott a company for doing business in Israel,” he wrote.
Ad Library, a platform run by Facebook that provides data on its sponsored posts, estimates that ACF spent $900-999 on their ad against the referendum. The ad, which claims that “Jewish Students are at risk at Princeton University” and links users to a petition, appeared 20–25K times, a number which might include repeated viewings by the same people.
In 2015, USG implemented reforms regarding the referendum process, after an especially contested referendum over divestment from multinational corporations involved in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The reforms included placing a spending limit of $500 on spending related to future referendums.
USG Chief Elections Manager Brian Li ’24 noted that this limit was only applicable to referendum sponsors and opposition parties, whose statements are included on the ballot.
Beyond sponsors and opposition parties, Li says USG cannot regulate spending related to referenda. There is no policy against outside groups unaffiliated with the University funding ads like ACF’s, which Li says is “in line with the principles of academic freedom we have on campus that USG abides by.”
Another Facebook ad related to the upcoming referendum on Caterpillar was sponsored by the Israel War Room (IWR). It encouraged viewers to demand that the University President “denounce this antisemitic resolution without delay.”
IWR’s website claims that its mission is to “fact-check lies and give context to expose misleading narratives about Israel.” Its Facebook page has 106K followers.
IWR’s sponsored post was active from March 31 and April 5 and Ad Library estimates it was shown on a screen 3,000–4,000 times, to a user base that was 50 percent 18–24 year olds. The campaign cost an estimated $200–299.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Periman said he was “disappointed to see that these ads don't even mention Caterpillar.”
“They’re bad faith accusations of antisemitism, bought by outside groups,” he said. “Israel War Room is a propaganda organization that targets pro-Palestine activists online and runs smear campaigns against them.”
The PCP has been posting about the referendum on its Instagram, but Periman said that the group has not used funds to promote any social media posts.
“We’re a grassroots organization, we’re not purchasing ads,” he said.
Voting for the Caterpillar referendum, along with the other two referenda slated for the spring ballot, begins Monday.
Paige Cromley is a sophomore who writes for News, Features, and The Prospect at the 'Prince'. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.