Online hearts and minds

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Online hearts and minds

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN Originally published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine

On Wednesday, June 18, Mohammad AlQadi woke up to a barrage of inquiries from friends abroad. “Israeli friends who work for peace asked why I support the kidnapping of three Israelis in Palestine, and I was surprised to see my photos used in a campaign of hate,” he explained.

Wearing a kaffiyeh and holding up three fingers, AlQadi’s image was one in a long line of photos of Palestinians, mostly children, holding up three fingers to support the abduction on June 12 of Naftali Fraenkel (16, from Nof Ayalon); Gil-Ad Shaer (16, from Talmon); and Eyal Yifrah (19, from Elad). The problem: AlQadi had taken that photo over a year ago, in support of a Palestinian singer from Gaza competing in Arab Idol – whose voting number was three.

The conclusion of the search for the kidnapped boys ended in tragedy on June 29, as their bodies were discovered near the West Bank town of Halhoul. In the fraught and tense 18 days preceding, social media played a key role in shaping public opinion as events unfolded. From the very beginning, activists took to Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and the campaign became central to how it was covered in local and international media.

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AlQadi himself took to Twitter to clear up the photo appropriation: “supporting @MohammadAssaf89 1 year ago now @ynet says im with kidnapping #bringbackourboys [sic].” The Jenin native has 120,000 followers on Twitter, is active on Facebook and has been involved in grassroots peace groups like One Voice and YaLa – Young Leaders that advocate a two-state solution. “I had spent five years working for peace and ending the occupation, but I don’t believe in violence,” he says over the phone from France, where he now lives, preparing for an ascent of Mount Everest next year where he hopes to raise awareness of the Palestinian cause.

Despite his discomfort with the use of the photo, AlQadi used his social media influence to join those who were framing the kidnapping issue to highlight the Palestinian cause. “196 Palestinian children imprisoned by Israeli military,” he retweeted, “they [the three kidnapped Israeli yeshiva students] are not kids they are soldiers at #idf and we don’t kidnapped them we arrested them coz they are #illegal in westbank [sic],” he wrote on June 14. In Arabic, he told his followers to use the pro-Israeli #BringBackOurBoys hashtag and flood it with Palestinian information.

One of AlQadi's tweets

One of AlQadi’s tweets

“#BringBackOurBoys IDF hashtag sparks Palestinian outrage” was the International Business Times headline on June 14. The PRI website reported: “A lot of the online content surrounding the ongoing crisis comes directly from the Israeli army’s social media headquarters… 40 young officers churn out [information].”

Indeed, the IDF social media gurus were in the thick of it, tweeting and retweeting. One soldier compared it to a war, with 2,500 tweets an hour relating to just this single hashtag. (The “hashtag,” once known only as the number sign, was created as a web classification system to help make it easier to find related content. ) In this conflict, everyone from the media to the armed forces was clearly focused on social media as a deciding factor, particularly on select outlets like Twitter and Facebook. It is important to understand how activists, NGOs, public diplomacy professionals and the media are being driven by, and are drivers of, this medium.

Media expert Marshall McLuhan argued in his seminal 1964 work Understanding Media that “the medium is the message,” an incisive, if complicated view that “the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” New inventions change the scale, pace and pattern of messages, he explained.

In that sense, each conflict has brought with it new revolutions in media and how the public is informed. The US Civil War saw the first use of the camera; the muck of the trenches of World War I was censored so as not to shock the British masses; public opinion on Vietnam was deeply affected by live TV reports; and CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War was remarkable for showing actual strikes on enemy positions by missiles.

With the advent of Facebook in 2004 (reaching 1 billion users in October 2012) and Twitter in 2006, the social media landscape was revolutionized – and so was the media. Recent reports suggest that social media is driving jihadists in China’s Xinjiang province, and that it is a prime tool of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its conquest of parts of Iraq.

This is particularly true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, as news of the kidnappings took hold, a team of volunteers gathered in a computer classroom. Led by veteran online activists who were students during November 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, they began to man an on-campus “situation room,” tweeting and Facebooking furiously with a new hashtag to connect all their posts: #BringBackOurBoys.

Ilana Sherrington, the head of the campaign, explained how it all works. “We have heads of different languages – in Russian, English, Spanish – and they were in charge of volunteers in those languages,” she said. Tasks are then delegated for a specific social media outlet, like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Sherrington and her team develop goals, tasks and missions that are issued to the requisite heads, working in coordination with graphic artists, and the end result acts as a certain type of foreign press. This smoothly oiled operation involves dozens of volunteer activists.

The 'situation room'

The ‘situation room’ (courtesy)

Sherrington is a former first lieutenant who at one point was in charge of the welfare of 1,800 artillery soldiers. Today, she wants to revolutionize how the world relates to the kidnappings. She says she doesn’t work with any governmental body, and that the work of her volunteers isn’t political but “universal” in its message. Her volunteer activists are trained in using social media and include mothers, teachers and students. Sherrington said that what made the social media campaign for Operation Pillar of Defense so successful was stripping the message of political connotations.

Articulating the success of their current campaign, Sherrington explained, “We [have] had responses from around the world; we had key decision- makers like members of parliament, rock artists, performers, producers, UN embassies.” She saw this campaign as more proactive than those of the past. “[Regardless of whether] someone agrees or disagrees with Israel’s policies, we are talking about children and human rights.”

Some have criticized that #BringBackOurBoys piggybacks on the world attention to #BringBack- OurGirls, which brought focus to the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram in April. Sigal Samuel wrote at The Forward online, “It’s wrong to capitalize on the ‘virality’ of one nation’s desperate and grief-soaked social media plea, in order to increase the virality of your own campaign.” But Sherrington stressed time and again that these are Israeli “children” or “boys”; when asked whether a 19-year-old is best described as a child, she argued, “Every mother would look at him as their child… This is a matter of human rights… The bottom line is that three human beings were kidnapped.”

Also present at the creation of the media campaign was David Gurevich; the founder of Ambassadors Online at the University of Haifa, a unique academic program created in 2011 that educates people in online diplomacy. “Our group [in Haifa] was probably the first program that deals with digital diplomacy. After the kidnapping took place, we had a discussion in our alumni forum, and the idea of the slogan ‘Bring Back Our Boys’ was developed. Our students started to work with other Israeli students to raise awareness.”

The success of this campaign has shed light on the efficacy of the program. Working with Prof. Eli Avraham, they inaugurated the academic project three years ago. “Every year we have 30 students, and each come from different disciplines such as history, theater; the course is not confined to certain departments.” They receive credit for the study. “Students learn about the concept of digital diplomacy and public diplomacy, about public speaking, social media, framing of media coverage and so on.”

Like Sherrington. he emphasized that the students are not speaking for the government: “This study is an academic discipline.” But whereas the course of study is academic, the alumni and volunteer students who work on this specific campaign are obviously involved in a very Israeli issue.

Gurevich accepted this, saying, “Ambassadors Online is a Zionist program. The president of the University Haifa said it very clearly: We are a Zionist university; inside the Zionist spectrum there is a wide range of opinions.” The interaction between NGOs, volunteer networks, university courses, the Israeli government and the IDF is a unique case of what appears to be a well-oiled, rapid-response network that has been phenomenally successful at building support, branding and packaging a human tragedy into a viral social media event.

But it wasn’t always this way. Speaking anonymously because he did not have authority to comment, one professional working in a key area of hasbara, or public diplomacy, threw cold water on the appearance of a unified, efficient government- driven message. “The people doing the branding for these operations are often total incompetents.” It is incompetence from the top down, he maintained, from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Foreign Ministry to the IDF Spokesman’s Office. From his perspective, this was especially problematic in the past. “You have the Prime Minister’s Office saying, ‘We speak for Israel,’ and the Foreign Ministry says, ‘We do hasbara around the world,’ and then the President’s Office.” As for the usefulness of the IDF Spokesman’s Office, he said they hindered the ability to get the message out in previous years and “say nothing for days.”

In his view, as well as that of others who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the mismanagement of this issue was highlighted by the appointment of a public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs minister in 2009, a position held by current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein until 2013.

The disconnect in effective agenda-setting affected Israel’s responses to the Mavi Marmara raid in May 2010, as well as Operation Pillar of Defense. Although Pillar of Defense was seen as having an innovative social media campaign – in which the hashtag #israelunderfire was inaugurated, and the war was actually first announced on Twitter – a final analysis by Ben-Gurion University researchers Erez Cohen and Tomer Simon concluded that the pro-Palestinian #gazaunderattack hastag got more attention.

Moreover, in April 2013, The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon wrote that the Public Diplomacy Ministry unceremoniously faded away and “in its stead, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs, to be headed by Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett,” was created. The former ministry “is no more,” Keinon wrote.

The rise and fall of Israel’s experiment with public diplomacy as a ministry coincided with worldwide interest in this issue. A May 20-22 conference on “strategic public diplomacy” in Dubrovnik, hosted in cooperation with the US Embassy, opened with the claim that “contemporary diplomacy has to be able to follow the trends and create its own particular tactics, so as to successfully present its own interests as well as to cope effectively with the interests of other states.”

The authors of the post-conference analysis insightfully argued, “The quantity of information and the variety of the media are so vast that a modern state loses the possibility of controlling them, losing some of its power in the process. It is facing this problem on a day-to-day basis, and discovering alternate ways to present information and affect world politics, that is crucial for diplomacy. The monopoly of the traditional bureaucracy is fading, and political leaders need to be ready for a broader spectrum of events and responses.”

It reads like a description of Twitter. Similarly, the Foreign Policy Center founded by Tony Blair noted in a document: “There is a case for thinking about creating a rapid-reaction public diplomacy squad that could set up in any crisis situation within 24 hours.” But Israel appeared to lag behind. A State Comptroller’s Report in 2010 said there were “systematic failures” relating to the handling of the hasbara for Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Moreover, a 2012 study by Molad: The Center for Renewal of Israeli Democracy noted in “Israeli Hasbara: Myths and Facts” that “we still continuously hear from politicians, journalists and researchers that Israel lacks an adequate hasbara apparatus.”

The paper said that Israel’s public diplomacy could succeed by enlisting NGOs, “utilizing new media technologies to strengthen the draw of the country and its positive image,” and advance short- and long-term goals. It concluded that foreign policy was “going through a process of increased democratization,” arguing for “coordination and management of specific hasbara messages.”

A rigorous debate has ensued over the last years in media, academic and government circles about the effectiveness of traditional hasbara, and government handling of it. Columnist Martin Sherman wrote in February 2013, “It is difficult to overstate the gravity of Israel’s public diplomacy debacle, and to grasp the ongoing official disregard of the strategic dangers that its continued neglect is creating.” Other researchers pointed to “poor funding, organizational infighting, multiplicity of bodies dealing with hasbara, and the low level and quality of officials” as responsible for “Israel’s poor image.” One insider who worked in public diplomacy for years emphatically stated that “after 65 years of practice, the government should know how to do it.”

Daniel Seaman, former director of the Government Press Office and for three years deputy director-general of public affairs, looked back with fondness at the transformation in the last years. First, he set the record straight. “We don’t use the term ‘hasbara.’” Hasbara is out and the term public diplomacy is in; a sort of symbol of the renewed vision of working with social media. “This was the result after being exposed to the public’s involvement during Israel’s operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense; that was the first time there was a public initiative. Until that point, what the government saw as social media, had nothing to do with reality. “It was then that for the first time, the public initiative [began], which took us by surprise. We had set up an operations room, between our concepts of the old style [of working] with [Diaspora] Jewish communities, but in actuality what happened is we called in for volunteers to operate phones and help with mailing lists.”

Hundreds of young people showed up and wanted to help. “It was clear to me those in charge had no idea what they were doing.” However, the young people, some with organizational skills gained in the army and social media skills acquired as youth, “established their own operation rooms… they felt Israel was being perceived around the world in a way that did not reflect reality.”

In his telling, this new model was a revolution. “We wanted to be in touch with them [students and young people] and when they saw the government doesn’t know what to do, they began to work on things. After a while we sort of gave guidelines on messages we wanted to get across, and they translated into their language – into memes and graphics and things that would be received around the world.”

Hashtags.org shows the rise and fall of tweet trends

Hashtags.org shows the rise and fall of tweet trends

He paused, then noted, “It was, for the first time, the message of the people of Israel [that] was broadcast, and the international community saw that we have something to say.” But it isn’t a one-way street. Israel’s image is improving, but Seaman emphasized that any incident can be a major setback – such as the 2006 Qana air strike in which 28 people were killed, referred to as a “massacre” by international groups and the Lebanese. “There is a time clock on Israel’s ability to defend itself, even if the initial view was that Israel is being attacked, which permits Israel to take actions in self-defense,” he explained.

In this sense, he argued that social media can have a negative strategic effect on Israel’s operational abilities, and combating that threat online is a way of prolonging Israel’s ability to maneuver on the battlefield. A major innovation took place by shifting the power from government spokesmen, previously seen as incompetent, to average people. “This was a huge change because previously the media had not been challenged, and they have a big effect on their ability to get their messages out there. It raises the power of the average people.

“The other key is to get their message out there. Any Israeli government spokesman can be eloquent and know English, but today, officials are questioned and doubted. The average citizen, however, cannot be argued with.” Arsen Ostrovsky, a prominent blogger and activist who has been involved with a numerous social media campaigns concerning Israel, agreed that “ideally, it is best when it is built up from a grassroots [level].” William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, also felt that getting information from someone on the ground is often more authentic than when it comes from the government. “I am less concerned about someone’s day job than about the accuracy and reliability of the info, and how interesting it is.”

The notion is that not only is a local person reporting their feelings more authentic from a public diplomacy standpoint, but forming a critical mass of such locals creates a megaphone that is larger than a government official and less tainted with politics. For Seaman, it is about creating a platform for the general public to get the messages across. “You play into the concept of crowdsourcing and they are free from the restrictions of government, they have no legal or time restrictions. For example, during the Mavi Marmara affair, the government waited for six hours [to say anything], but the public doesn’t have to wait. There is no vacuum in the cognitive battlefield.”

The current kidnapping played out in this way. “For the first time in years, you have Palestinians chasing after an initiative. So even though they hijacked the hashtag, it came from a perspective of explaining and not leading… Connecting it to Boko Haram puts Hamas in that category. If in the past they could paint this as a legitimate act against the occupiers,” now the Palestinians were playing second fiddle. Seaman pointed to the time lag: “It occurred on Thursday, and government doesn’t work on Friday and Saturday; and the government had done nothing [for the media] by Sunday.” In short, Sherrington, Gurevich and the legions of student volunteers and alumni from the online battles of 2009 and 2012 had learned their lesson. Ostrovsky saw this as a formative change as well: “The key point from 2010 is that we need to be more proactive, and we need to be much faster.”

In 2014, the differing role of government organs has been on display. The IDF Spokesman’s Office, which has traditionally been a center of attention, concentrated on individuals giving statements. The office has become more savvy, using the hashtags and also communicating with various hashtags to promote a message that can be easily shared; creating YouTube videos and graphics that can be distributed without the IDF logo, so they appear as if they come from individuals. For instance, on June 26, the IDF Spokesman’s Twitter uploaded a graphic of a white doorknob, asking, “What if instead of sleeping in their beds, your children were being held by TERRORISTS? #EyalGiladNaftali.” The army increasingly uses this latter hashtag because of the realization that #BringBackOurBoys is being used by Palestinians.

In comparison, the Palestinian effort on social media has been disjointed, fractured and less effective, according to many of those interviewed. Israel director of StandWithUS, an organization that graduated its 1,000th Israeli fellow last year, recalled the backdrop against which the group’s efforts began in a living room in Los Angeles in 2001. “The climate there, on campus, was terrible. The intifada was raging, and students and people who were pro-Israel were at a loss to explain and understand what was going on, and to educate other people. There was much misinformation about what was happening in Israel, even as cafés and buses were blowing up.”

Palestinians were divided on social media

Palestinians were divided on social media

They are reaching out to 2 million people a week now, he said. Similarly, Marcus Sheff, executive director of the Israel office of the Israel Project, describes a situation today that involves being “accurate, credible and understanding the speed and way the media works… This is being done in a battlefield with several organizations for whom accuracy, credibility and fairness are not as important as they are to us. You have to work hard to get a level playing field.”

The feeling is Palestinians have a great deal of resources and knee-jerk sympathy among the international media on their side. However, Palestinians who spoke to the Magazinedescribed a mixed situation. “I spend almost two hours a day on Facebook,” said Yara Dowani of east Jerusalem. “I get information about Israel-Palestine, but I don’t share it unless I make sure it is not fake – which means sometimes, I check the newspapers or other websites to make sure the news is accurate.”

She argued that it is important for Palestinians to use social media to spread their message around the world. “It has helped Palestinians in some ways, by sharing their stories and suffering. But this doesn’t mean that social media didn’t also harm Palestinians, when people share fake things about them and try to make them look like terrorists. “I think Palestinians are good at using social media to raise attention to themselves and their struggle. I think in the last decade, the international community is paying more attention to what is going on, and they are starting to learn more and more about the occupation and are spreading the message.” She points to Electronicintifada.net and bdsmovement.net as popular sites that showcase the Palestinian side.

Khaled Nawawi, a Palestinian student from Ramallah who is active on Facebook, views the main Palestinian strength as being that they can use social media to learn about what is happening around them, and tell others about it. “The last couple of days when I heard shooting and bombing, and I went to TV and checked out Al Jazeera, and thought they would be looking at everything and would be filming live. [When I saw this wasn’t the case,] my second option was going on Facebook; what people post on Facebook is better than radio or TV.” He sees Facebook and Twitter as a microphone to the world, and a direct connection to others in his community. “I was doing that during the raids in Gaza, I could ask them on Facebook how they are; so it is very different [than before].”

An IDF tweet

An IDF tweet

Social media helps Palestinians because it is about people-to-people connections. “If they are trying to reach normal people through social media, they would rather look at what normal people post than hear it from the news, and I think the majority trusts the normal people. For example, in BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], the main cause is because of social media; they have been doing very well about informing the public everywhere. It isn’t just emails anymore and the sympathy; you just put it on the daily activity stream online and they get involved. “The Palestinian side will be gaining momentum on social media, and sympathy from abroad.” Nawawi also saw a bifurcation between English and Arabic – Arabic can be used just for one’s close circle of friends, but through English people can reach the whole world.

AlQadi, the man who complained his image was falsified to imply he supported the kidnapping, thinks that Palestinians historically suffered a dearth of powerful media to get their cause out; now, social media is an excellent platform. “In the last war, we were not so active; but in 2013 we began to know exactly how it is important to use social media. We don’t have strong media. Israel has channels and access to the world, and we saw it is a chance for us. “Twitter is more powerful than Facebook. We use the hashtag and so we go and start tweeting about Palestine and what is going on.”

Social media is a strength that is changing the message through medium. “We don’t have official websites; we are just activists tweeting from the ground. We are not organized, but now there are a lot of pages on Twitter.” He was one of the central figures in encouraging Palestinians to post with #Bring- BackOurBoys and show images of Palestinian youth being arrested or mention Palestinian children in Israeli administrative detention.

When Israel responded to rocket fire from Gaza by bombing, he began tweeting #GazaUnderAttack. “We see if there is a hashtag that is powerful, we occupy it, and it is a way for us to share awareness about Palestine. When these three Israelis were kidnapped in Hebron and then you bombed Gaza, why? Till now I didn’t understand it; 12 days passed and no one made any claim for kidnapping. Some say it is a Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] act in order to attack Hamas; this is what we think now.”

One of the more prolific Palestinian sites is Electronic Intifada (49,000 Twitter followers) and its co-founder Ali Abunimah (43,000 followers). Abunimah, who did not respond to requests for an interview, wrote in The Battle for Justice in Palestine, published in March, that “Palestinians are winning the argument and Zionists are losing it.” He described that while in the old days support for Palestinians came from “periodic street demonstrations,” today a “global solidarity movement” is coalescing – and the online community is integral to that. Although some Palestinian online users, such as Palestine Social (28,000), Palestine News (77,000), Palestine Today (38,000) and Hamas (54,000), enjoy high levels of followers, they seem equally matched by pro-Israel groups and individuals – such as Stand- WithUs (26,000), Daroff (27,000), the IDF (248,000) and The Israel Project (17,000). The Arabic-language IDF spokesman Avichay Adraee has 424,000 likes on Facebook, where he is most active, while Palestine TV has 773,000 likes.

From discussions with Palestinians, it is clear that although there is a perception that social media has revolutionized the ability to tell individual stories, the Israeli media is viewed as dominant and influencing world opinion. For instance, even though many Arabic-language Palestinian websites showed photos of rooms being rifled through, furniture destroyed and Israeli soldiers in people’s houses during raids in late June, none of this was making it through to The New York Times or other major media.

In fact, Times lead reporter Jodi Rudoren was being accused by Palestinians and some on the Left of being “embedded” with Israeli soldiers, after penning an article about Beduin IDF soldiers employed in the operation. Furthermore, Palestinians felt the Palestinian Authority was not “on-message” in this conflict. This led some people to post articles or graphics condemning PA President Mahmoud Abbas for “collaborating” with Israel; one showed him toting an M-16 and wearing a tallit. Journalists are increasingly aware of the need to respond to social media. Not only do many reporters respond on Twitter to complaints about their reporting, but they actively get their information from these Twitter and Facebook campaigns.

Tanya Goudsouzian, a media professional who writes about various Middle East issues, has seen the trend up close. “Having a large following on Twitter or Facebook has become crucial for any journalist to be considered a bona fide professional these days, as if it’s a testament to their credibility. Ironically, some of the more senior, established journalists of our time do not have a presence on either Twitter or Facebook, and some bloggers with dubious posts have a major cyber-following in the tens of thousands.” She noted that many journalists are taking account of the age bracket of younger users of social media and “tailoring work to them.”

The way in which #BringBackOurBoys became the center of the media story is clear from this. Numerous articles at BBC,The Washington Post, and elsewhere examined the trend, rather than just reporting the story. The debate about the hashtag and the way Palestinians and Israelis were competing over it, as well as the misuse of AlQadi’s photo, became a media sensation.

Daroff, who was in Jerusalem for a media summit, is cognizant of this: “I started tweeting in earnest during the Second Lebanon War. I saw it as a means of connecting really quickly with Jewish leaders and pro-Israel advocates across the world, as a means of seeing reliable and timely information.” The world went from being a few degrees of separation away, to “no degrees.” He noted how old methods of messaging connect with the new. There are billboards and ribbons and buses with #BringBackOurBoys emblazoned on them, and “yesterday, I tweeted a bus billboard in Jerusalem with a hashtag.” In this sense, new media is merging with the old method of communicating, with a photo of the old repackaged as the new.

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