The first Twitterwar

‘Respect R rt 2 live...’ The Web 2.0 battle being fought alongside the war in Gaza reveals Israel’s defensiveness.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

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In an interview during the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, Israeli President Shimon Peres, responding to a news anchor’s question about whether Israel was worried about its international standing, commented that Israel was concerned with its safety, not with being popular. Since then, it seems the Israeli state has gone on the defensive. Now, as ‘Operation Cast Lead’ accelerates in Gaza, a parallel PR war is being fought in the media and on websites such as Twitter, Digg, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. This is War 2.0, where the internet has become a battleground for winning hearts and minds over to the basic ideas that Israel has a ‘right to defend itself’ and ‘to exist’.

It seems every major conflict and world event – from the Iraq War to the Mumbai terror attacks – is now accompanied by frenzied online activity, with ‘citizen journalists’ contributing to mainstream media coverage and trading stories, thoughts and insults on each other’s web journals. During the Second Lebanon War, many felt that online interchanges between Israeli and Lebanese people formed a positive source of dialogue and understanding. Several commentators wrote in exalting tones about the invaluable insights bloggers gave to outsiders, claiming that their accounts shed new light on the conflict. Israeli and Lebanese bloggers were regularly invited to share their personal experiences and to comment on the conflict in the mainstream media. An Israeli 17-year-old called Eugene, who, upon discovering he had a wifi connection in his bomb shelter, set up the blog ‘Live from an Israeli bunker’ (1), appeared on BBC and CNN news.

But this time around, Israeli and Palestinian officials have also tapped in to the much talked-up ‘power of the web’ to communicate their causes to the world in their own terms. While Israel is fighting a virtual battle for international recognition of its right to exist and to defend itself, Hamas militants are regularly updating their own websites in Arabic and English. Hamas supporters have bombarded the web with gruesome images and videos from inside Gaza and have hacked into several Israeli-run websites (2).

But compared to Israel’s official PR drive, the Palestinians’ online efforts look like guerrilla web warfare. The Jerusalem Post reported on Israeli officials’ belief that they are winning the PR war, claiming that media exposure had given Israel a ‘welcome window to act against the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza’, as a result of a new ‘culture of coordination among the agencies responsible for managing Israel’s media message in times of crisis’.

The recently formed Israeli National Information Directorate (NID) is responsible for coordinating the PR messages of agencies such as the foreign ministry, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and governmental bodies. The NID was set up eight months ago following recommendations from the Winograd Commission of Inquiry into the Second Lebanon War. Its role is to deal with hasbara, literally meaning ‘explanation’ in Hebrew, though some believe it amounts to ‘spin’ or ‘propaganda’ (3).

The Winograd Report criticised the Israeli government for insufficient media coordination and for its inability to put across a coherent message during the Second Lebanon War. The NID’s purpose is to synchronise the content and tone of Israel’s messages as communicated by official and unofficial organisations. It liaises over core messages with bodies such as friendship leagues, Jewish communities, bloggers and online network users. Some of its core messages for the media have been that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements with Israel; that Israel’s objective is to defend its citizens; and that Hamas is a terror organisation targeting Israeli civilians (4).

Though the media war has included efforts to dominate the airwaves (and Israeli voices have indeed outnumbered Palestinian ones on the major international television networks since the incursion began), the web is the new frontline in the ‘soft power’ war. As military spokesperson Major Avital Leibovich said, ‘the blogosphere and the new media are basically a war zone’ in a battle for world opinion (5).

That is why the IDF has set up a new blog (6) and the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, the body responsible for the IDF’s media and public relations efforts, has launched a YouTube channel which is regularly updated with footage of military operations, and interviews with soldiers and generals explaining Israel’s actions in Gaza (7). According to Leibovich, these channels form an important part of Israel’s attempt to explain its actions abroad. The IDF is the first-ever national force to set up its own YouTube channel.

The Israeli consulate in New York has also joined the War 2.0, setting up an account on Twitter, a site which allows users to post and subscribe to alerts that can only be up to 140 characters long. Last week, the consulate held a ‘Citizens’ Press Conference’ on Twitter, inviting web users to send in questions about the situation in Israel and Gaza. Some asked about the possibility of negotiations with Hamas; the Israelis answered: ‘we R pro nego… we talk only w/ ppl who accept R rt 2 live’. Others asked how many attacks there have been on Israel in the past six months. Answer: ‘Ovr 500 rockts Hit IL in the 6 mts of CF. per the last 72 hrs mre thn 300 hit IL. kiling 4 ppl & injuring hndrds.’ (8)

Other elements in the current War 2.0 are less official. For example, Israel PR, an agency run by Joel Leyden, an IDF veteran who created Israel’s first online news site, Israel News Agency, has set up the Facebook group ‘I Support the Israel Defense Forces In Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza’. It has 45,000 members (9). According to Leyden, ‘The Internet has become the most important and most powerful media to reach the global masses.’

One pro-Israeli blog, Help Us Win, was set up as a resource to help explain the Cast Lead operation. ‘Israel’s battle against Hamas’, the blog explains, ‘is not only on the ground – but also in the international media’ (10). The blog includes a list of key messages for anyone interested in furthering the pro-Israeli view, and ideas for how to ensure that ‘the international coverage of the Campaign Against Hamas is balanced’. There’s the obligatory Facebook group and Twitter page as well as a downloadable Israeli flag which Facebook users can add to their profiles. There is also a QassamCount application, which updates subscribers’ Facebook statuses every time a Qassam rocket falls in Israel. The blog urges readers to find pro-Israel articles and post them on Digg, a website where users can share online content and vote for stories to get ‘digged’ or ‘buried’. The most ‘digged’ stories appear on the site’s front page.

Much has been made of the growing role of social media in coordinating political campaigns and about the way it allows for messages to be communicated instantaneously from a wide range of sources. But the fact that this is the first proper Web 2.0 war does not simply reflect the Israeli government’s media- and tech savviness. Leibovich and others argue that the internet is the frontline for international opinion – but what has not really been explained is why Israel feels the need to win a parallel PR war about its ‘rt 2 live’ in the first place.

In a sense, the PR war itself is not especially remarkable. Wars are always accompanied by PR, propaganda, interventions into the news agenda. No, what is remarkable is the extent to which Israel’s new engagement with the media, particularly on the internet, reflects its defensiveness. It is carefully toeing the line of international opinion, stressing messages for which it can easily get support – Israel is at war with Hamas, not the Palestinian people, and it has a right to exist and to defend itself against a terrorist organisation that calls for Israel’s destruction and uses its own people as human shields. Even some of its harshest critics would accept these assertions. But Israel’s official line includes no mention of the old dream of establishing a Greater Israel on the biblical lands or of any Zionist ideals. Instead, Israel is playing survival politics.

This is not simply because the old ideas are un-politically correct, but because there is little belief in them amongst Israelis themselves, who largely just want to withdraw to the 1967 borders behind the so-called Green Line, fence off the Palestinians and put Gaza out of sight and out of mind. Of course, Israel can’t simply wish the Palestinian elements out of existence, though the present assault on Hamas does reflect a violent desire simply to ‘make the extremists go away’.

For all of its Twittering and Qassam-counting, Israel and its supporters cannot sustain any long-term popular support in the international arena with the fairly weak messages they are putting across. To the assertions that Israel has a ‘right to defend itself’, critics point to the ‘disproportionate’ military response; to its claims that ‘there can be no negotiations with terrorists’, critics respond that there have been plenty of missed opportunities for peace talks.

And rather than appearing as an ’empowering force’, new social media are deployed in lieu of any real political tools. The public is simply encouraged to mouth off into the blogosphere, reduced to Twittering, rocket-counting and competing over which side can get the best Google-ratings or who can set up the largest number of Facebook groups.

During the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli government, media and public largely backed the war and Israel’s right to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect itself against hostile neighbours. Now, it looks like very recent history is repeating itself. Yet, as the 2006 events and their fallout showed, it takes more than sloganeering and military might to win a war, even if it is against a ragtag guerrilla force. And no amount of PR strategising can mask this fact.

The reduction of Israel’s defence to a basic call for its citizens’ ‘rt 2 live’ means that the PR war can include responding to questions about the 60-year-old history of Israel, its relations with the Palestinians and its military strategy – topics which have been explored and debated in countless books and articles – in just 140 characters. This should be enough warning to look behind the headlines and resist the sloganeering that both Israel-supporters and critics have been engaging in over the past week.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Whose war is it anyway?, by Brendan O’Neill

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) See the Live From an Israeli Bunker blog.

(2) Gaza: secondary war being fought on the internet, The Times (London), 31 December 2008

(3) Special spin body gets media on message, says Israel, Guardian, 2 January 2009

(4) Special spin body gets media on message, says Israel, Guardian, 2 January 2009

(5) Israel takes battle with Hamas to YouTube, Associated Press, 1 January 2009

(6) Read the IDF blog here

(7) Watch the IDF YouTube Channel here.

(8) View the Israel Consulate’s Twitter page here.

(9) The ‘I Support the Israel Defense Forces In Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza’ Facebook group.

(10) See the Help Us Win blog.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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