As Al Jazeera's 24-hour station takes to the air in English and with other new Arab English-language media initiatives such as the Ramallah-based Palestine Times fresh off the press, Israel has begun effectively using a new weapon in its public diplomacy arsenal to fight the media war on the Web - a locally-developed computer software tool called the "Internet Megaphone."
The Foreign Ministry itself is now pushing the idea, urging supporters of Israel everywhere to become cyberspace soldiers "in the new battleground for Israel's image."
The Megaphone, which was first reported on in The Jerusalem Post when it made its debut in July during the Lebanon war, alerts activists about polls and articles about Israel on the Internet and enables them to express their support or opposition by e-mail.
After just four months, it has been downloaded by more than 25,000 people from the Web site called GIYUS (Mobilization) which stands for Give Israel Your Support.
Amir Gissin, who heads the Public Affairs Department at the Foreign Ministry, has been working behind the scenes to promote the idea.
"During the war an initiative began, and we had the opportunity to do some very nice things with the Megaphone community," Gissin recently told the David Bar-Illan media conference in Ariel.
"An Israeli company developed a type of software that functions like a beeper from one central place. They send alerts and anyone who downloads the software gets a pop-up with links to an activity. It can be to vote for Israel in a CNN survey or react to an especially nasty article. We still have a long way to go, but this is our future."
Among the accomplishments of the Megaphone community during the war, Gissin said, was its role in obtaining an admission from the Reuters news agency that a photograph of damage done to Beirut in an Israeli air strike had been doctored by a Lebanese photographer.
The extra smoke in the picture was first noticed by American blogger Charles Johnson who then alerted others, and later won an award for promoting Israel's case.
Stewart Purvis, a journalism professor at London's City University who also attended the Bar-Illan conference, wrote in The Guardian last week that following Gissin's speech, he decided to check out the power of the Megaphone by logging onto the Giyus site.
"It did not take long for an alert to come through," he said. "A Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, had issued a press statement condemning that day's Palestinian rocket attack which killed an elderly Israeli and wounded other civilians. GIYUS wanted site users to 'show your appreciation of the UK's response.'" One click took him to a prepared e-mail addressed to Howells and a slot to send a personal comment, Purvis said. He went ahead and did, later confirming with the Foreign Office in London that it had received the e-mails.
"In the e-mails, there would be no indication of the involvement of GIYUS, although Howells may have been suspicious that so many people around the world had read the same Yahoo story about him and decided to e-mail him," Purvis concluded.
He also noted that GIYUS supporters had claimed success in "balancing" an opinion poll on a pro-Arab Web Site by turning a vote condemning Israel's war in Lebanon into an endorsement.
When GIYUS noticed a poll on albawaba asking whether the violence in Lebanon had been an Israeli provocation, it sent a message with a link to the poll to its members and soon the results jumped from an overwhelming yes to a resounding no.
The Megaphone was introduced by the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) during this summer's war with the aim of getting the pro-Israel community to respond in real time to developments on the Web.
To attract users from around the world, Giyus.org translates polls into English, French, Hebrew and Spanish.
Yonit Farago in The Times reported that "Israel's government has thrown its weight behind efforts by supporters to counter what it believes to be negative bias and a tide of pro-Arab propaganda.
"The Foreign Ministry has ordered trainee diplomats to track Web sites and chatrooms so that networks of US and European groups with hundreds of thousands of Jewish activists can place supportive messages." WUJS's Jonny Cline said that Jewish students and youth were ideally placed to present Israel's side of the Middle East story.
"We're saying to these people that if Israel is being bashed, don't ignore it, change it," Cline said. "A poll like CNN's takes just a few seconds to vote in, but if thousands take part the outcome will be changed. What's vital is that the international face of the conflict is balanced." Gissin has gone as far as sending a letter (posted on the Israel advocacy Web site, www.standwithus.com) that urges supporters of Israel to use the Megaphone.
"Dear friends," he writes, "Many of us recognize the importance of the Internet as the new battleground for Israel's image. It's time to do it better, and coordinate our on-line efforts on behalf of Israel.
"Please go to www.Giyus.org, download the Megaphone, and you will receive daily updates with instant links to important Internet polls, problematic articles that require a talkback, etc.
"We need 100,000 Megaphone users to make a difference. So, please distribute this mail to all Israel's supporters.
"Do it now. For Israel."
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