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The first lesson from the kidnapping crisis
By NACHMAN SHAI
06/19/2014
Israel faces a tough reality, both because of the technological revolution and due to our unique circumstances.
 
The three kidnapped boys have not been returned to their families yet, nor have we received any news about their situation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that nothing is being done. Activity in the cyber world is creating a lot of buzz. The kidnapping of the youth, the subsequent military activity to locate them and the intensely charged political atmosphere has combined to create a field for cyber invasions, and two have already taken place.

Last Friday, just hours after the abduction, a rumor circulated on WhatsApp that a kidnapping occurred and that the victims had already been rescued.

Only someone with a knowing eye would notice that the wording of the “official announcement” was a little off.

A few days later, after the first message was discovered and dismissed as a fake, another text was disseminated through the social media.

This time the intent was cruel. The three kidnapped boys were reported to have been shot, the killers caught, and that Rabbi Chananya Chollak was at the house of one of the three families at that very moment to notify them of the tragedy. The only factual part of the message was that Rabbi Chollak had visited the family. The other details were a complete and malicious fabrication.

This second message, too, was written in poor Hebrew and had numerous grammatical errors.

The phenomenon of relaying unreliable information by word-of-mouth has existed since ancient times. Now this has taken a new form online. In the days of old, Jewish communities developed communication networks throughout the world. They needed a way to dissociate themselves from the non-Jewish environment, something that would help them connect with each other. Jews lived under constant threat from ruling authorities, so they typically would pass information to other Jews, meeting in places in synagogues, their homes or other private places. They developed unique languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino, so outsiders could not understand them.

The common language, which strengthened the bond between Jews in different communities, was an integral part of Jewish life.

Even in recent history, from before and also since the founding the State of Israel, advanced forms of communication and covert networks existed. The information may not always have been reliable. Everyone knew that, and it was acceptable because information traveled quickly, easily bypassing official barriers. This system worked especially well in Israel, which was too small for secrets, especially in its early years when we were distressed and under siege.

But revolutionary changes occurred when information began moving digitally through computer networks. Not surprisingly, Israel quickly became a world leader in smartphone capability.

Israel is among the highest nations in the world in per capita ownership of smartphones, tablets and Internet gear.

Seventy-two percent of Israelis surf the Internet on smartphones daily, and some 2.65 million Israelis are active on social media. Israel is known to be a global leader in technology.

Now, we must deal with the possibility that every “friend” could be an enemy. And our enemies – Hamas, Iran, or just some hacker, even a disgruntled Israeli – can use disinformation to create embarrassment, confusion and despair. When “friends” try to diminish fear that is appropriate or disseminate false information, we are confronted with psychological warfare. Of course, naive people sometimes forward messages, really believing they are contributing to public discourse.

Israel’s leaders are finding it difficult to deal with the lightning speed and broad spectrum of information moving around the web. Tensions are high; people expect they should receive information immediately. The leaders need to know that the public trusts their decisions, believes they are taking the right steps toward good decisions.

The Israeli public has lots of trust when it has enough information to reassure people and instill confidence.

The prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff, central command and IDF spokesman are making every effort to appear before the public often, even when they are not at liberty to divulge much. Seeing familiar faces and hearing their voices helps fill the void, but it does not completely relieve our desire to know more.

Government spokesmen need to balance giving information quickly with waiting to ensure that the available information is accurate. The amount of disinformation on the Internet could foster irresponsible decisions. Of course, the government tries to prevent dissemination of inaccurate information, but it is a difficult task in this technological age. The dilemma is that the longer leaders delay an official statement, the more rumors circulate.

Israel faces a tough reality, both because of the technological revolution and due to our unique circumstances.

The leadership must prepare for cyber warfare, especially as far as social media are involved. Officials must learn to put out bulletins at lightning speed. The IDF Spokesman’s Office should begin sending messages through social media regularly to ensure that the public knows that the IDF Spokesman’s Office is the only official source of information.

Doing this will reduce the impact of other, less accurate sources of information.

When this crisis ends – and we pray that we will receive good news soon – Israel’s official bodies will need to reassess cyber warfare strategy. We thought we knew everything and were eager to instruct the rest of the world. Now we see that was not true; we still have much to learn. This is the first lesson we need to learn from the current crisis.

The author is a Labor MK and a former IDF spokesman. Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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