Israel's new PR focus: Internet 'talkbacks'

WUJS project aims to get pro-Israel community to respond in real time to what appears on the Web.

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August 31, 2006 23:32
2 minute read.
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Talkbacks, those often annoying, sometimes entertaining, occasionally enlightening responses to articles that appear on Web news-sites and blogs, have an impact on shaping public opinion. That, at least, is the opinion of Amir Gissin, director of the Foreign Ministry's Public Affairs Department, and the reason he has endorsed a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) project aimed at getting the pro-Israel community to respond in real time to what appears on the Web. Sarit Felder, a WUJS activist and recent Hebrew University graduate with a degree in political science and communications, said the initiative behind the project came about in the early days of the war in Lebanon as a way to get Israel's position on the Internet. "Because it is so large, the Internet was a neglected battlefield," Felder said. "The idea was to encourage Jewish students to take part in various Middle East forums, to report about problematic articles and tell others to write talkbacks to these articles." Gissin said that studies in Britain and the US have shown that people pay attention to talkbacks posted in various forums and that if the talkbacks logically contradict a principle in an article, they really do have the ability to change opinions. An Israeli software company developed and donated a tool - called the Internet Megaphone - to alert those involved about Israel-related polls on the Internet or about articles or forums the organizers feel call out for a response. According to Felder, some 150 articles are looked at each day, and then a decision is made regarding which ones to highlight. "You have to understand that talkbacks abroad are different than they are here, where they are often two-sentence responses, or something along the line of 'Talkback No. 7 is an idiot,'" Felder said. Talkbacks in Israel often appear on news sites directly below the article, while abroad they are generally bundled together - when they exist on newspaper sites at all - in a different section. As a result, they are often longer. Many bloggers also post various articles on their sites, and then invite responses to them. While on the face of it this looks like a forward-looking hasbara initiative, some have heir doubts. Former consul-general in New York Alon Pinkas said that while in and of itself the idea is a good one, it should be done with a low profile. "Once it is out there that these are organized talkbacks, then anytime anything positive appears on the Web, people will say it is manufactured in Israel, part of the Jewish cabal," he said. Gissin, however, argued that the Palestinians organize similar campaigns and have been very active in getting their narrative across on the Internet. "Why can they do it, but we need to sit quietly?" he said. "The Internet is the communications medium of the future," Gissin said. "The government is not behind this initiative, but I can only be happy it exists." Felder said that some 25,000 people were involved in the project's first month. The project's Web site can be visited at www.giyus.org.

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