(photo credit: Courtesy)
Can a spokesman for the Israeli government defend Israel in 140 characters or fewer? That was the question David Saranga, consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, sought to answer this week at the most-buzzed about tech conference in recent memory, the 140 Character Conference, which ended on Wednesday.
Addressing hundreds of tech junkies, journalists and entrepreneurs who converged on New York for a conference about Twitter, Saranga said tweeting had become a new form of diplomacy.
"It allows us to reach people and segments of society that usually we don't reach," said Saranga, speaking on Tuesday inside a darkened auditorium at the New World Stages theater. A sea of glowing laptops filled the audience, as many tweeted their way through the day, angling for seats - and electrical outlets.
"There is a lot of room to include dialogue between people," Saranga said. "We can bypass governments. People can speak to one another."
In fact, the intersection between Twitter and diplomacy took on a more urgent bent this week following the elections in Iran, when Iranians used Twitter to share information about escalating protests in Teheran. In a nod to Twitter's powerful role, the US State Department asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown of the site to coincide with the middle of the night in Iran.
For their part, the Israelis began using Twitter in the early days of the conflict in Gaza, when Saranga logged onto Twitter and found, he said, "incorrect information" from anonymous sources. "The official voice of Israel and the voice of the Israelis should be put out there so people will get the entire picture," he said. Today, the Israeli Consulate has more than 6,400 followers on Twitter.
To be sure, Twitter also is being used by those who are competing with Saranga's message. Several hours after Saranga's presentation, Moeed Ahmad, head of new media technology at Al Jazeera Network, gave a PowerPoint presentation on the network's "Twitter strategy."
He also focused on the conflict in Gaza, and talked about Al Jazeera's coverage at the time.
"We noticed there was a lot of conversation happening, but not authentic information," he said. The network dispatched reporters who tweeted reports from Gaza.
Ahmad said the network tried to put the conflict into context.
"If the ground invasion is happening, where is it coming from? What is Gaza, where is it anyway?" he said.
For some in the audience, the two presentations represented diplomacy at work. During Ahmad's presentation, someone using the handle AltCavalier wrote: "Realizing Israel govt + Arab News together in same room, listening + learning from one another - WOW!"
But Saranga called the presentation "very biased." As Ahmad outlined his network's coverage of the conflict, he said that Gazans could not leave the Strip during the conflict. At that point, Saranga called out from the audience to say that they could, through Egypt.
"I sent him a Tweet," Saranga later said, recalling his message: "I would like to remind my friend from Al Jazeera that Gaza has a border with Egypt."
To be sure, Israel's Twitter strategy has its skeptics. Earlier this year, MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow doubted how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be addressed in 140 characters or less.
"The Israeli government is trying to explain a conflict that people write books about, a conflict that newspaper writers struggle to explain in 2,000 words," she told The New York Times.
But Saranga said his goal is to use any platform necessary to present Israel's voice.
"I believe that if we want to win the cyber war - War 2.0 - the only way to win it is by coalitions, by bringing our people on board in order to participate in this conversation," he said.
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