Can the Foreign Ministry counter online disinformation?

SOCIAL MEDIA AFFAIRS: The Damascus Gate terrorist attack video serves as a case study to see how the ministry had adapted its traditional networks and approach to compete with online disinformation.

Israeli police officers stand guard outside the Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem, December 4, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Israeli police officers stand guard outside the Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem, December 4, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

“Breaking: Israeli occupation forces shoot a Palestinian young man near Damascus Gate in occupied Jerusalem,” tweeted activist Mohammed El-Kurd on December 4, sharing a video of a Palestinian man being shot by Border Police officers as he lay on the ground. “It’s important to document, to expose the oblivious world to the state-sanctioned shoot-to-kill attitude of the Zionists.”

The man, 25-year-old Mohammed Shawkat Salima, had just stabbed a 20-year-old Israeli who was crossing the street.

The video from Eye on Palestine, what El-Kurd called a “field execution,” shot across social media, racking up tens of thousands of views within a few hours.

Then, another video was released, telling a different story. The Foreign Ministry shared a longer video of the events, a stabbing terrorist attack at the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, which Border Police officers stopped with decisive force. The two videos competed, vying for audiences.

The race of these two stories – of disinformation and information – was far from the first narrative competition that the ministry has participated in, but the digital landscape of public diplomacy adds new challenges in addition to traditional diplomacy tasked to the ministry.

The Damascus Gate terrorist attack video serves as a case study to see how the ministry had adapted its traditional networks and approach to compete with online disinformation.

Domestic foreign affairs

On July 19, the Strategic Affairs Ministry ended its 15-year operation, which included combating delegitimization of Israel online. The ministry was absorbed by the Foreign Ministry earlier this year, which has since been transitioning to adopt the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s duties.

“Countering disinformation or misinformation is one of the Foreign Ministry’s goals,” explained Ido Daniel, a senior director in the ministry’s digital department. “This is something that we brought from the Strategic Affairs Ministry to the [Foreign] Ministry, and they already did this in their own capacity before as well.”

Daniel was previously the senior director for digital strategy at the Strategic Affairs Ministry. During his tenure at the ministry, he worked on projects to counter videos like the Damascus Gate clip, and has continued this work with the Foreign Ministry.

Daniel and his team brought their expertise with civil society actors, knowledge of malicious actors, and special public digital diplomacy projects to the Foreign Ministry, and have been using them alongside the Foreign Ministry’s tools and approaches to tackle an old problem – false narratives.

False information’s advantage

Daniel has seen a lot of partial videos released online to frame news about Israel. “It’s not something new, but I think that this was a very unique case, because it was clear what it was – a manipulation of public opinion.”

It took only three hours for the partial Damascus Gate video to reach 100,000 views and almost 4,000 retweets and likes. The Foreign Ministry released the full video only two hours after Eye on Palestine, but after an hour it had only 4,000 views.

This disparity highlights the Foreign Ministry’s challenges. When it comes to the narrative race, it faces hurdles of a delayed start, fact-checking and a larger opposing activist base.

The Eye on Palestine video was among the first videos released about the breaking news. Information is often released by authorities in reaction to such videos – meaning, the problem needs to be identified, and the decision to act made, which is a serious delay.

Release is further delayed due to the ministry’s authoritative nature.

“You need to fact-check the information before you post,” said Daniel. “Every tweet is on behalf of the State of Israel, so you have to be very careful.” In contrast, many activists have “no accountability whatsoever.” This means they can share content quicker.

“Many of these videos are based in reality but mislabeled or misdescribed,” said Emanuel Miller, a media analyst at the NGO Honest Reporting. “That’s where a good journalist should be able to step in and ascertain how events unfolded.” Unfortunately, with items like the Damascus Gate attack, “fact-checking goes out the window” due to bias against Israel.

Once the information has been released, numbers of supporters factor into the virality.

“According to the ADL, over a billion people in the world harbor antisemitic attitudes,” noted Karen Bekker, assistant director of CAMERA’s media response team. “There are only about 15 million Jews. We are vastly outnumbered.... So that makes combating misinformation more challenging.”

Adapting to the problem

While the partial Damascus Gate video had a significant lead on the Foreign Ministry’s full video, two weeks later the ministry has almost caught up. The former has just over 190,000 views, and the latter video 176,000 views. While disinformation strategies have advantages, the ministry has utilized preexisting diplomatic networks and NGO connections to quickly identify and distribute information.

“An emerging outbreak of false information can be identified by an “embassy, and it could come from people on the ground all over the world.... Maybe the media outlets in their own country already reported about the false video,” said Daniel. “We do monitoring as well. The [ministry’s] digital diplomacy people basically live online.”

With embassies all over the world and specialists with their ears to the ground, the ministry is able to identify emerging disinformation campaigns relatively quickly.

As a government branch, it can quickly access relevant materials.

“The police were very quick to release this whole video. And, of course, we cooperated with this instantly with sharing the full video,” said Daniel.

When the “video is shared on the official platforms of the ministry, it is also being shared by our diplomats and our embassies around the world,” said Daniel. This allows the ministry’s distribution of materials to gain momentum.

In the Damascus Gate case, the ministry alerted NGOs prior to the ministry’s vetting process, further reducing the time it took for information to begin circulation on social networks.

“They give the full picture to civil society nongovernmental actors so they could decide what to do with the information” and begin sharing it, Daniel explained.

THE FOREIGN MINISTRY is in the testing phases of an initiative to create another network layer: grassroots activists.

The ministry’s 4IL project is being redeveloped into a community. The new 4IL “will have a website, which will be constantly updated, and it will be connected to a few platforms,” including “two channels on Telegram, two channels on Instagram,” in English and Hebrew.

“It has a [tip line] feature for people to let us know if they see something that we need to know,” said Daniel, further reducing ministry reaction times. It (4IL) will also include information and materials that the activists can use to address false information themselves.

While the Foreign Ministry has continued the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s mission to tackle delegitimization, it has added other approaches as well.

In addition to fighting disinformation, Daniel and his team’s 4IL community platform will empower activists to tell the positive aspects of Israel’s story.

“It’s showing everyday life,” said Daniel, rather than only focusing on a few tweets, which plays to disinformers’ advantages. Only engaging with negative disinformation strengthens the illusion of negativity as most prevalent, whereas sharing Israel’s story informs of the positive norm.

The Foreign Ministry is still undergoing the absorption process of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, but has adapted preexisting traditional diplomatic and NGO networks to present strong competition against the raw advantages of disinformation strategies.

There will be other information campaigns like the Damascus Gate incidents. It remains to be seen whether the expansion of the Foreign Ministry’s networks and its approach will allow it to sufficiently defend Israel in public as well as in diplomatic chambers.