Losing the fight

It’s not only huge Arab presence on social media that weakens Israel’s arguments, but also non-transparency in PR.

Hasbara (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Just over a year ago, when Israel experienced perhaps the stormiest Nakba Day commemorations ever held, I tracked the events online and monitored the protests being reported live on social networking platform Twitter.
What set this Nakba Day apart from previous years was that it happened against the backdrop of the Arab Spring empowering the region and, on that day, pro- Palestinian protests were not only fiercer and more vocal than ever before, but they were also held at prominent points along Israel’s borders in all the neighboring countries.
From early morning on May 15, 2011, I monitored the comments, updates from events and interacted widely with anti-Israel demonstrators posting information on social networks about what was happening in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in the West Bank and Gaza.
Activity on social media, especially Twitter, was fast, furious and widespread, and although dedicated hashtags for the nakba – Arabic for “catastrophe” – never quite made it to the top of that day’s tweeting trends, what became very apparent was that responses by Israel’s supporters were slow in coming, if at all.
As Arabs and pro-Palestinian supporters logged on en masse to tweet about the nakba, highlight Israel’s injustices against the Palestinian people or launch outright attacks on the Jewish state, the voices of Israel’s advocates were silent by comparison. It was only sometime in the early afternoon, when Israel’s somewhat social media-savvy supporters in the US woke up, that the case for the Jewish state’s right to exist was even mentioned.
True, that was already more than a year ago and, as with all trends digital, it is possible that even in the past 13 months much has changed online with regard to the habits of Israelis and Israel’s supporters worldwide on social media. However, what continues to be starkly apparent to me as I interact widely on social networking sites is that traditional hasbara, or the set of arguments used in the past to defend Israel’s right to exist or explain its right to act or react, is becoming less and less effective or believable.
One of the possible reasons for this could be put down to sheer online demographics. A recent study in Israel, which was funded by Google Israel and carried out by the School of Media Studies at the College of Management Academic Studies (COMAS) in Rishon Lezion, showed that while in a general sense Israelis are highly connected digitally, their online activity seems confined to mere socializing. The study showed that the majority of Israelis using social media were in their teens or pre-teens and most preferred their activities to be in Hebrew – not very useful for making Israel’s case to the world.
Additionally, statistics show that Israel is only 44th on the list of global Facebook users, with some 3,486,520 using the social networking site and only roughly 5 percent of the country appearing on Twitter, a platform used more for social action.
In contrast, an Arab Technical News Gateway report from last month shows that the overall number of Arab users on Facebook worldwide has already surpassed 43 million, and on Twitter, it’s more than 1.3 million.
Enough said! HOWEVER, IT is not only people power that renders Israel’s traditional hasbara weaker than in the past but also the way it is carried out. International studies into general social media habits suggest that users are becoming much more determined to weed out unreliable sources and are demanding more transparency.
Pair this with the ability of any techno-geek to either delve back into online history to fish out regurgitated information or to blow the lid on fake or doctored photos, and standard public relations tactics no longer carry weight.
Of course, uncovering fake photos or revealing tidbits of information that are best kept hidden is not specific to Israel. Debunking public relations campaigns can also be applied to Israel’s adversaries or to any individual, organization or government with an agenda but perhaps, for our own sake, its time for those speaking on behalf of this country to be aware of truly how damaging it can be, even to credible arguments.
Take for example the recent photo of two male IDF soldiers walking along a Tel Aviv street holding hands.
Released following the city’s Gay Pride Parade by the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the photo went viral, but after revelations that the photo was staged and one of the men is not even gay, the image did more damage than good. Even though the Israeli military does allow homosexuals to serve, the fake photo played right into the hands of the anti-Israel lobby which took it as further proof of the army’s dishonesty.
This, of course, is just one example of how traditional hasbara no longer works and as we witness rapid changes in digital technology, perhaps it’s time to rethink Israel’s PR tactics.