Because of the 'social' nature of today's Internet, quality is not enough.
By ALEX MARGOLIN
Israel's much-maligned public relations effort got a big boost from the media in recent weeks. Major news outlets, including the Associated Press, CNN and The Jerusalem Post took notice of its forays into the "new media," including the IDF's YouTube videos of air strikes and humanitarian aid deliveries, and the New York Consulate's innovative "press conference" held entirely on the micro-blogging site, Twitter, where all questions and answers were limited to 140 characters.
In parallel, on-line activists launched private efforts. A group called Help Us Win created a site meant to serve as a hub for on-line activity. Facebook groups with names such as "I Support the Israel Defense Forces In Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza," and "IDF Internet Soldiers" have attracted thousands of members. Some 10,000 Facebook users "contributed" their status alerts to QassamCount, posting daily updates on the number of rockets hitting the country. HonestReporting led an on-line drive for fair media coverage that drew more than 36,000 supporters and published a guide for on-line activism.
With all this activity, it's tempting to believe that government officials and organized activists have the situation covered. In reality, however, these efforts only address half the equation. The second half belongs to the public. Because of the "social" nature of today's Internet - where content is increasingly generated by users, not the sites themselves - quality content is not enough. It is also vital to maximize the quantity of people spreading Israel's message.
In other words, state agencies can do great work providing videos, images and information and activists can organize the material and create channels for public participation, but success in the media war will largely be determined by what the masses of supporters do with the information.
THE NEW media, often referred to as "social media" because they allow people post their own content, make on-line "friends" and form communities around common interests, have actually been around for years. Even Time magazine, not known for early detection of on-line trends, picked "You" - the Internet content provider - as its Person of the Year for 2006. Since then, social media have only grown, with sites such as Facebook and YouTube joining the media establishment and upstarts such as Twitter attracting widespread attention.
While the first wave of Web sites on the Internet featured one way communication - site owners would post their content and users would read it - social media sites provide platforms for conversation and interaction. Today, "news aggregators" such as Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, and many others, allow users to post their favorite articles and the community votes for the ones it likes best. These sites have proven popular, particularly with the generation that grew up communicating with each other through their computers, because they place the power in the hands of the users.
The open nature of social media, however, means anyone can post material and have a chance to influence millions of people. That holds true for Israel's opponents as well as its supporters. Many biased, misleading or even false stories about Israel appear on sites alongside articles defending its right to protect its citizens. But a single pro-Israel article on any platform, no matter how well argued, is unlikely to win the day when faced with dozens of rebuttals. Even high-quality content is often no match for a wave of vitriol.
BUT IF the masses made their voices heard across the Internet, the equation would quickly change. For example, on Yahoo Answers - a site that consists entirely of user-generated questions and answers - a pro-Palestinian activist posted a question asking if Israel should be convicted for war crimes. Seven answers followed, five supporting Israel, several of them pointing out its rights under international law and Hamas's war crimes. An objective reader would likely come away with a favorable impression.
Of course, there are many other questions on Yahoo Answers and many other platforms. On Digg, the largest of the news aggregator sites according to the number of users, pro-Palestinian activists appear to have the upper hand. While some pro-Israel stories receive a relatively high number of votes, most languish with no more than a few dozen, while a post accusing the IDF of deliberately targeting Palestinian journalists received 657, enough to be designated "popular" and win a place on the coveted front page of the site, where public exposure is maximized.
For Israel to succeed on a site like Digg, people must be able to find appropriate content and the community must show support by voting for it to make it popular. The government has dramatically improved its distribution of quality material. Organized groups such as HonestReporting have created platforms to spread the content. But the rest is up to the general public. If the past is any indication, supporters are sure to rise to the challenge.
The writer is social media editor at HonestReporting.
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