Israeli Politicians Look to Make 'Friends' and Influence Twitter

Political candidates and parties are hoping to turn Facebook 'friends' into votes ahead of the 2013 elections.

The political war for public opinion used to take place primarily in the newspapers and on television, but in the 2013 election campaign social networks will also be an important battleground.

Of the approximately 3.7 million Israelis who use Facebook, 75 percent are eligible to vote. The protests of the summer of 2011 demonstrated the power of social networks to spark political action. Candidates who take advantage of the new discourse will have an advantage over their rivals.

Even though only about 15 percent of advertising dollars are spent online, about a quarter of the large parties’ expenses in the upcoming campaign will go toward advertising on social media. Much of this money will go toward Twitter, Instragram and Pinterest, but the majority will be funneled into Facebook. Candidates are less interested in getting “likes” than in mobilizing voters to do things like raise funds and register and turnout to vote.

Politicians’ Facebook specialists will have to engage online powerhouses like Eyal Ofer of the Dear Israel protest movement or Tali Oz Albo, whose post “Hi, Bibi: I’m the little citizen” on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook wall last summer was embraced as a political manifesto. They will also have to keep tabs on grassroots movements, like Dafni Leef’s Israel Tomorrow movement or the Red Line, a movement founded by social-justice protesters demanding transparency in the elections campaign.

Although Israelis vote for party lists rather than individual candidates, personal campaigns are becoming common on Facebook. Labor party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich’s has a profile as does new labor member, Stav Shaffir, a leader of the social justice protests. Shaffir’s 35,000 Facebook subscribers could become an electoral asset in the coming months.
Netanyahu’s official page, run by the Likud spokesperson’s office, has 355,000 likes.

Can social media, which has had limited success in bringing people onto the streets in protest, affect voting behavior?

“I don’t put a lot of trust in statements like ‘I can gain two Knesset seats by working on the Internet,’” says Nimrod Fridberg, the CEO of Feed Media, a media consultancy and marketing firm that worked for Likud’s national campaign in 2009. “In the end, the deciding factor is the televised debate, or when a Facebook post gets out to the traditional media.”

Fridberg says small parties must invest more in social media because it is more affordable. It is also more easily managed.

“Unlike billboards, this is a measurable tool,” he says. “You can run campaigns on Facebook and Google and then know where to channel the money.”

In the United States, budgets for social-media campaigns in the presidential elections are expected to reach $159 million –a 616-percent increase over 2008, according to statistics provided by the digital marketing company iProspect. The American presidential candidates’ pages include multimedia, interaction with supporters, online forums and fundraising platforms. Unlike in traditional media, campaigning online requires maintaining a constant presence in real time.

“If in the past, media consultants used to start working on spins after the presidential debates to influence what the media would say after the debate, now they have to respond to the event even as it’s happening,” says Ofer Kornfeld, a hi-tech entrepreneur and Shelly Yachimovich’s chief of staff.

The U.S. presidential candidates are also using the Internet to direct their advertisements at specific geographic and demographic groups. This helps explain why 33 percent of their media budgets are allocated for mobile devices. But officials at the parties’ social-media headquarters are more interested in talking about strategy than budgets. And everyone has a slightly different approach.

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The Likud party’s social media activity is run from home by its spokesperson, Noga Katz, and head of Internet and new media, Shai Mordov. Attorney and blogger Adi Barouh is a recent addition to the team.

Katz, Mordov and Barouh make a post or two per day on Netanyahu’s Facebook page – usually formal text taken from a speech, press release or the opening statement of a faction or cabinet meeting. It is clear that the posts, which are always in both Hebrew and English, are intended for readers from abroad, who account for 41 percent of the page’s likes.

Netanyahu’s Twitter account has about 85,000 followers, and more of the tweets are in English than are the Facebook posts. Netanyahu also has an Instagram account and a YouTube channel that is not yet active. But he can be viewed on the Israeli prime minister’s YouTube channel (IsraeliPM), which has 4,800 subscribers and 2.5 million views.

“There is no defined strategy, no headquarters yet and no budget. I have no outside consultants, but the work will not be all that different from the way the page is run today,” says Mordov. Katz says from now on, the focus will shift more toward the Israeli audience.

Netanyahu’s staff hardly responds to readers’ comments on his Facebook page.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party seeks to be an alternative to “old-style politics,” in part by taking new media seriously.

Lapid’s Facebook journey began with a few embarrassing advertisements that drew criticism from Internet ysers.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” says Roei Deutsch, Lapid’s head of new media. “It’s part of being avant garde.”

“A month ago, we put up a member registration and donation form on Facebook. Soon, we’ll be launching a Facebook quiz application that will get the campaign’s messages out interactively,” says Ori Mendi of Purple, the company that handles social media for Yesh Atid.

The party’s Facebook page has an events calendar with a map that shows where meetings and party events will be held and lets users register for them. Lapid’s website has an Instagram widget that links to a photo album of party events. And the staff films video clips for later viewing on the party’s YouTube channel. Production of a video info graphic that will present economic statistics to voters is also under way.

Labor was the first political party to announce it was looking for a social-media consultant.
“We’re focused on getting people out to vote. We’re participating in Project 80, whose goal is to get an 80-percent voter turnout,” says Amijai Saragovi, the head of Shelly Yachimovich’s volunteer staff.
One hundred volunteers worked together to create YouTube content for the party.

“We created volunteer teams that learned how to produce video clips and storyboards so that they would come out looking natural during the campaign,” says Saragovi. He adds that while work on Twitter and Instagram is in the planning stages, the lion’s share of it will still be on Facebook. About ads on Facebook, he says, “Facebook is good for dividing up tasks and getting things moving. I’m less enthusiastic about Facebook as an advertising tool.”

Kadima will have to work hard to distinguish itself from its numerous political competitors, old and new. An analysis by the social media management firm Tracx shows that interest in Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has dropped more than in any other candidate. In the 30 days before elections were announced, 10,223 interactions related do with Mofaz were identified – a 49-percent decline compared to the previous month.

Sociologist Kobi Gamliel Isocia’s social-media agency will be working with Kadima to adress this issue. Like the other parties, Kadima must first get through the primary elections, which is why Gamliel does not have much to say about the general elections campaign yet, other than that Mofaz and Kadima are preparing a strategy and infrastructure for social media.

The number of Mofaz’s supporters is small compared with the other contenders – only about 4,800. Kadima’s page has about 7,500 members.

“The campaign will be based on interactions with public-opinion leaders, not based on the number of supporters,” says Gamliel.

Regarding fundraising on social media, he says, “In Israel, people don’t use their credit cards on Facebook, so I don’t think it will work, especially for political parties.”

Meretz’s social-media activity is run by a staff of five, plus volunteers. Its employees use Facebook  mainly to recruit new members. Its Twitter account has constant updates about party events and links to articles and information about political issues.

Every Meretz Knesset member has a Twitter account run by his or her spokesperson. Nitzan Horowitz updates his Facebook status regularly, often evincing an acerbic wit that contrasts starkly with the formal style of the traditional media.

“Our population is much more connected to the Internet than that of other parties,” says Nimrod Dweck, who has been working with Meretz since last January. “We’re there because that’s where are voters are. We’ve been working hard for the past six months and now we’re seeing the results. We’re ready for the elections now.”

Dweck is currently preparing advertisements for Google and Facebook.
Yisrael Beiteinu’s social media is run by volunteers. In addition to its Hebrew content, which is coordinated by parliamentary assistant Mitti Chayon, the party produces new media in Russian, coordinated by Marina Kuritani, and English, coordinated by Ashley Perry. It manages Facebook pages in Russian, Arabic, French and English, and has a page for activists of the younger generation.

Most of Shas’s voters do not come from a community one would expect to see on social networks. But the party manages a Facebook page and a website, which warns on its front page that according to the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one may access the Internet only via “kosher” ISPs, which filter out inappropriate content.

Last week, Instagram photographs of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef with Eli Yishai, Aryeh Deri and Ariel Attias appeared on Shas’s Facebook page, which has 1,200 subscribers. The page also contains announcements about a convention the party’s council of sages and messages from the party spokesperson.

The digital battle lines have been drawn. May the best tweeter win.

Reuters
JTA Photo Service