Tasteless? Tacky? Israel’s Aggressive Online Advocacy Faces Backlash

To its credit, this time around, Israel has learned from past mistakes on the media front. However, now, it is blamed for making its case too aggressively.

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Israel used to be painfully behind the curve when it came to using the Internet in its efforts to influence world opinion. It took devastatingly bad experiences and international image battering during both the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, for the Israeli government bureaucracy to realize that the era of controlling public information in wartime was dead and gone.

For too long, the Israel Defense Forces and government censors tried, in vain, to keep information to a minimum and released it at carefully timed press conferences and media appearances. The result: it got clobbered by the other side in the media during the long silences. Those of us who pioneered English-language blogging from Israel in those early days were on our own online, dropping our small bits of Israeli perspective and advocacy into the sea of sympathy for the Lebanese and the Gazans, as their international grassroots supporters wisely took advantage of this new tool for shaping the narrative of the conflict in their direction and turning world opinion against Israel at any opportunity.

And as Israel first tried to get its act together in the complicated new world of online communications, there were problematic turf wars between various arms of the government - the Government Press Office, the IDF spokespeople, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and it was difficult keeping all of them on message. When it came to independent bloggers, they seemed more annoyed by our participation, as if we were interfering and stealing their thunder. All of this, and later missteps, such as the handling of public information in the Mavi Marmara incident at sea, culminated in a great deal of criticism by Israel’s supporters abroad, on the terrible job it was doing when it came to telling its story to the world.

To its credit, this time around, Israel has learned from past mistakes. Out in front of events online on every platform available, it has been doing battle, as I chronicled here, in an aggressive and coordinated fashion, and utilizing its army of eager volunteers to plead, post, and Tweet its case internationally, using prose, pictures, and video.

An enterprising young high-tech guy named Jesse Nowlin, set up a social media team inside the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, who have organized the pro-Israel world around “Israel Under Fire” and have set up a "situation room" in the government offices full of volunteers tweeting and Facebooking in various languages - and others are pitching in from their homes.

Some of the viral campaigns have been very successful, such as the Facebook graphic “What Would You Do?” created by the IDF, showing the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera house with missiles raining down on it and the message “Share this if you think Israel has the right to self-defense.” The picture has been shared more than 51,000 times.

With every success comes a backlash. In this case, it has taken the form of a wave of criticism that Israel is making its case too aggressively, too tastelessly, and with too much glee and macho swagger. In an environment that celebrated the embrace of social media during the Arab Spring, Israel’s embrace of the same tools is being frowned upon from some quarters.

Wired Magazine referred to it as Israel’s “hyper-pugnacious social media push.” In Foreign Policy magazine, Michael Koplow grimly warned that:

“crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF's Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.”

Koplow’s criticism was picked up and amplified by the unofficial voice of centrist-liberal American Jewry, Atlantic writer and blogger Jeffrey Goldberg in a post titled “The Hamasization of Israel’s public relations campaign” pronounced Israel’s online behavior ‘very, very tacky.’ He said:

“It used to be that Israel would keep silent about its military activities, or at most it would issue terse statements confirming, with as few adjectives as possible, an action that had already taken place. Groups like Hamas, on the other hand, were the ones that would brag constantly about their bloody triumphs (real and imagined).”

In another post, Goldberg chided the government PR machine again.

“Israel's media campaign -- Gamify? -- is disgraceful. David Rothkopf just pointed out to me that people are most influenced by their enemies. In this case, the braggadocio of the IDF is beginning to resemble the braying of various Palestinian terror outfits over the years. All death is tragic, even the deaths of your enemies.”

In the “Gamify” reference, Goldberg linked his criticism to an article in Readwrite.com charging that the IDF was had turned real war into an online game:

“The IDF Blog now has atrocious gamification badges with points and rewards for sharing the content to social media. For example, if you visit the site 10 times, you get the "Consistent" badge. If you search the blog multiple times, you're promoted to "Research Officer." Yes, Israel has gamified war. This is absolutely horrendous.... I just can't imagine a justification for it. Gamification is offensive when coupon companies do it. This is a WAR. Israel is trying to enlist the people of the world in its campaign with military ranks, badges and points. Innocent people are dying on all sides, and the IDF wants to reward people for tweeting about it.”

Another post, titled “Propaganda 2.0” appeared on the website The Verge, written by Joseph L. Flatley, frowned on the fact that the war was first announced on Twitter with a tweet saying that the IDF had "begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets." He said:

“I think for most of us, reaction to the announcement was visceral: one liveblogs award shows or CES keynotes, not armed conflict. And if you’re going to begin a military operation, a relatively austere press conference — hastily assembled by IDF brass, probably in a hallway somewhere — seems much more appropriate than a tweet. It’s hard to express the proper gravitas when you’re adapting your message to the micro-blogging platform: replacing words with numbers, using ampersands instead of spelling "and" out, and of course hashtags are never anything but undignified.”

His theory - that Israel is bombarding social media as a deliberate strategy to both control and trivialize discussion of what is happening in Gaza:

“The conversational "back and forth" of Twitter that we have grown accustomed to only happens when both sides are committed to having an actual, honest conversation. But by reducing Pillar of Defense to #PillarOfDefense, Twitter is taking a large, complicated event and breaking it down into small, constituent parts that have little impact in and of themselves. Just as easily as a grassroots activist group anywhere in the world might use Twitter to communicate the news, @IDFspokesperson is using Twitter to neutralize the news. By making sure the conversation takes place in this restricted forum, @IDFspokesperson is limiting the possible responses. When I say that the IDF has turned a military operation into a #hashtag, I’m not being cute. I’m saying that it’s transformed an act of war into a social media event.”

So if before, Israel was criticized for being too militaristically hush-hush about its operations, now it is charged bragging, strutting, and trivializing war with slick videos, graphic, bombardment of social media platforms, and use of technology to spread its message.

War is a game of calculated risks. In any campaign, mistakes and miscalculations will be made. Despite the blowback, despite the fact that it can’t control all of its volunteer soldiers, and some will inevitably step over the lines of good taste, the world of social media is a crucial battlefield. Israel simply can’t afford to let it go unmanned. When lives are at stake, being called tacky is a risk it is surely willing to take.

An Israeli poster that the army used on Facebook during Pillar of Defense.Credit: IDF Facebook

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