Losing the plot

Israeli students in the "Hasbara War Room"

Just over a week ago, when killings in Gaza had not yet reached the 200 mark, an Israeli website published a report about Herzliya university's "Hasbara War Room" where 400 student volunteers are waging an online propaganda battle. Working in 30 languages, they aim to counter "anti-Israel" sentiment in social media. 

Online, of course, Israel's electronic warriors appear to be ordinary people, just expressing a personal view. But the Herzliya operation is actually the latest development in a government propaganda programme (documented by the Electronic Intifada website hereherehere and here) which has a somewhat chequered history. Last year the programme's head, Daniel Seaman, was suspended after posting a comment on Facebook which brought an official complaint from the Japanese government. It said:

"I am sick of the Japanese, ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Peace’ groups the world over holding their annual self righteous commemorations for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the consequence of Japanese aggression. You reap what you sow."

In another post, Seaman had asked:

"Does the commencement of the fast of the Ramadan mean that Muslims will stop eating each other during the daytime?"

Several hundred propagandists working at computers may sound like quite a lot, but among millions of social media users worldwide, their efforts are scarcely making a dent. From an Israeli point of view, these propagandists also seem to be spending their time ineffectively – perhaps because they are unsure how to respond to the deluge of criticism. 

To take one example, on Sunday, someone from an Israeli government IP address went into Wikipedia and altered its article about the Iron Dome defence system. Here is one sentence as it appeared before the alteration:

"Uri Misgav, writing for Haaretz, has expressed the view that the Iron Dome developers have created a technological marvel and saved many lives, but at the strategic level their brilliant invention also causes damage by allowing Israelis to inflate their sense of victimhood, and simultaneously to continue their lives in relative comfort."

The Israeli government's contribution was to insert the words "the extreme-left newspaper" before the name of Haaretz.

Another sentence in the original Wikipedia entry began:

"Misgav further writes that the Iron Dome will not return the quiet to the southern residents of Israel nor the residents of the Gaza Strip who live under siege, and that Israelis need to strive courageously and creatively towards a systematic solution ..."

The Israeli government deleted the words: "nor the residents of the Gaza Strip who live under siege".

Whoever decided to make these changes clearly hasn't got a clue about social media. Surreptitiously messing about with Wikipedia entries is a dangerous thing to do because it's likely to be noticed – as it was in this case. In fact, there's now a Twitter account (@israeledits) which automatically tweets any changes made to Wikipedia from Israeli government IP addresses.

In previous wars, Israel could be reasonably confident of sympathetic media coverage in the west, and especially in the United States. That is still largely true in the US, though there are signs it is beginning to change. One reason is that the sheer diversity of online media has diluted the impact of traditional media and to some extent is forcing them to review old practices.

While many of Israel's propaganda difficulties can be attributed to the changing nature of media, the underlying problem is that the  message itself is inherently weak, since the kind of military action witnessed in Gaza appears so much more devastating than any of the attacks coming from Hamas.

Israel's "right to defend itself" (a right which the Palestinians apparently don't have) sounds especially hollow when set against the wildly disproportionate casualty figures on the Palestinian side.

Similarly, the narrative that Israelis are living in terror of Hamas's largely ineffective rocket attacks – sirens, bomb shelters, etc – is not very convincing when Israelis are photographed sitting outdoors on sofas near the border with Gaza, watching the fireworks. Twitter users have also posted photos of supposedly besieged Israelis enjoying the sun on a crowded Tel Aviv beach.

Then there are the famous Gaza tunnels – a natural response to Israel's actions over the years – which apparently shock Israel's propagandists but have left most of the world underwhelmed. Last night, on British TV, an Israeli spokesman complained about the amount of cement used in constructing the tunnels – cement which could have been used to construct homes, schools, hospitals, etc. Coming on a day when Israeli forces demolished more homes in Gaza and also wrecked a hospital, the irony of this statement seemed to escape him.

Social media are having an impact on the Gaza war in two important ways. One is by holding the Israeli narrative to account, along with traditional media that unquestioningly regurgitate it. Israeli officials are accustomed to an easy ride, especially in the US media, where they can make preposterous statements without being seriously challenged. Thus, Netanyahu can get away with disgusting remarks about "telegenically dead" Palestinians on American TV, but is immediately confronted on Twitter with questions that his interviewer ought to have asked.

Then there was the case of Ayman Mohyeldin, the NBC reporter who witnessed (along with other journalists) Israel's killing of four boys as they played football on a beach in Gaza city. Mohyeldin posted some powerful tweets about what he had seen. Glenn Greenwald described what happened next:

"Despite this powerful first-hand reporting – or perhaps because of it – Mohyeldin was nowhere to be seen on last night’s NBC Nightly News broadcast with Brian Williams. Instead, as Media Bistro’s Jordan Chariton noted, NBC curiously had Richard Engel – who was in Tel Aviv, and had just arrived there an hour or so earlier – 'report' on the attack. Charlton wrote that 'the decision to have Engel report the story for ‘Nightly’ instead of Mohyeldin angered some NBC News staffers'.

"Indeed, numerous NBC employees, including some of the network’s highest-profile stars, were at first confused and then indignant over the use of Engel rather than Mohyeldin to report the story. But what they did not know, and what has not been reported until now, is that Mohyeldin was removed completely from reporting on Gaza by a top NBC executive, David Verdi, who ordered Mohyeldin to leave Gaza immediately."

The Mohyeldin affair illustrates one of the difficulties that mainstream Israel-sympathetic media now face. Appeasing Israeli opinion used to be the safe option but now social media are also forcing them to pay much more attention to the demands of their wider audience. The resulting internet storm over Mohyeldin's sudden removal from Gaza made NBC reconsider its position and let him return.

The second major effect of social media on the Gaza coverage is that mainstream journalists are tweeting on the spot, as well as producing full-blown reports. This is a big change, as Paul Mason of Channel 4 News points out:

"During Operation Cast Lead in 2009, there were far fewer mainstream networks there [in Gaza], and many of them did not tweet. Today, most reporters are required to tweet as a part of their jobs. But tweeting, and traditional news reporting, are not the same.

"Reporting goes through an editing process; things that don’t conform to editorial policy can be weeded out; facts have to be cross-checked with other facts and claims. The reporting team itself – producer, reporter, camera crew, translator for TV – form an initial filter. But in Gaza, there is no filter; plus you are now getting camera crews and off-screen TV journalists tweeting. On newspapers, several different reporters will be tweeting, rather than it all going into the editorial machine and coming out as one thing.

"And here’s the point: instant, unfiltered reports are cross-checked via the hive-mind created by social media itself. It is the medium that becomes the editing process ...

"It’s fair to say that, once you put a dozen journalists on the ground with Twitter, editorial policies and processes may continue to work for the final, polished – some would argue censored and ideologised – reports: but the raw output will remain raw, and any attempt to put an ideological, or politically correct, gloss on the facts, will be much easier to spot."

The Israeli government is probably regretting that it allowed so many foreign journalists into Gaza. This may be one of the reasons why foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman now wants to ban al-Jazeera from operating in Israel – a move which he reportedly justified by saying that a ban would be no different from Britain refusing to allow the Nazi publication Der Sturmer, or the United States not permitting broadcasts by an al-Qaeda TV channel.

Twitter users swiftly responded by comparing Lieberman to Egypt's new dictator, General Sisi, who has already banned al-Jazeera from Egypt.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 22 July 2014