Public Diplomacy

The online campaign to recognise Palestine

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Source: Andre Oboler, The online campaign to recognise Palestine, Jerusalem Post, September 02, 2011

Pirkei Avot records Ben Zoma’s advice that a wise person is one who learns from all others. Online advocacy is a rapidly evolving field and one in which Israel advocates are regularly out maneuvered. We must learn not only from actions on our side, but also from the campaigns of those opposing us. Following my last article, which discussed two campaigns in support of Gilad Shalit, this article looks at a campaign in support of a Palestinian State.

There is a strong argument in favour of ignoring those campaigns with which we disagree. This avoids giving them oxygen and a false sense of importance. The strategy is used in the real world to limit publicity through the media, and also in the online world to limit counter-productive promotion of a site to both people and search engine spiders (software used by search engines to explore and rank websites). One important limitation on such a strategy is that it becomes ineffective once the problematic campaign gains enough attention of its own.

There is also a need to expose campaigns which may not be all they seem. This is particularly true in the conventional media when Israel and her supporters are up against Pallywood, the production of fictional events and atrocities as part of Palestinian public diplomacy. Another approach is the manufacture of fake “grassroots” campaigns, what is known as astroturfing. A 2009 collection of astroturf campaigns shows the technique in action in the real world.

The success of an online campaign is usually measured by participation and grassroots buy-in, fake this and you have faked the whole campaign. In the online world astroturfing has now reached dangerous levels, and much of it is said to be done by professional lobbying organisations – and by governments.

Both campaigns with real support and Astroturf should be discussed and countered. I leave it to the reader to decide which category Avaaz’s “Recognise Palestine” falls under. The only judgement I make is that we can learn a lot about online advocacy from this campaign.

Search Engine position

A Google search for “recognize Palestine” presents the Avaaz campaign as the second search result. This is a strong start for an advocacy campaign and is typically achieved through many inbound links from other websites. Palestinian advocacy is typically much better than pro-Israel advocacy in the search engine rankings because culturally pro-Palestinian / anti-Israel campaigns have an attitude of share and share alike, while pro-Israel advocacy sees each organisation going it alone and seeking to promote itself even more than the cause. The politics of funding for Jewish / pro-Israel advocacy is greatly tied up with this problem. The exception is unbranded campaigns which can be supported by multiple organisations, both the campaigns discussed in my last article ( and fall into this category and both are on page one of their respective search results.

Engagement numbers and tipping point

The “recognize Palestine” campaign claims to have been seen by nine hundred thousand people and have collected four thousand signatures less than it has page views. If true that is both an amazing conversion rate and a staggering number of views for a page that was launched sometime between August 5th and August 17th. The campaign aims to collect a million signatures, and it appears to be quite close to completion. In fact, the numbers appear to be at a tipping point where the actions of each visitor could make a real difference to completing the goal. Through luck or design this helps the campaign.

The power of video

The central feature of the “recognize Palestine” campaign page is a video. Videos are of increasing significance and any site not making full use of them is behind the times. Avaaz uses them sparingly and other campaigns on the site, such as the famine in Somalia and the threat to the Amazon have not had the same investment evidenced in the “recognize Palestine” campaign.

The video gives a clear message, it demands that now is the time for Palestinians to also have a state of their own. The video makes this demand using symbolism and animation with imagery designed to give maximum emotional impact to Palestinian claims while presenting “Israel’s claims” in a factual, abstract and non-urgent manner. The presentation of both sides is important to a sophisticated audience. Israel’s case is, however, minimized not through lies but through unequal emotion impact, missing information and logical fallacies. Non sequiturs, conclusions that do not logically follow from the arguments leading up to them, are common.

To give some examples, the video says, “wars were fought with the new country Israel, and Israel won taking Palestinian land. There hasn’t been peace since. Now a million and a half Palestinians live in Gaza.” To discuss the situation in Gaza with no mention of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal is dishonest. This is presumably done because the Gaza withdrawal provides the strongest case against unilateralism by either side, as well as explaining Israel’s legitimate fear of what may result from Palestinian statehood without peace. At another point the video explains, “Million’s of Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, pushing them to fight harder for a safe homeland, and after decades of suffering under Israeli control, Palestinians are desperate for freedom and an independent state.” That’s a great use of the ‘non sequitur’.

Avaaz is known for its professionally produced videos; a joint project with Agit-Pop Communications won the 2007 YouTube Award in the politics category. The campaign uses video well and nothing on the pro-Israel side is as slick.

The Achilles heel

The campaign does have one serious drawback, and this the numbers… they simply don’t add up. When I look a few days ago the page said it had been visited 609,437 times and the petition had been signed 868,279 times. If the petition was first released through this page those numbers are actually impossible. One logical explanation is that this same petition was originally on another page. Indeed it was, but back then it was directed to specific members of the security council. That campaign was a dismal failure, so Avaaz moved the goal posts and recycled the petition and signatures, now addressing it to all UN members. The current page does not disclose this reuse. Honesty is a critical component in any grassroots campaign, without it the grassroots can quickly turn on you.

Even given this initial boost to the petition, the numbers still don’t add up. The video is hosted on YouTube, which maintains its own stats. Given the video runs automatically when the page loads, the increase in page views should be matched by an increase in YouTube’s own count of video views. One qualification is that YouTube only counts unique views. The page, by contrast, may increase its viewer count each time it is loaded, leading to a much higher count as one person may reload the page many times. If this is the case, YouTube’s count is a more meaningful measure. The popular myth that auto playing videos do not count is apparently just that… a myth. Even so, over a five day period, 296,232 new page views appear to have only resulted in 30,828 additional signatures and 4,601 additional video views.

While there may be a logical explanation for the varying numerical data the site displays, the bottom line is that the numbers don’t add up. The conversion rate is rapidly dropping. This is not a rapidly growing viral campaign but rather a major investment that has fizzled.

The cost

Avaaz has a 4.7 million dollar budget and has (indirectly) received funding from George Soros. It has money and uses it to do a professional job without cutting corners. Even the choice of excluding user comments is deliberate; a quick look at the comments on the YouTube video shows that when the public has the ability to speak, a propaganda video like this will not go unchallenged.

Those defending Israel lack a well resourced professional online campaigning organisation. Our efforts, including my own Community Internet Engagement Project, have simply not been anywhere near this scale. As a community we have professional political lobbying organisations, use pollsters, and conduct message testing, but when it comes to online advocacy, we are clearly far behind.

To succeed we need to learn from others and recognise that online advocacy, like political advocacy, is something that requires purpose built organisations with significant financial investment. This is not something that can be left to volunteers or added to the work of organisations with specialities in other areas. The cost is high, and the need critical, we need to band together or be left behind.

Dr Andre Oboler is social media expert. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the UK and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in political science in Israel. He can be contacted at or via twitter @oboler.

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Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 2)

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Published as: Andre Oboler, Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 2), Jerusalem Post Blog, July 31 2011

This is part two of an article on online public diplomacy and the challenge and opportunity September presents for Israel advocates. In the first part I explained what public diplomacy is and where it comes from. I concluded by noting the need for the involvement of more professionals, better resourcing for the online sphere, and a cultural change in favour of joint projects and greater cooperation between Israel’s supporters. In this continuation of the article I discuss the challenges we will face in more detail, and what we should be doing for online public diplomacy in support of Israel.

The battle we are facing in September, from the BDS movement to the unilateral declaration of statehood to Durban III, is about delegitimization. The battle began as an effort to brand Israel as evil using Apartheid South Africa as a metaphor, but today it is modeled on the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a public diplomacy battle that seeks to dissolve Israel both from within and through external isolation from without.

The battle lines are clearly visible and many strong advocates of the left, who have opposed the occupation for decades, are now equally vocal in their opposition to a limited boycott, a declaration of a Palestinian State outside the framework of direct negotiations, and a declaration before Palestinian institutions are ready to run a state. They correctly see these moves as tactics to divide, conquer and ultimately erase the Jewish state from the pages of history. These moves are more about being anti-Israel than they are about being pro-Palestinian. Israel’s supporters have clear points of consensus; they can stand together if political differences on other topics can be ignored. This, however novel, is not what makes September different.

The real difference this September is that online advocacy will come into its own. September will be a month of advocacy on college campuses across North America since the Arab Spring. It will come at a time when activism on campuses is traditionally at a peek, the start of a new academic year. From North America, the power of social media will take the campaign global and connect it with other causes and campaigns. The Palestinian cause has a history of infiltrating other groups. We have seen the “Stop the War” coalition rebrand as “Stop the war – Free Palestine,” the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament adopted a “Hands of Iran” campaign. We need to be ready not only in North America, but in places as far apart as Europe, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. Social media will take this global.

At our end, efforts are also under way. Unfortunately they tend to be authorized by people with little to no understanding of social media. These people employ others who “sort of get it.” The result is very few experts and lots of people who think they are experts. Tactics that have been tried and reject years ago by the other side are now being promoted with much excitement by some Israel advocates. What few resources are dedicated to online advocacy are misspent. There is a lack of long term thinking, a lack of strategic analysis and planning, and a lack of online expertise. Being able to use Facebook does not make one a social media expert and getting lots of likes on a Facebook page does not itself count as a success. It may be the first step, but it is only the first step.

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Blogs and all the other content sharing and social media platforms are only a publicity channel. The real online public diplomacy work takes far more resources to create. It involves websites, videos, and dedicated social media accounts that will rapidly get large followings. It involves high quality content generation, access to celebrities, and enough of a splash to be noticed in the main stream media. Mostly though, it involves education.

Effective public diplomacy, even online, means sharing a story, a narrative, and connecting to people so they want to learn more. It means giving people confidence in their knowledge so they can engage in debate, correct misconceptions and take apart the delusional misrepresentation of Israel they see presented in public. None of this is unique to social media, but social media provides a channel these supporters of Israel, these advocates, can use to express themselves. The online resources give them something to share, something to comment on, and something to use to educate and challenge both themselves and their friends. The days when it was enough to parrot messages prepared by others are long past.

The Palestinian plans are openly published on the web, or distributed widely to lists with little or no security. Our efforts tend to be super secret with no Jewish or pro-Israel group knowing what any other is doing. Worse, every group feels the only initiatives worth perusing on the ones they create and the only campaign worth perusing is the one with their name and logo in 10 foot high letters. We don’t have a culture of cooperation, we have a culture of self interest. Social movements don’t mix well with such an environment. However good the content, unless people are willing to share it in their personal life, in their personal online space, the effort is wasted – and how the content is branded makes a huge difference to this.

Our leadership structure poses another problem. Those in leadership, and I am speaking specifically about those in the 45+ age group, need to realize things are now different and their vast experience is dated. The world has changed. The core philosophy of needing only a small handful of leaders, and working to maintain this core while disempowering many others, is the antithesis of what’s needed for modern leadership in an online world. The new model is one of networks, and of many people each contributing in their own way and each having their own level of creative input into ideas and taking ownership. Asking people to turn up for a rally or to like a Facebook page is no longer enough. Even if they do it, they are not involved enough to become advocates for the cause.

Within organizations, those in control of budgets usually don’t get social media and are unwilling to commit resources. They expect everything on the internet to be free, every task done by volunteers, and anything that is done to be “good enough.” This attitude shows a complete disrespect both for the power of the medium and for the experts working in this field. Why do we respect our lawyer and accountants when asking them for advice, but not show that respect for our computer science, information technology, and digital media graduates? Until we realize these people are very highly paid in their professional work, and their time is often worth as much as the lawyers and the doctors, we will have a problem. Until we start inviting many of them onto our boards and management committees, out lay-leadership will have a blind spot.

As September draws near, we need to put more attention on online public diplomacy. We need to stop focusing on what each of our organizations can do to get recognized. We need to stop focusing on how we can do the minimum necessary to look active without investing resource. We need to stop shifting the burden to our volunteers and asking them to repost organizational links. We need to decide if Israel is worth our commitment, and if it is we need to get serious.

We need to decide if we are ready to properly resource projects. We need to decide if we can afford to engage experts. We need to recognize the difference between a volunteer who is good at using social media and a social media professional. That last one is the difference between going to a first aider or a doctor when you are seriously ill. We need to start to work together, to share ideas, financial resources and even staff. We need to make getting the job done, and not getting the headlines, our goal. Unless we start to make a change, my prediction is that when September comes we will once again be caught napping. Let’s not miss this opportunity, let’s at least start the reform and modernization process.

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Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 1)

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Published as: Andre Oboler, Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 1), Jerusalem Post Blogs, 25 July 2011

As September draws near, both supporters of Israel and Palestinian activists are becoming more organized and are spending more time online planning, networking, and building both resources and infrastructure. As an expert in online advocacy, many of these plans end up on my desk. I receive not only the pro-Israel plans, but also copies of plans that Palestinian activists have been discussing – often with a note asking “what are we going to do about this?” This two part article discusses online public diplomacy for Israel and the threats and opportunity September provides.

Israel has always known the outcome of war is shaped by diplomats as much as it is by soldiers. Abba Eban’s role in the earlier years of the state, particularly at times of war, was phenomenal. Eban however engaged in more than simple diplomacy. He also invested his time heavily in the media and in meetings with American Jewry. This was a reflection of a changing reality. Along with diplomats and soldiers, public opinion started to play a role in determining the outcomes of war.

Governments soon started to respond to the need to have foreign populations think well of them, giving rise to the term “public diplomacy” which was coined in 1965. The formal history of public diplomacy however predates the coining of the terms, it goes back to the establishment of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953. USIA sought to manage the world’s perception of the United States as a force for good, and at its peak spent 2 billion dollars a year of tax payers money on this task.

Modern public diplomacy has taken a new twist. This is a result of a change in media consumption from a one way broadcast medium to a two way dialogue. The result has been a shift from broadcasting to recruiting members of the public, or segments of civil society, to share your message indirectly. This can also be done by boosting the volume of existing fringe groups.

The debate over boycott laws and the limits of civil society action in Israel is really a debate about the role foreign funding may play in Israeli politics, and specifically the use of foreign funding to boost fringe opinions. Perhaps most worrying is when foreign governments engage in such internal manipulation. This is clearly public diplomacy, and equally clearly, as documented by NGO Monitor, it has been used to fund delegitimization within Israel.

The debate surrounding the New Israel Fund (NIF) can be seen as another aspect of the public diplomacy battle. NIF have dodged and weaved rather than coming out with a clear statement saying either: (a) NIF will not support any organization who supports BDS, regardless of that organization’s aim, or (b) NIF will support Israeli civil society organizations regardless of their position on BDS, provided they promote Israel democracy. Either of these positions is legitimate for an Israeli civil society organization.

The problem so many are having, is that only one of these positions is consistent with being Pro-Israel and the other fuel anti-Israel public diplomacy both symbolically and financially. The second position effectively says: when there is a war on about democratic rights, we will play a role in the public diplomacy effort, but when the war is about the continued legitimacy of the state, we will not commit. That’s a pretty powerful message. To take the first position for a minute, imagine how powerful it would be for the message that BDS is off limits if organizations like NIF made it a condition of funding? With a position like that from NIF and the left generally, the entire boycott law debate may never have arisen.

More than the media, the battle ground today is online. Unlike mass media, social media is interactive. The audience is also the content producer, people do their own filtering, find their own sources, and share with their friends and wider networks. Those pushing an agenda, on all sides are constantly seeking to break into these networks; to make your circle of friends share their content. They are seeking to set limits and promote unity in their sphere of commonality with their target audience, and to use this to drive a wedge between their target audience and others. There are also larger online public diplomacy projects, most run by experts, which are actively seeking to shape public opinion.

Electronic Intifada is one of the best of these, and seems to only grow stronger each year. On our side, well established sites like my own Zionism On The Web, which have run voluntarily for years, are not updated as regularly as they should be. This is typical of sites heavily reliant on the voluntary contribution of a few experts and which are intrinsically linked to these volunteers. One of the most prolific volunteers was Ami Isseroff and with his passing an entire network of pro-Israel and pro-peace sites have lost their spark. Come September, I’m pretty sure we’re going to notice.

However you look at it, the Palestinian narrative is dominant online. They seem to have better resources, more professionals, and allies from the far right to the far left that promote their narrative. They also work well together, sharing resources, content, and campaigns. The Jewish community’s own way of operating is ill-suited to the online world and problems in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora exacerbate our difficulties. September provides both a threat and an opportunity. If we are open to change, to cooperation, and to funding increased professionalism in the online activity of our communities, September could see significant growth and re-engagement with both Israel and local communities across the Jewish world. If not, well, it will be business as usual as we slip further and further behind.

Part two will discuss more of what we should be doing and what challenges we will face.

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Meet Gilad 2.0 Launched

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We’ve just launched the new and vastly improved Meet Gilad 2.0 campaign platform. This new platform is multilingual, lets organisations retail local control of the campaign, and aggregates world wide efforts for Gilad in one global framework. Last year we let people send message to Gilad, now you can send a new message to Gilad and once you have done that you can send messages of support to the Shalit family, and to the international community who should be doing more for Gilad, specifically the United Nations, Red Cross, European Union, Palestinian Authority, International Criminal Court, and various NGO’s.

Read more about the campaign at:

And please spread the world. This campaign will run until the end of August 2011.

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Schalit Bill to come one step closer to legislation

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Ten months after passing their preliminary readings, and years after they were first filed, bills designed to put pressure on Hamas to release captured IDF soldier Gilad Schalit will begin to be prepared Monday for their first reading on the Knesset floor.

The bills, collectively known as the Schalit Bill, will be joined together in the process, and sponsors hope the final product will be ready for the first plenum reading during the Knesset’s Summer Session.

The Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee will hold the first hearing on the bill, which proposes changing the prisonconditions of Hamas prisoners as long as the terror organization continues to hold the IDF soldier in captivity.

Despite the bill’s popularityamong MKs, its future is far from certain. “This bill will correct the absurd situation by which terror organizations kidnap Israeli citizens as bargaining chips, completely prevent visits, while members of these terror organizations who sit in Israeli prisons are allowed to receive visitors,” complained MK Danny Danon in the introduction to the bill that he sponsored.

Danon’s amendment would reduce visits to the minimum required by law, permitting only visits by an attorney and visits by the International Red Cross once every three months.

Last May, the bills, sponsored by Danon, Marina Solodkin (Kadima), Yariv Levin (Likud) and Yoel Hasson (Kadima), sailed through preliminary readings with support from both opposition and coalition members, leading to a 56-10 victory.

The bills originated in the previous administration, with the bill sponsored by Solodkin and cosponsored by then-MK Yuli Edelstein. With the formation of the Likud government, two separate bills – one filed by MK Danny Danon (Likud) and the second by MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) – were also filed, but repeatedly failed to win the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

In May 2010, a deal was reached by which the government would support the bills on the condition that they be advanced to further readings only “in concert and consultation” with the government and the Internal Security and Justice Ministries.

“This bill reflects democracy working to defend itself,” said Solodkin. “I had hoped that a bill that I started in the last government could at least be advanced in this current government, which is supposed to be a national-right-wing government.”

But Solodkin noted that, instead, the government had dragged its feet, both on supporting the bill and then on bringing it to committee for preparation.

Solodkin would not say that she was optimistic, but that she hoped that the bill could be passed in its first plenum reading during the summer, which would allow it to continue to be legislated even if the government were to fall.

By: Rebecca Anna Stoil

Peres expresses ‘kinship’ with Schalits
PM on Schalit deal: Hamas planning attacks from jail
Country observes five minutes of silence for Schalit

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Over 60 Jewish groups condemn boycott movement

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NEW YORK – Over 60 Jewish organizations worldwide have issued a statement condemning the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement on college campuses.

The statement was published in the “BDS Cookbook,” an extensive resource for students and professionals to combat BDS through positive programming initiatives and coordinated reactive responses.

The statement asserts that academic, cultural and commercial boycotts, divestment and sanctions of Israel are “counterproductive to the goal of peace, antithetical to freedom of speech, and part of a greater effort to undermine the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their homeland.”

It goes on to distinguish the fine line between criticism and anti-Semitism.

“We recognize and accept that individuals and groups may have legitimate criticism of Israeli policies,” the statement continued. “Criticism becomes anti-Semitism, however, when it demonizes Israel or its leaders, denies Israel the right to defend its citizens or seeks to denigrate Israel’s right to exist.”

Characterizing the BDS movement as “antithetical to principles of academic freedom,” the statement contends that the movement “silences voices from across the Israeli political spectrum,” and espouses extremist rhetoric.

“By pursuing delegitimization campaigns on campus, proponents have provoked deep divisions among students and have created an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred,” the statement reads.

The statement is signed by groups ranging from the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, to the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and the Zionist Organization of America.

“The World Jewish Congress- United States signed the statement against BDS because we believe that BDS measures against Israel are ways to punish, isolate and falsely criminalize Israel by those who wish to malign her with libelous charges,” signatory Betty Ehrenberg told The Post.

“The statement as well is geared towards fighting against BDS on campus, so it is particularly important in helping to set the record straight for students in general who may not know the true story, and in helping to educate Jewish students in particular by providing them with the facts so that they can stand up to anti-Israel actions and sentiments on their campuses.”

Todd Gutnick, spokesperson for the ADL, told the Post: “As the global efforts to utilize various tactics calling into question the legitimacy of Israel as a member of the family of nations continue to percolate, in recent months, some activists behind anti-Israel initiatives have claimed that Jews and Israelis support these campaigns and tactics.

“While criticism of Israeli policies or actions is always acceptable, these efforts cross a line that goes far beyond the boundaries of mere criticism.

“The Anti-Defamation League felt it was important for mainstream American and international Jewish organizations to stand together and make clear that the vast majority of the Jewish community is utterly opposed to boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel.”

By Jordana Horn

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Arab World’s Leaders Are Facebook Fans, Too

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Source: David E. Miller, Arab World’s Leaders Are Facebook Fans, Too, The Media Line, 2 March 2011

Social networking isn’t just for the opposition, but managing rulers’ pages is tricky

“Dear Queen Rania, what’s happening with the revocation of my father’s citizenship? For god’s sake, we were all born in Jordan. Please hurry up and help us get our Jordanian citizenship.”

This personal letter sent from Ibrahem Al-Gbale, most likely a disgruntled Jordanian of Palestinian origin, to his queen, would until recently have been dealt with quietly through private appeals to the well-connect officials. But these days Rania and a few other Middle East leaders are using Facebook to reach out to the public, subjecting themselves to open criticism as much as praise in the process.

Facebook has been hailed as a tool of revolution that has spread across the Middle East, the means by which young Tunisians, Egyptians and others spread their message and organize their rallies. But when they are not banning the world’s favorite social network, the region’s rulers are learning to use it, too.

“Facebook can be a great public diplomacy tool. It becomes a way to communicate with the masses and gain popular support. This was demonstrated most sharply by [U.S. President Barack] Obama during his election campaign,” Andre Oboler, an Australian expert on social media, told The Media Line.

Two weeks ago, the Saudi royal court opened a dedicated page on the social network where citizens can forward their grievances to King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud with the click of a button. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last week announced he was using his two-year-old Facebook page to help him out of a deadlock in forming his new interim government.

The catch is that Facebook in a Janus-like device, a conduit for polishing the leader’s image and letting the public praise him or her, but also a place for people to direct their grievances and stage personal attacks. Rulers’ pages have to strike a balance between looking real and personal while not letting negative sentiments overwhelm them.

With Libya spinning out of control over the past week as rebels battle government troops and close in on the capital Tripoli, harsh abuse has filled the Facebook page of Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s best-known son and – until he delivered a blood-curdling speech threatening the opposition last week – the one family member seen as the most progressive and tech-savvy.

One post claimed that the wife of the Libyan dictator and two of his children had fled to Austria and called on readers to protest across their Vienna hotel.

“Saif, your credentials as a reformer have been flushed down the drain,” one commentator wrote on the wall. “Be careful and remember what happened to Qusay and Uday Hussein,” a harsh reference to the slain sons of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected Facebook pages is that of Asma Al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Facebook had been banned in Syria until a month ago, with users forced to log in through proxy servers overseas. Internet World Stats estimates there were only 30,000 Facebook users in all of Syria, a country of 22 million people, as of August 2010.

More modest than Queen Rania’s Facebook page, it displays intimate photos of Asma dining with her husband in a cozy Paris restaurant and a jeans-wearing Bashar planting trees in the Qatana region. Even in this tightly regimented society, criticism of the regime slipped through onto Asma’s Facebook page, alongside the predictable salutations.

“We don’t deny that we love Bashar Al-Assad and don’t want any other president,” a Facebook user named Samer Faad wrote on Asma’s wall. “But we want speedy reforms and an end to corruption, especially that of Rami Makhluf [Assad's cousin] and the thieving officers who constitute two thirds of the Interior Ministry. We want the entire government to be changed as well.”

Media Line’s attempt to contact Al-Assad’s page administrator was unsuccessful, but the page seemed professionally managed, feeding viewers with high-quality personal images of the Syrian first lady and her family.

“No public figure should be engaged in on-line public relations without monitoring and editorial ability,” Oboler said. “The real secret is that during a crisis, the posts can be managed by professional staff while continuing to masquerade as a particular individual.”

Oboler noted that Facebook has a built-in bias in favor of positive feedback, because “liking” content takes one click whereas no similar facility existed for “disliking” content. With nearly 600,000 fans, Queen Rania doesn’t have to worry much about brickbats.

“Negative feedback can be left as comment, but this requires a greater amount of effort,” Oboler said. “The effort required to remove a comment is far smaller than to post one. Hence, provided they play the game right, Facebook can be manipulated and the message controlled.”

Fayyad, the Palestinian premier, has pioneered a new function for Facebook, as a way for soliciting candidates for ministerial posts as he reshuffles his cabinet. His team stepped down at his behest February 14, but Fayyad struggled to reconstitute it in the face of opposition from Hamas Islamists and Left wing factions.

“In light of the ongoing consultations aiming to form a government, which people do you consider credible, have excellent leadership and scientific skills, and can be relied on to hold a ministerial portfolio?” Fayyad asked on his page last week. Public responses immediately began to flow.

Jamal Zaqout, Fayyad’s media and civil society adviser, said his boss’ Facebook page was started privately by a Palestinian citizen because he appreciated the prime minister’s work. In an unusual arrangement, the page is still operated privately but with the full cooperation of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The page was opened some two years ago and is not the result of the so-called ‘Facebook revolution’,” Zaqout told The Media Line. “It’s one of many tools the prime minister uses to stay in touch with the people. It doesn’t replace tours on the ground and regular meetings with civil society groups.”

Zaqout praised Facebook as an effective tool of communication, but it’s not the only on-line conduit: The Prime Minister’s Office operates a digital media unit, which conveys his messages through Twitter and a personal blog.

“Five minutes after the prime minister makes a public appearance, photos of the event are disseminated online through Google and news aggregates in the United States, which reach millions of people,” Zaqout said. “We try to move with the times and maintain contact with the public.”

The Saudi royal court opened a Facebook page earlier this month, calling on citizens to voice their grievances directly by posting them on the page’s wall or sending them by fax or e-mail to the court, the numbers of which appear on the page.

Oboler said that Facebook is an effective tool only when it appears to be honest, a test he said Queen Rania’s page appears to pass. No doubt some outside comments are censored, but all Facebook users, even ordinary people, engage in that kind of censorship, he said.

Indeed, one response appearing on Queen Rania’s page is even more surprising than the original protest letter posted on it.

“The King and Queen should apologize to you, Ibrahim, for the difficulties they caused you,” a user titled “New Jordan” wrote. “The King and Queen are those who left the country to mental patients and haters who unjustly strip people of their nationality.”

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Gaming the YouTube system to protect antisemites

Categories: CIE in the News, Public Diplomacy: Tags: , , , , ,

The following op-ed was written for Honest Reporting and provides an update and further details on the story of Palestinian Media Watch being banned by YouTube, as discussed in Jerusalem Post by CIE’s Director Dr Andre Oboler. It seems the YouTube reporting system is being played with by anti-Jewish activists, and the company is helpless to stop it. The post below originally appeared on Honest Reporting’s BackSpin Blog.

Palestinian Media Watch Still Gamed By YouTube

Dr Andre Oboler ( is the Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia. He is global expert in social media and internet based antisemitism. HonestReporting asked him to bring our readers up to speed on the developing YouTube / PMW revelations.

On Sunday, YouTube acted to close a channel on their service run by Palestinian Media Watch. The explanation YouTube gave related to a video from 2006, originally taken from Hamas’s website, which shows a suicide terrorist says his goodbyes and boasting he will soon drink the blood of Jews.

“We won’t leave you alone until we have quenched our thirst with your blood, and our children’s thirst with your blood.” He says. (

After this video has been on the YouTube at this address since July, suddenly this exposure of terrorism and hate was a “violation of terms” and was promoting hate speech rather than exposing it. Instead of removing the video, as they had done before (without allowing an avenue for appeal or discussion), YouTube removed the entire channel. This seems to be based on a policy of banning accounts after 5 strikes against the Terms of Use. The mistakes, on YouTube’s part, build up until the account is disabled.

A day later, after coverage by myself in Jerusalem Post, and by Melanie Phillips in the Spectator, as well as an increasing volume of outrage on blogs and via Twitter, the PMW channel was reinstated, but the viewing counts seem conspicuously low.

The most viewed video was only up to 13,363 views. This was particularly odd when there are Palestinian Media Watch videos like “Gaza flotilla participants invoked killing of Jews” with over 200,000 views. It seems searching for “by palwatch” (no quotes) gives far better results than viewing the channel. In short the channel is now broken as a result of YouTube’s intervention.

The good news is that of the six complaints again Palestinian Media Watch, four of them have now been reversed. You can now, once again, see “Hamas suicide terrorist farewell video: Palestinians drink the blood of Jews,” “PA cleric: Kill Jews, Allah will make Muslims masters over Jews,” and “Hamas suicide farewell video: Jews monkeys and pigs; Maidens reward for killing Jews.”

Three videos remain blocked. “Farewell video before suicide attack of Hamas suicide bomber Adham Ahmad Hujyla Abu Jandal” (formerly at, “Hamas TV teaches kids to kill Jews” formerly at, and “Jews are a virus like Aids” (formerly at

YouTube still needs to fix the indexing problem, and review their earlier mistakes. It seems only the most recent complaints have been reviewed and found to be invalid. The good news is that it seems this is a systematic flaw in Google’s system, not something they intended to do. But the problem is occurring with other pro-Israel accounts.

It seems someone, or some group of new media anti-Israel activists, are gaming the system. They are taking advantage of YouTube’s automated and semi-automated systems to push their agenda slowly through the system. First one complaint, then a second… until eventually the goal is achieved and the channel itself is shut down. Until YouTube can improve the system, and recognise when people are trying to “trick” the system into doing what they want, rather than what it is intended to do, we all have a serious problem. This isn’t helped when YouTube’s manual override is broken and leaves those who have been targeted in a worse position then they were to start with.

For now, YouTube need to find the accounts that are causing these problems and deactivate them. This problem is far greater than Palestinian Media Watch, though the damage done to them must be fixed, and an apology wouldn’t hurt either.

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Vying for control of the Temple Mount – on Foursquare

Categories: CIE in the News, Public Diplomacy, Technology: Tags: , , , , ,

CIE’s Director, Dr Andre Oboler, explains to Sharon Udasin of the Jerusalem Post why the popular US application “four square” is likely to be a hit in Jerusalem. He also warns that geo-location services are not for everyone, and some people should think twice before broad casting their movements.

Vying for control of the Temple Mount – on Foursquare

By Sharon Udasin, Jerusalem Post,  December 16, 2010.

The popular geo-location smartphone application takes hold in Jerusalem.

For Ariela Ross, being the “mayor” of Al-Aksa Mosque and the Old City’s entire Muslim and Christian Quarters is quite natural – as these are the places where she spends much of her spare time.

With 66 total “check-ins” as of Wednesday afternoon, Al-Aksa’s coveted mayorship currently remains in Ross’s hands through her own nine check-ins on the increasingly popular smartphone application called Foursquare, which allows users to tell their friends exactly where they are at any given time.

The app – which has 4 million users worldwide – maintains a history of who has gone where, also providing users with a platform where they can share and view tips about local destinations, according to GPS. The mayor of a site is the person who has checked in there the most times.

“You can see where the party’s going on, what’s a good restaurant to go to and where to avoid if you don’t want to meet people,” says Ross, whose mayorship at the Western Wall and in the Jewish Quarter was recently ended by a user named “Gavin S.”

While Foursquare has been trendy in the US since its release in March 2009 and has also become fairly popular in Tel Aviv and the country’s hitech center, it has only begun to take hold in Jerusalem recently, users find. As in Silicon Valley and New York City, people are generally more attached to their iPhones, Blackberries and Androids in the tech-savvy Tel Aviv and Haifa regions, says Ross, who herself works in hi-tech.

But experts predict that now that Foursquare has caught on here, it has the potential for the rapid growth that American cities have seen.

“Jerusalem is particularly active with events, lectures, launches, think tanks and international gatherings. It’s also a very small city with people who know each other and meet regularly even without the aid of technology,” says Dr. Andre Oboler, social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. “In this environment the use of Foursquare and similar services can take off with viral growth. Adding to this is the regular flow of American tourists and longer term students.”

Even among Jerusalem’s currently close-knit group of users, competition is already fierce.

“I’ve noticed a few people checking into places that they’re not exactly at,” says Ross, who herself has 40 mayorships, most of which are in Jerusalem.

“I’ve been fighting with Jewlicious for a couple mayorships,” she adds, referring to fellow Jerusalemite and Foursquare user David Abitbol, who runs Jewlicious, a blog geared toward Jewish 20- and 30- somethings.

Ross says that she and Abitbol are battling at the moment over Al-Aksa Mosque and the Basher cheese shop inside Mahaneh Yehuda market.

“He currently has Basher – he just got back from a trip oversees and within two days he got it back,” Ross says. “It’s just a fun little thing but it’s a game in the end.”

While Abitbol agrees that running after virtual titles is silly and calls anyone with over 20 mayorships “crazy” – he has only 13 – he remains pretty angry when anyone impinges upon his own territories.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was at a place and then got an alert that one of the usual suspects just checked in, when in fact they were nowhere to be found,” Abitbol says.

“I live near the shouk [Mahaneh Yehuda] and every time I go there, I check in. Some people have begged me to not check in so that they can be mayor, others have bypassed that process and simply created duplicate entries.”

Abitbol is currently mayor of the shouk, leading the total 511 check-ins with his 22.

But it turns out that much more than the mere satisfaction of earning a mayorship title drives people – and companies – to take part in this game.

“For businesses, when somebody checks in, it gets broadcasted to all of their friends,” Ross says. “It’s another way to get the word out, it’s another marketing tool.”

Oboler adds, “Foursquare is all about where you are and what you and your friends are doing. Unless of course you are a business, in which case the key is who your customers are, where they are and when they are there.”

Oboler says that in addition to local restaurants and shops, larger offices like the Tourism Ministry could easily make use of Foursquare to attract visitors to various destinations within Jerusalem. But he warns that like other geo-location and social media tools, spreading information about oneself also “poses a serious security risk to certain individuals and types of individuals,” particularly to people like soldiers.

But security risks aside, Jerusalem users hope that yet another American trend will catch on here – namely, the willingness of local businesses to provide secret coupons and special offers to frequent checkin guests and mayors of their locations.

“In the US, some venues offer mayors or people who check in there inducements to do so – like free food or discounts,” Abitbol says. “In Israel that aspect has yet to catch on, but people still get a little crazy.”

Meanwhile, however, users like Abitbol and Ross will continue to enjoy frequenting their favorite spots, some of which are far more holy – and far more contentious – in real life than any smartphone game could reveal.

“I’ve spent so much time at these places,” Ross says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I own the Kotel.’ It’s a fun little joke, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. Think of it as a virtual world.”

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