Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 2)

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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Over 60 Jewish groups condemn boycott movement

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

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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Twitter Warfare

Israel has been attacked in Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. Eventually it had to happen… and in messages of 140 characters of less, now Twitter too is being used in public diplomacy against the Jewish state.

The use of conventional Twitter campaigning for political purposes is in the news. The BBC recently reported that the UK Labour Party is encouraging candidates to use Twitter, but also wanting to vet their posts to avoid any embarrassing slip ups. In all, 111 British MP’s are already using Twitter. Through the Twitter network they send messages that are picked up by fans, opponents and the media.

In Israel MKs, such as Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, are also making use of Twitter. So is the IDF’s spokesperson and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. What’s new, and likely to rapidly move from public diplomacy to election politics, are efforts to use Twitter to attack, satirise or demonise. Two fake profiles demonstrate the potential. The first, is a FakeDannyAyalon profile on twitter, is an example of political attacks. Using his real picture and a string of 79 posts, the profile spreads over-the-top messages in the Deputy Foreign Minister’s name. One expounds the rights of protestors to express themselves in Iran, going on to say those who do so in Israel should be shot. Another suggests a Palestinian Mandela must be found… so that he can be locked up. The second fake profile of interest is for NGO Monitor. NGO Monitor is the watchdog organisation that reports on human rights NGOs active in the Arab Israeli conflict.  This profile likewise makes over the top and self defeating statements. “‘Telling the truth is less important than defending Israel.’ Yes, EXACTLY! When will you learn?!” it reads. Another comment says “Remember: Everything we say = democratic debate, legitimate criticism. Everything they say = exploiting democracy for a political agenda”.

Ashley Perry and advisor to Danny Ayalon responded to our enquiries saying they were aware of FakeDannyAyalon on Twitter and that “imitation is the highest form of flattery”. Mr Perry noted that public life leads to an expectation of critical debate and that this was welcome. “Danny joined Twitter to interact with the public and let them know what he is thinking and doing on a daily basis. So we welcome the public’s responses, even through the use of satire.” He went on to note that, “The Deputy Foreign Minister welcomes the impact of social media and the ability to interact one on one with Israelis, Jews, supporters and critics around the world, either through Facebook, Twitter or YouTube webcasts.” Despite the interest from imitators, Danny Ayalon apparently soon launch a blog and an interactive website. One wonders if FakeDannyAyalon will be left by the wayside.

The fake profile for NGO Monitor is less blatant than that for Danny Ayalon. IT differs from NGO Monitor’s real account by only an under score. The posts also link to articles that debate and respond to NGO Monitor reports. The profile itself lists the Palestinian Propaganda site Electronic Intifada as its home page. Electronic Intifada was previously exposed as being behind efforts to manipulate the Wikipedia community after they infiltrated and exposed efforts by CAMERA to encourage more people to become Wikipedia editors.

It’s taken a while, but finally twitter too has become a tool of online warfare. While Facebook bans the use of fake names, Twitter only prohibits Impersonation and Trademark violations. It remains to be seen how far satire can be used as a cover, and how good the satire must be to qualify. One this is certain, the online world is only growing in impact when it comes to politics and the international reputation of countries. Israel is starting to get online, but there is a long way still to go.

Dr. Andre Oboler is a social media expert and Director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from Lancaster University in the UK and spent a year as a Post Doctoral Fellow focusing on Online Public Diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

© 2010 Andre Oboler, originally published by Community Internet Engagement Project, March 1st 2010. This article is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. You may repost it else where provided you post it in full and include this notice.

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