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July 6, 2018 12:04 pm

The Digital Battle Over the Narrative of the Gaza Protests

avatar by Yarden Ben-Yosef

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Palestinians prepare to fly a kite loaded with flammable material near the Israel-Gaza border, June 4, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Few would dispute that the Palestinian narrative prevailed in the world media during the Gaza border fence confrontations in May. Some have criticized the decision of the IDF to deny Israeli and foreign press access to the Israeli side of the fence, while the Palestinians allowed the media to join the demonstration under the supervision of local authorities.

Others claimed that the battle was already lost before it began, because it was not possible to convince the leading voices in the international media to shed a positive light on the Israeli side, especially when the casualties were restricted only to one side of the conflict.

Yet, in a world where most of us consume news and form our opinions in digital media platforms, the diplomatic battle cannot remain narrowly focused on the words of Le Monde or The New York Times. The battle is increasingly shifting to social media platforms, where readers experience “engagement” with the content they consume and there are ways to influence how the reader understands the story — which, in many cases, is then shared elsewhere. Consequently, the reader’s opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can also be influenced, even when the content he or she consumes cannot.

The new battleground: Social media

The reasons why the Israeli narrative is always second to the Palestinian during crises between the two sides are numerous and varied; discussing them is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that adopting the Palestinian narrative is sometimes ideologically motivated, but is often also rooted in human psychology. Since the media is dominated by narratives of compassion and victimhood, it is the weaker side that ultimately earns the world’s sympathy. It is the job of Israeli official spokespeople and public diplomacy organizations to lay out the state’s narrative in the media, and to fight for its side to be heard in central arenas. This task is at best very difficult, and sometimes one which they often fail to accomplish, as an IDF spokesperson recently admitted.

In this day and age, a new dimension has been added to the consumption of news content — the reader’s ability to respond to it. The number of consumers worldwide who access news digitally on news websites or social media platforms has increased dramatically. Numerous leading media outlets further enable the consumer’s active participation and offer many ways to do so. Sharing a story over social media platforms, commenting at the end of an article, posting a personal opinion, or pressing “Like” are all methods by which an individual can express his or her opinion and, moreover, persuade others. In this fashion, an interactive debate between participants develops around the original news story.

This arena is devoid of government influence, and so it should be. No Israeli citizen would want the government, an IDF spokesperson, or any other official agency instructing him or her what to “Like.” However, this leaves a crucially important diplomatic arena virtually abandoned. When a story adopting the Palestinian narrative is shared and read over social media thousands and millions of times, its readers consume not only its content, but also the sympathizing reactions. The fact that the readers are seldom exposed to the Israeli version of events delivers an even greater blow to its international image.

First responders

Government agencies cannot, and should not, dictate to their citizens how to support their country. Yet in times of crisis, many in Israel and worldwide wish to criticize the international media for promoting the Palestinian narrative against Israel, and want to make the pro-Israel voices heard. However, until recently they had no organized and coordinated system for doing so. Without such a platform, these concerned citizens could only share their opinion with their immediate circle of friends — but their influence on the bigger picture was minimal. Lacking a systematic framework, their energies and positive efforts were mostly wasted.

Though we cannot influence what news items websites choose to publish, or the amount of “traffic” they receive, we do have the ability to affect the interactive discussion taking place in online news sites and social media platforms. The working assumption is that news consumers these days regard the comments section on news websites and social media as a significant part of the story. The article represents the journalist and the distributing media outlet, but the comments represent the so-called public. Their input holds significant sway over the way that other consumers form their opinions and stance regarding the news content.

Inserting ourselves in the early stages of the interactive discussion around a story can enhance the ability to influence its overall message. On many websites and networks, commentators who receive the most responses and “Likes” get bumped up to the top of the comments section. Subsequently, their opinions will be read first by new readers. The side who manages to keep its take on the story at the top of the list will have the upper hand. If the content discussed is negative and critical, the side dominating the discussion could balance the potential damage to its image, and make readers reconsider before they commit to the original content. If the story is positive, the dominant side can boost its image even more.

Such a reality poses a diplomatic threat, but also an opportunity. While we lack the ability to influence a printed news story, when that story is mainly consumed via digital media platforms, and leads to a heated debate, we can join in and leave a mark. In other words, though we lack the means to communicate with European commuters reading a printed pro-Palestinian story on the metro, we do possess the means for reaching out to him or her if they are reading said article on their mobile phone. Fortunately for us, most metro commuters are of the latter kind — and thus accessible.

The digital operations center

I serve as the CEO of Act.il — a joint civilian initiative of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and the Israeli-American Council (IAC). Our vision is to create an online community that will act to promote a positive influence on the international public opinion towards the state of Israel via social media platforms. One of our central tasks is promoting organized commentary on articles with the aim of balancing the narrative while a user is reading a story. If they have just finished reading a pro-Palestinian story, we are interested in adding an angle that they did not find in the main text.

As an example, we can look at the actions taken by Act.il Operations Center in order to fill the vacuum created on social media platforms during the latest Gaza Strip demonstrations. The ongoing crisis in Gaza and the deteriorating political and social standing of Hamas led many of the organization’s activists to rally near the border security fence, accompanied by tens of thousands of civilians. Their goal was to create violent altercations between IDF and Israeli police forces and the demonstrators, some of whom participated with the aim of damaging the fence and attacking those Israelis protecting it.

Hamas’ leadership obviously anticipated that Israeli security forces would respond to anyone attempting to approach, damage, or break down the fence. The Palestinian casualties were intended to serve a different, perhaps more important, purpose for Hamas: winning over world public opinion, a goal for which it had no qualms about paying with human lives. Over several weeks of clashes, more than 100 Palestinians were killed, most of whom were Hamas activists, while Israeli soldiers were not seriously hurt. This fact pushed many international media outlets to decry the violent Israeli reaction, publishing articles condemning Israel and adopting the Palestinian narrative.

Using various monitoring software, at Act.il we followed the escalation of these events into a real crisis — not only in the field, but also in the news networks and social media platforms. In the week prior to the opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem and the Nakba anniversary, when it was clear that the worst was yet to come, we agreed on the need to carry out certain crucial tasks and to distribute specific messages. In addition, we alerted our five media rooms across the US — Boston, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and the OC — to be ready for action.

Controlling the online media discussion became our top priority that week, while other ongoing tasks were put on hold. Our goal was to use social media platforms to react to and balance the pro-Palestinian narrative promoted by leading media outlets worldwide. We focused on their Facebook pages, to which stories dealing with the Gaza Strip events were uploaded. Our team of staff and interns worked round-the-clock to identify articles marked as “red alert” — sometimes mere minutes after they were uploaded. Then, a blanket message would be sent to all 14,000 Act.il volunteers in Israel and abroad to act immediately without any official or government involvement. Their task was to promote pro-Israel initiatives around the web, and in this case, to add and push forward pro-Israel comments on these articles. It is important to mention that nothing is done automatically. Every volunteer freely decides if and how they take part.

During these events, we constantly scanned the publications of any international media outlet with more than half a million Facebook followers. All in all, these outlets are followed by approximately 200 million people worldwide. When an unbalanced, pro-Palestinian article was flagged, we were among the first to comment. We then sent our activists to show their support by “Liking” our comments and adding further comments on social media. Our efforts were focused and constant, and ultimately paid off. We succeeded in bumping pro-Israel comments to the top of the list in 85% of cases. The result was a prominent Israeli voice in articles that had blatantly adopted the Palestinian narrative.

A wake-up call for sleeping activists

The State of Israel possesses limited ability to influence world public opinion during crises. Alongside traditional media outlets, a virtual worldwide community is thriving in a space which government agencies cannot easily access, both because of their official identity and because they are simply not built to take on such activities. To fill this void, we can and should recruit Israeli and non-Israeli web users to be online activists who are interested in getting involved in balancing the picture and conveying pro-Israel messages.

One cannot and should not underestimate the importance of a pro-Israel presence on social media, as this is one of the major fronts today in the battle over whose narrative will prevail. The more we expand our digital toolkit and spread the word of its existence, the more we will succeed in exposing facts as they are, flagging disinformation, countering groundless arguments, and defending Israel when it is unjustly attacked. Cliché as it may be, these days every smartphone owner can become an online diplomat, and can try to influence world public opinion from the comfort of their home. All they need is the will to commit to the task and the tools to perform it.

The foreign press will continue to disseminate images and stories that portray Israel negatively. Even in cases where the damage to Israel’s international image appears irreparable, we cannot relinquish this arena solely to the Palestinian narrative. Sometimes, turning a loss into a draw can also be considered a victory.

Yarden Ben-Yosef is founder and CEO of Act.il by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the IAC. He appeared on the list of “Influential Israelis under 30” by Forbes Israel magazine.

This article originally appeared in The Arena – Journal of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, published by the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya.

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