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OSC Report: Israeli Government Uses Social Media To Counter Flotilla Criticism
GMP20100616290001 Israel — OSC Report in English 16 Jun 10
Israel — Government, Supporters Turn to Social Media To Counter Flotilla Incident Criticism
Against the backdrop of widespread international criticism and muted senior official comment regarding Israel’s actions in the Free Gaza flotilla raid, the IDF and some ministries, as well as individual volunteers, turned to social media to counter bad publicity over the incident. While IDF YouTube videos apparently succeeded in attracting attention to Israel’s message, the government’s overall social networking effort appears to have been hastily and clumsily organized compared to a more effective effort at the time of the Gaza incursion from December 2008 to January 2009. Several prominent commentators rebuked the government for what they perceived as a tardy and unprofessional public diplomacy campaign during the incident.
Against limited senior official comment in the aftermath of the 31 May confrontation aboard the Mavi Marmara vessel that left nine activists dead, video footage released by the IDF on its YouTube channel, located at
www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk, backed the government’s claim that Israeli troops acted in self-defense.
- Aside from short statements from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Baraq, senior ministers have not been observed to issue further statements or give interviews to Israeli or foreign media (Yedi’ot Aharonot, 7 June).
- The videos show IDF commandos landing on the ship from helicopters and facing a barrage of activists armed with bats, knives, and metal pipes; soldiers thrown down to lower decks or into the water; weapons reportedly found on the vessel; one passenger explaining he wanted to become a shahid (martyr) for Islam; as well as the humanitarian aid awaiting HAMAS approval to be transported to the Gaza Strip. By 10 June, the IDF’s YouTube channel had posted 22 one-minute videos.
- Initial release of the videos, however, was reportedly delayed by at least 12 hours because of a disagreement over their use between the IDF and other government entities (Hirsh Goodman, “The Source of Failure: Israel’s Public Diplomacy and the Intelligence Community,” INSS Insight #187, 9 June).
The videos received a significant number of views and were further disseminated by international news channels.
- According to a report in the right-of-center Jerusalem Post, throughout 31 May, the first IDF video received only 100,000 hits on YouTube compared with 600,000 for reports from Al-Jazirah TV; however, Israel Channel 10 reported that by late afternoon, hits jumped to over 1 million and dominated the air waves (1 June).
- By 10 June, the videos posted had 6,303,779 views. YouTube’s top four most-viewed videos on 3 June were all from the IDF spokesman’s channel.
- The videos were picked up by major US and European networks and shown repeatedly on news programs all over the world.
Government Fumbles Outreach to Social Networking Sites
Government ministries used the social networking site Facebook, the microblogging site Twitter, and YouTube videos to convey their public relations messages.
- While conceding that “no one can argue the system worked perfectly” on that “ghastly day,” Deputy Foreign Minister Dani Ayalon, in an article he published in The Jerusalem Post on 5 June, described Israel’s public relations battle; he stated: “We tweeted, sent messages through Facebook and created YouTube videos in vast numbers,” adding that Israel coordinated its message with “thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, NGO’s, bloggers and volunteers.”
- Foreign Ministry spokesman Yig’al Palmor on 3 June held an online conference with pro-Israel Facebook members who started a group called “Gaza Flotilla — the World Should Know the Truth.” He answered some of the hundreds of questions posed to him. The group has a membership of about 130,000 people from over the world (mofa.gov.il, 3 June).
- The Israeli Government’s confused handling on 4 June of a satirical video mocking the flotilla activists, produced by the right-wing website Latma.co.il, however, suggested that the social networking campaign was poorly planned and managed.
- The Prime Minister’s Office initially publicized the video with foreign journalists but shortly thereafter apologized for sending the link and disclaimed any responsibility for the video, apparently out of concern over being associated with its crude depiction of Muslims (Government Press Office, 4 June). Within three days, the video was viewed by 1.3 million people on YouTube (Arutz 7, 7 June).
Volunteers Join Cyberspace Offensive
Complaining that the government failed to present Israel’s case to the world, private surfers defended Israel on Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet-based social networks, apparently seeking to rally both domestic and international support.
- Charging that “the Israeli establishment did not provide a real response and the world based its information on false information,” three young Israelis from the organization “StandWithUs” — set up to improve Israel’s image during the Gaza incursion — founded a website called Flotillafacts within 48 hours of the IDF’s flotilla raid. The site contains video clips, pictures, and pro-Israeli articles in 14 languages (Yedi’ot Aharonot, 7 June).
- Over 61,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Bravo to the IDF Soldiers and the Navy” within two days of the operation. The group wrote: “We are shouting to express support, respect, and admiration for the IDF” (Yedi’ot Aharonot, 3 June).
- Groups used the Internet to organize demonstrations in support of the IDF at main road junctions around Israel (Yedi’ot Aharonot, 3 June).
- On 1 June, thousands of Israelis and Israeli supporters around the world received e-mails and social networking messages urging them to click on the IDF videos on YouTube and to vote for Israel in a CNN poll. The supporters were told: “We must vote for Israel because the results so far are shocking!”
Volunteer efforts, however, did not appear to win the public diplomacy war on Twitter.
- According to the sentiment-measuring tool Tweetfeel.com, a majority of tweets associated with this event expressed a “negative” sentiment toward Israel, using the search words “Israel” and “flotilla.”
- A satirical Twitter account called Israel GlobalPR on 11 June had more followers (6,006) than the official Twitter page of the Israel Foreign Ministry (3,966).
Media Censure Government’s Public Diplomacy Effort
The Internet public relations efforts did not appear to satisfy the Israeli media, and some commentators sharply attacked the government’s performance charging that officials were amateur and did too little too late.
- A commentator in the left-leaning Haaretz.com on 7 June said that senior ministers gave “virtually no interviews to the foreign media while the public was asked to fill the void in the flotilla affair for which Israel was sharply attacked around the world.”
- Writing in the largest circulation centrist Yedi’ot Aharonot on 4 June, well-known journalist and TV anchor Ya’ir Lapid accused ministers of being “PR amateurs.” They know “nothing about media, nothing about PR….and nothing about activating public opinion.”
- Writing in a publication of the Tel Aviv University-affiliated think tank INSS on 9 June, prominent researcher Hirsh Goodman called the government’s action “a public relations failure,” while a commentator in Yedi’ot Aharonot’s website Ynetnews said that “officials screwed up again” (1 June).
In contrast, at the time of the Gaza incursion, most media commentators complimented the Israeli Government — led by then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — for its effective public diplomacy effort, including extensive use of social media.[a]
- Even Goodman, a critic of the incursion itself, cited the “carefully planned and implemented wartime media policy” (The Jerusalem Post, 5 February 2009).
[a] For further information, see the 16 January 2009 OSC Report, Commentators View Israeli Public Relations Campaign as Success (GMP20090116425001 ), and the 30 March 2009 OSC Report, Israeli Government Seeks To Exploit New Media (GMP20090330420003 ).