The Digital Battle over the Narrative of the Gaza Protests
Social media have become the main platform in the modern world for consumption of news, and prolific users enjoy significant influence over readers' opinions. The digital battle over the narrative during the latest events at the Gaza border fence demonstrates how effective diplomacy in the digital world increasingly depends on online activists
Clockwise: Coverage of the Gaza demonstrations in The New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Guardian, and Le Monde | Photos: screenshots
Few would dispute that the Palestinian narrative prevailed in world media over the Israeli one in the Gaza border fence confrontations in May. Some have criticized the decision of the IDF spokesperson 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 authority). Others claimed the battle was already lost before it began, as it is not possible to convince the leading voices in international media to shed a positive light on the Israeli side, when readers and viewers worldwide view the image of the demonstrator standing up to the sniper, and given that 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 the readers experience “engagement” with the content they consume, and where there are ways to influence the way the reader understands the story (which in many cases is shared further on). Consequently, the reader’s opinion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can also be influenced, even when the content he 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, and 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 international media.
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.
Even in cases where the damage to Israel’s international image appears irreparable, we cannot abandon the stage solely to the Palestinian narrative. Sometimes, turning a loss into a draw can also be considered a victory.
This arena is devoid of government influence, and so it should be; no Israeli citizen would want the government, the 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.
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 promoting the Palestinian narrative against Israel, and 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 would be minimal. Lacking a systematic framework, their energies and positive efforts are mostly wasted.
Though we cannot influence what news items the websites choose to publish, or the amount of "traffic" which reaches them, 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 other consumers form their opinions and stance regarding the news content.
While we cannot communicate with European commuters reading a printed pro-Palestinian story on the metro, we do possess the means for reaching out to them if they are reading said article on their mobiles
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 most responses and “Likes” get bumped up to the top of the comments section. Subsequently, their opinions will be read first by new readers who reach the end of the story. 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 simultaneously 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
The Act.il Operations Center during the Gaza demonstrations crisis | Photo: Yael Zur
I serve as the director of Act.il – a joint civilian initiative of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya and the Israeli-American Council (IAC). Our goal is to establish an international community acting in unison and in an organized fashion throughout the web, on behalf of the public image of the State of Israel. 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 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, which culminated in mid-May. 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 which participated with the aim of damaging the fence and attacking those 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 of Hamas: winning over the world public opinion, a goal for which it had no qualms paying for with human lives. Over several weeks of clashes, more than a hundred Palestinians were killed, most of whom were Hamas activists, while Israeli soldiers were not 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, here 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 situation rooms across the USA – Boston, New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia and California – to be ready for action.
The importance of pro-Israeli presence in social media should not be underestimated, as this is one of the most central fronts today in the battle over the narrative
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 – but 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-Israeli comments into these articles. It is important to mention that nothing is done automatically – every volunteer freely decides if and how they take part in these missions.
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 – “Like” our comments and add further comments on social media. Our efforts were focused and constant, ultimately paying off – we succeeded in bumping the pro-Israeli comments to the top of the list in 85% of the 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-Israeli messages.
One cannot and should not underestimate the importance of pro-Israeli presence in 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 and 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 painting 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 at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He is also director of the Public Diplomacy program at the Center, and served as Chairmen of the college student association. He appeared on the list of “Influential Israelis under 30” by Forbes Israel magazine.
(Photo courtesy of the author)