I mentioned in early September a forthcoming blogger conference in Israel as a way for Zionist forces to co-ordinate propaganda for the state. Let’s call them whores for Israel.
Evgeny Morozov, writing on his Foreign Policy blog, has a long post about the event and it’s worth quoting in full:
At the risk of stepping into Stephen Walt’s territory, I’d like to highlight one of the most remarkable developments in the Israeli blogosphere: the Second International Jewish Blogger Convention that took place in Jerusalem on Sept 13th and brought together 300 bloggers from Israel and the diaspora.
The Israeli government and civil society alike have recently been extremely active in cyberspace, especially in war time, when shaping the international opinion often becomes essential to achieving military objectives. The Israeli consulate in New York received a lot of praise for their Twittering during the recent war in Gaza; however, many other low-key initiatives have received considerably less attention.
For example, as the international outcry against the war in Gaza began… getting louder, Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry announced a campaign to recruit an “army of bloggers” made up of polyglot Israelis who could counter anti-Israel sentiment on English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and French sites. According to reports in Haaretz, after having registered with the ministry, the polyglot volunteers were directed to sites that authorities found “problematic” and engage in discussions that would offer a pro-Israeli point of view.Those pro-war Israelis who didn’t want to coordinate their actions with the government could use special software – called Megaphone (originally developed for the 2006 war with Lebanon)– which could alert them to new articles, blog posts, and online opinion polls that required a joint online reaction (the most loyal supporters could also help by relying on more ominous tools – including one called “Help Israel Win” designed by Israeli university students – which allowed to lend one’s computer power to participate in shady cyber-attacks on Palestinian web-sites).
The recent blogging convention fits withing a much broader effort to use social media for influencing international opinion. A detailed report about the convention in the Jerusalem Post says that the event featured workshops and panel discussions “aimed at advancing Jewish, Zionist and charitable causes”. Yishai Fleisher, a popular Israeli radio talk-show host, held a workshop called “Defending Israel through social media tools”. Fleisher urged the audience to pay attention to the smallest details. Thus, even the name of the blog could play an important role in influencing public opinion because when someone tries run a “search for the Palestinian resistance movement, you instead find a Jewish blog that actively promotes Israel.”
The quote from Ashley Perry, an adviser to Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, is quite revealing:
“The greatest threat to Israel and Zionism is Iran. As bloggers, as opinion shapers, we have to try to get people’s attention to this issue. Iran is threatening through its extremism, through its propaganda. But at the moment, we’re preaching to the choir… we need to reach out to Europe in particular – maybe 10 percent of the population are extremists either way and are ‘sold,’ but the middle 80% is up for grabs, and we’re losing that battle”.
I am surprised that there has been very little research into the effectiveness of Israel’s decentralized new media advocacy efforts and the impact they have had on the international opinion. Unlike Russia and China – the two countries that rely on social media and bloggers to shape domestic opinion – Israel has ventured internationally, tapping into its mighty and multilingual diaspora and providing them with enough space and autonomy to devise their own campaigns. Surely, there must be a way to track their aggregate influence on their respective domestic blogospheres?
If individual bloggers have, indeed, emerged as important opinion-makers that help to shape their country’s foreign policy and, in turn, how other countries respond to it, this would mark an intriguing period in the evolution of diplomacy. After all, what’s better: to have one’s foreign policy influenced by a bevy of lobbyists, NGOs, think-tanks and advocacy organizations or a decentralized army of patriotic bloggers? Or are the bloggers simply supplanting (and, perhaps, gradually displacing) the more traditional actors of the informal lobbies? One thing about bloggers as lobbyists is that they do not leave a public trail of evidence: unlike think-tanks, most of them do not require funding and have no formal affiliation with a government whose policies they endorse. They may be benefiting from the skills that they learn at conventions like the one in Jerusalem but they behave as fully independent actors of civil society, deliberately distancing themselves from official institutions.
This makes it extremely difficult to accuse them of spreading propaganda or repeating the usual talking points: after all, they are acting as citizens rather than politicians. Consequently, what they say is usually treated in a much more serious fashion than the boilerplate of politicians. The state then emerges as a giant platform – or an API in computer-speak – which just needs to provide the resources and make it easy for them to network and connect to each other…
Perhaps Morozov is being too kind. Zionist bloggers have the right to campaign any way they want, but trying to constantly change the subject and avoid talking about the occupation or Gaza or the West Bank simply won’t work. Pro-Israel talking points are increasingly regarded as propaganda by vast numbers of people.
Spin will only get Israel so far. Could its international image sink any lower?