Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 1)

Published as: Andre Oboler, Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 1), Jerusalem Post Blogs, 25 July 2011

As September draws near, both supporters of Israel and Palestinian activists are becoming more organized and are spending more time online planning, networking, and building both resources and infrastructure. As an expert in online advocacy, many of these plans end up on my desk. I receive not only the pro-Israel plans, but also copies of plans that Palestinian activists have been discussing – often with a note asking “what are we going to do about this?” This two part article discusses online public diplomacy for Israel and the threats and opportunity September provides.

Israel has always known the outcome of war is shaped by diplomats as much as it is by soldiers. Abba Eban’s role in the earlier years of the state, particularly at times of war, was phenomenal. Eban however engaged in more than simple diplomacy. He also invested his time heavily in the media and in meetings with American Jewry. This was a reflection of a changing reality. Along with diplomats and soldiers, public opinion started to play a role in determining the outcomes of war.

Governments soon started to respond to the need to have foreign populations think well of them, giving rise to the term “public diplomacy” which was coined in 1965. The formal history of public diplomacy however predates the coining of the terms, it goes back to the establishment of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953. USIA sought to manage the world’s perception of the United States as a force for good, and at its peak spent 2 billion dollars a year of tax payers money on this task.

Modern public diplomacy has taken a new twist. This is a result of a change in media consumption from a one way broadcast medium to a two way dialogue. The result has been a shift from broadcasting to recruiting members of the public, or segments of civil society, to share your message indirectly. This can also be done by boosting the volume of existing fringe groups.

The debate over boycott laws and the limits of civil society action in Israel is really a debate about the role foreign funding may play in Israeli politics, and specifically the use of foreign funding to boost fringe opinions. Perhaps most worrying is when foreign governments engage in such internal manipulation. This is clearly public diplomacy, and equally clearly, as documented by NGO Monitor, it has been used to fund delegitimization within Israel.

The debate surrounding the New Israel Fund (NIF) can be seen as another aspect of the public diplomacy battle. NIF have dodged and weaved rather than coming out with a clear statement saying either: (a) NIF will not support any organization who supports BDS, regardless of that organization’s aim, or (b) NIF will support Israeli civil society organizations regardless of their position on BDS, provided they promote Israel democracy. Either of these positions is legitimate for an Israeli civil society organization.

The problem so many are having, is that only one of these positions is consistent with being Pro-Israel and the other fuel anti-Israel public diplomacy both symbolically and financially. The second position effectively says: when there is a war on about democratic rights, we will play a role in the public diplomacy effort, but when the war is about the continued legitimacy of the state, we will not commit. That’s a pretty powerful message. To take the first position for a minute, imagine how powerful it would be for the message that BDS is off limits if organizations like NIF made it a condition of funding? With a position like that from NIF and the left generally, the entire boycott law debate may never have arisen.

More than the media, the battle ground today is online. Unlike mass media, social media is interactive. The audience is also the content producer, people do their own filtering, find their own sources, and share with their friends and wider networks. Those pushing an agenda, on all sides are constantly seeking to break into these networks; to make your circle of friends share their content. They are seeking to set limits and promote unity in their sphere of commonality with their target audience, and to use this to drive a wedge between their target audience and others. There are also larger online public diplomacy projects, most run by experts, which are actively seeking to shape public opinion.

Electronic Intifada is one of the best of these, and seems to only grow stronger each year. On our side, well established sites like my own Zionism On The Web, which have run voluntarily for years, are not updated as regularly as they should be. This is typical of sites heavily reliant on the voluntary contribution of a few experts and which are intrinsically linked to these volunteers. One of the most prolific volunteers was Ami Isseroff and with his passing an entire network of pro-Israel and pro-peace sites have lost their spark. Come September, I’m pretty sure we’re going to notice.

However you look at it, the Palestinian narrative is dominant online. They seem to have better resources, more professionals, and allies from the far right to the far left that promote their narrative. They also work well together, sharing resources, content, and campaigns. The Jewish community’s own way of operating is ill-suited to the online world and problems in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora exacerbate our difficulties. September provides both a threat and an opportunity. If we are open to change, to cooperation, and to funding increased professionalism in the online activity of our communities, September could see significant growth and re-engagement with both Israel and local communities across the Jewish world. If not, well, it will be business as usual as we slip further and further behind.

Part two will discuss more of what we should be doing and what challenges we will face.

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