Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 2)

Published as: Andre Oboler, Online public diplomacy: When September comes (Part 2), Jerusalem Post Blog, July 31 2011

This is part two of an article on online public diplomacy and the challenge and opportunity September presents for Israel advocates. In the first part I explained what public diplomacy is and where it comes from. I concluded by noting the need for the involvement of more professionals, better resourcing for the online sphere, and a cultural change in favour of joint projects and greater cooperation between Israel’s supporters. In this continuation of the article I discuss the challenges we will face in more detail, and what we should be doing for online public diplomacy in support of Israel.

The battle we are facing in September, from the BDS movement to the unilateral declaration of statehood to Durban III, is about delegitimization. The battle began as an effort to brand Israel as evil using Apartheid South Africa as a metaphor, but today it is modeled on the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is a public diplomacy battle that seeks to dissolve Israel both from within and through external isolation from without.

The battle lines are clearly visible and many strong advocates of the left, who have opposed the occupation for decades, are now equally vocal in their opposition to a limited boycott, a declaration of a Palestinian State outside the framework of direct negotiations, and a declaration before Palestinian institutions are ready to run a state. They correctly see these moves as tactics to divide, conquer and ultimately erase the Jewish state from the pages of history. These moves are more about being anti-Israel than they are about being pro-Palestinian. Israel’s supporters have clear points of consensus; they can stand together if political differences on other topics can be ignored. This, however novel, is not what makes September different.

The real difference this September is that online advocacy will come into its own. September will be a month of advocacy on college campuses across North America since the Arab Spring. It will come at a time when activism on campuses is traditionally at a peek, the start of a new academic year. From North America, the power of social media will take the campaign global and connect it with other causes and campaigns. The Palestinian cause has a history of infiltrating other groups. We have seen the “Stop the War” coalition rebrand as “Stop the war – Free Palestine,” the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament adopted a “Hands of Iran” campaign. We need to be ready not only in North America, but in places as far apart as Europe, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. Social media will take this global.

At our end, efforts are also under way. Unfortunately they tend to be authorized by people with little to no understanding of social media. These people employ others who “sort of get it.” The result is very few experts and lots of people who think they are experts. Tactics that have been tried and reject years ago by the other side are now being promoted with much excitement by some Israel advocates. What few resources are dedicated to online advocacy are misspent. There is a lack of long term thinking, a lack of strategic analysis and planning, and a lack of online expertise. Being able to use Facebook does not make one a social media expert and getting lots of likes on a Facebook page does not itself count as a success. It may be the first step, but it is only the first step.

Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Blogs and all the other content sharing and social media platforms are only a publicity channel. The real online public diplomacy work takes far more resources to create. It involves websites, videos, and dedicated social media accounts that will rapidly get large followings. It involves high quality content generation, access to celebrities, and enough of a splash to be noticed in the main stream media. Mostly though, it involves education.

Effective public diplomacy, even online, means sharing a story, a narrative, and connecting to people so they want to learn more. It means giving people confidence in their knowledge so they can engage in debate, correct misconceptions and take apart the delusional misrepresentation of Israel they see presented in public. None of this is unique to social media, but social media provides a channel these supporters of Israel, these advocates, can use to express themselves. The online resources give them something to share, something to comment on, and something to use to educate and challenge both themselves and their friends. The days when it was enough to parrot messages prepared by others are long past.

The Palestinian plans are openly published on the web, or distributed widely to lists with little or no security. Our efforts tend to be super secret with no Jewish or pro-Israel group knowing what any other is doing. Worse, every group feels the only initiatives worth perusing on the ones they create and the only campaign worth perusing is the one with their name and logo in 10 foot high letters. We don’t have a culture of cooperation, we have a culture of self interest. Social movements don’t mix well with such an environment. However good the content, unless people are willing to share it in their personal life, in their personal online space, the effort is wasted – and how the content is branded makes a huge difference to this.

Our leadership structure poses another problem. Those in leadership, and I am speaking specifically about those in the 45+ age group, need to realize things are now different and their vast experience is dated. The world has changed. The core philosophy of needing only a small handful of leaders, and working to maintain this core while disempowering many others, is the antithesis of what’s needed for modern leadership in an online world. The new model is one of networks, and of many people each contributing in their own way and each having their own level of creative input into ideas and taking ownership. Asking people to turn up for a rally or to like a Facebook page is no longer enough. Even if they do it, they are not involved enough to become advocates for the cause.

Within organizations, those in control of budgets usually don’t get social media and are unwilling to commit resources. They expect everything on the internet to be free, every task done by volunteers, and anything that is done to be “good enough.” This attitude shows a complete disrespect both for the power of the medium and for the experts working in this field. Why do we respect our lawyer and accountants when asking them for advice, but not show that respect for our computer science, information technology, and digital media graduates? Until we realize these people are very highly paid in their professional work, and their time is often worth as much as the lawyers and the doctors, we will have a problem. Until we start inviting many of them onto our boards and management committees, out lay-leadership will have a blind spot.

As September draws near, we need to put more attention on online public diplomacy. We need to stop focusing on what each of our organizations can do to get recognized. We need to stop focusing on how we can do the minimum necessary to look active without investing resource. We need to stop shifting the burden to our volunteers and asking them to repost organizational links. We need to decide if Israel is worth our commitment, and if it is we need to get serious.

We need to decide if we are ready to properly resource projects. We need to decide if we can afford to engage experts. We need to recognize the difference between a volunteer who is good at using social media and a social media professional. That last one is the difference between going to a first aider or a doctor when you are seriously ill. We need to start to work together, to share ideas, financial resources and even staff. We need to make getting the job done, and not getting the headlines, our goal. Unless we start to make a change, my prediction is that when September comes we will once again be caught napping. Let’s not miss this opportunity, let’s at least start the reform and modernization process.

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