It has become commonplace to describe the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as Facebook or Twitter revolutions; and almost as commonplace to respond that the role of social media in popular insurgencies has been exaggerated. Less attention, however, has been paid to states’ use of these technologies as PR and counterinsurgency tools.
Look at Israel, for instance. Over the last few years, a growing number of Israeli ministries and other state institutions have taken up Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and YouTube to disseminate the official line and to manage Israel’s international reputation, particularly during times of military confrontation. For Israel, there is a proud contrast here with its Arab neighbours, which have tended to see the internet as a dangerous vehicle of popular insurgency, to be repressed rather than harnessed. In the past year alone, Israeli budgets for social media work have increased dramatically. The learning curve has been steep and uneven, as senior officials are quick to admit, while the long-term political effects of the project remain to be seen: it’s too early to say what their impact will be on Israeli relations with neighbouring Arab countries, on international perceptions of the Israeli regime, or on the lives of Palestinians living under occupation.
After the failed Israeli military campaign in Lebanon in 2006, a new body called the National Information Directorate was set up to manage media relations in times of military crisis. In January 2010, an Internet and New Media department was established in the prime minister’s office, responsible for co-ordinating internet work across government branches and ministries with the aim of improving ‘public relations advocacy’. By last August, the prime minister’s office had launched its own YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook accounts, the last of them updated in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Two weeks ago, Binyamin Netanyahu became the third world leader, after Barack Obama and David Cameron, to be interviewed live on YouTube – this from a man famous for spurning the traditional news media, both domestic and international.
The Israel Defence Forces dates its involvement in social media from an experimental YouTube venture initiated by two young soldiers in the early days of the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2008-9. Some of the videos uploaded by the IDF – including aerial footage of the assault and video blogs from spokespeople – were watched more than two million times. The IDF used YouTube for another sustained publicity campaign after the deadly raid on the relief flotilla last May. But the broad circulation of military-sponsored videos of the event did little to temper the fierce international condemnation of Israel’s actions, strengthening the case for a more substantial state commitment to social media. The IDF’s Twitter account, active since October 2009, is updated around the clock with official announcements; a Flickr photostream was launched six months ago. The IDF also gives frequent briefings to international bloggers, and has plans to embed bloggers on future military missions.
This odd hybrid of popular new media practices and more traditional modes of statecraft owes a lot to the ‘digital diplomacy’ practised in Washington, where ‘government 2.0’ has been pioneered. The head of the Israeli Internet and New Media department’s first fact-finding trip last year was to meet with members of the White House and State Department new media teams. But ‘there are no rules about how to bring the government into Facebook,’ a senior staff member from the prime minister’s office told me. ‘We have to invent them.’
The shift away from an official military idiom towards the language of personalised informality hasn’t been easy for the IDF. Facebook, with its high level of interactivity, is thought to present the best opportunity but also the biggest obstacle. The standard Facebook template, with a ‘wall’ which anyone can write on, is thought to be unfeasible, because of the barrage of comments expected from detractors. During the 2008-9 Gaza incursion, the IDF’s YouTube channel was initially left open to comments: it was closed the next day. IDF programmers are currently at work on an alternative, more tightly controlled template. Questions posted to the Facebook wall by everyday users will be screened and approved in advance, and then answered by IDF spokesmen; from there, users will be invited to participate in an open discussion forum.
Officials admit to being overwhelmed and understaffed when it comes to social media: just one person monitors the Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Facebook page, for example, and only during business hours. At the end of March, the Israeli Government Press Office took down its Facebook page two days after it launched, because it couldn’t cope with the wall posts of ‘anti-Israeli propagandists and hate spreaders’: comments like ‘Israel operates an entrenched system of racial apartheid’ had been rampant, much to the confusion of loyal subscribers who called for more active monitoring. In the same week, however, the state scored a Facebook victory when the site agreed to remove a page entitled ‘The Third Palestinian Intifada’ in response to pressure from Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and heightened public anxiety about the ways that Facebook was providing a platform for anti-Israeli incitement.
It’s still far from clear, however, how much control the state will be able to exert over Facebook and other social media sites. ‘We cannot but be impressed,’ the IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu recently said, ‘at how Western technology harms regimes… One cell phone camera can harm a regime more than any intelligence operation can.’ The regimes he had in mind were those toppled or threatened by popular uprisings in the Arab world. When I asked Israeli officials about the use of social media by anti-occupation activists, Jewish and Palestinian, on both sides of the Green Line, they didn’t want to talk about it. And none of them noted the resonance between the metaphorical Facebook wall and the concrete Separation Wall, both of which represent attempts by the state to control the political playing field.