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'The Israeli Foreign Ministry presents: talkbackers in the service of the State'

'The Israeli Foreign Ministry presents: talkbackers in the service of the State'

Categories: Latest News

Friday July 17 2009

Further to our item on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s use of ‘talkbackers‘ to ‘talk up’ Israel in online discussion forums, a Calcalist article translated from Hebrew into English explains and exposes the purpose of the venture and why the war of words is moving into the online realm:

The article reads:

The Foreign Ministry is in the process of setting up a team of students and demobilized soldiers who will work around the clock writing pro-Israeli responses on Internet websites all over the world, and on services like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.’

The project is described in the government budget for 2009 as the “Internet fighting team” – a name that was given to it in order to distinguish it from the existing policy-explanation team, among other reasons, so that it can receive a separate budget.”

“To all intents and purposes the Internet is a theatre in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we must be active in that theatre, otherwise we will lose,” Elan Shturman, deputy director of the policy-explanation department in the Foreign Ministry, and who is directly responsible for setting up the project, says in an interview with Calcalist.’

‘“Our policy-explanation (hasbara) achievements on the Internet today are impressive in comparison to the resources that have been invested so far, but the other side is also investing resources on the Internet. There is an endless array of pro-Palestinian websites, with huge budgets, rich with information and video clips that everyone can download and post on their websites. They are flooding the Internet with content from the Hamas news agency. It is a well-oiled machine. Our objective is to penetrate into the world in which these discussions are taking place, where reports and videos are published – the blogs, the social networks, the news websites of all sizes. We will introduce a pro-Israeli voice into those places. What is now going on in Iran is the proof of the need for such an operational branch,” adds Shturman. “It’s not like a group of friends is going to bring down the government with Twitter messages, but it does help to expand the struggle to vast dimensions.”

‘“Their missions will be defined along the lines of the government policies that they will be required to defend on the Internet. It could be the situation in Gaza, the situation in the north (Lebanon) or whatever is decided. We will determine which international audiences we want to reach through the Internet and the strategy we will use to reach them, and the workers will implement that on in the field. Of course they will not distribute official communiqes; they will draft the conversations themselves. We will also activate an Internet-monitoring team – people who will follow blogs, the BBC website, the Arabic websites.”

‘“Our people will not say: ‘Hello, I am from the policy-explanation department of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and I want to tell you the following.’ Nor will they necessarily identify themselves as Israelis. They will speak as net-surfers and as citizens, and will write responses that will look personal but will be based on a prepared list of messages that the Foreign Ministry developed.”

‘“During Operation Cast Lead we appealed to Jewish communities abroad and with their help we recruited a few thousand volunteers, who were joined by Israeli volunteers. We gave them background material and policy-explanation material, and we sent them to represent the Israeli point of view on news websites and in polls on the Internet,” says Shturman. “Our target audience then was the European Left, which was not friendly towards the policy of the government. For that reason we began to get involved in discussions on blogs in England, Spain and Germany, a very hostile environment.”

‘“It is hard to prove success in this kind of activity, but it is clear that we succeeded in bypassing the European television networks, which are very critical of Israel, and we have created direct dialogues with the public.”

‘While most of the net-surfers were recruited through websites like giyus.org, (Give Israel Your United Support) which was officially activated by a Jewish lobby, in some cases it was the Foreign Ministry that took the initiative to contact the surfers and asked them to post talkbacks sympathetic to the State and the government [of Israel] on the Internet and to help recruit volunteers.

‘“During Operation Cast Lead the Foreign Ministry wrote to me and other bloggers and asked us to make our opinions known on the international stage as well,” Michal Carmi tells Calcalist.

‘“They sent us pages with ‘taking points’ and a great many video clips. I focussed my energies on Facebook, and here and there I wrote responses on blogs where words like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘murder’ were used in connection with Israel’s Gaza action. I had some very hard conversations there. Several times the Foreign Ministry also recommended that we access specific blogs and get involved in the discussions that were taking place there.”

‘“I am not sure that that strategy was correct. The Ministry did excellent work, they sent us a flood of accurate information, but it focussed on Israeli suffering and the threat of the missiles. But the view of the Europeans is one-dimensional. Israeli suffering does not seem relevant to them compared to Palestinian suffering.”’

In the words of Sir Gerald Kaufman MP:

In welcoming the increased aid from the UK to Gaza, may I ask my right hon. Friend [David Miliband] to clarify the logic whereby we can send the Royal Navy to enforce an arms ban on Hamas while continuing to sell arms to Israel, after a conflict in which 1,200 Palestinians were slaughtered and four Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets? That is an exchange rate of one Israeli life for 300 Palestinian lives.’

Israeli suffering is not irrelevant at all. What concerns the international community, online or otherwise, is the ruse that the two sides in this conflict suffer equally.

Nonetheless, the technique of employing talkbackers to plant supportive messages suggests a certain desperation. Rona Kuperboim is right to argue that were Israel’s policies defensible to its population, Israelis would defend them without requiring financial incentives. On why such propaganda is doomed to fail, Kuperboim notes:

‘The reason is that good PR cannot make the reality in the occupied territories prettier. Children are being killed, homes are being bombed, and families are starved. Yet nonetheless, the Foreign Ministry wants to try to change the situation.’

For the concerned and discerning, the sort of change sought is not in upping the ante in the war of words, but progress in dismantling the illegal settlements in the West Bank, opening the border crossings in Gaza to trade and free movement of people, and, most importantly, progress in establishing a Palestinian state. All of this requires not words but deeds.

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