Lifting a frothy cappuccino with one hand and scribbling scraggly Hebrish notes with the other, David Saranga severed himself from his Twitter feed to sit down at a Midtown espresso bar last Monday, armed only with his BlackBerry and pocket-size digital camera.
Saranga, Israel’s consul for media and public affairs in the Israel Consulate, has led the consulate to the frontlines of a cyber battle that aims to spread Israel’s message to as many people as possible and create an instant dialogue with public opinion, he said. As the Israel Defense Forces faces Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israelis and Palestinians are engaging in a simultaneous online media war, fueled by real-time blog updates, talkbacks, YouTube video feeds and social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
By employing these tools, both supporters and opponents of Israel are changing the face of wartime activism — they are able to bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to readers, who in turn can influence their home governments, according to both Saranga and many other new media users who spoke to The Jewish Week.
“In the past, governments, organizations and so forth used to communicate their message through the media, a third party — something that caused Israel a lot of problems,” Saranga said. “All of a sudden I have a method of directly transferring my message and sharing my thoughts with the public.”
As war strategies change, so too must public diplomacy, Saranga argues, a lesson that he feels Israel learned in part during 2006.
“Unfortunately during the war in Lebanon our new media efforts weren’t as powerful, but let’s not forget that two and a half years have passed and the new media and technology world has developed,” he said.
Saranga began to make headway in the online public opinion battle when he founded Isrealli.org, the official blog of the State of Israel, back in 2006 and quickly went on to create MySpace, Facebook and YouTube accounts for Israel, he said. When the war began three weeks ago in Gaza, he decided to revive another blog called IsraelPolitik and open two Twitter accounts — one in his own name and one for the Israel Consulate. Twitter gives users the ability to constantly update their status: to let the world know what they’re doing, what they’re reading or even what their mood is at that moment, all in “tweets” of 140 characters or less. For Saranga, this limited space serves as a quick method to keep the public updated with short notes and links to IsraelPolitik blog entries.
“My sense is that their goal is to try and be an official representative without being any more biased than a particular country’s consulate is already going to be,” said Jill Zimon, a noted political blogger. “They’re doing a pretty good job — they aren’t full of invectives and hyperboles.”
Saranga said that he decided to use Twitter after witnessing the success of President-Elect Barack Obama’s smooth implementation of new media in his campaign. Obama currently has over 165,000 Twitter followers. Another inspiration for the Israeli Consulate was the terror attack in Mumbai, during which people communicated via Twitter from all over the globe, sharing moment-by-moment news updates.
“The young generation is not following the mainstream media,” Saranga said, noting that commercials during televised newscasts tend to be geared toward the elderly population. “This is what the world should get used to. This is the language you should speak.” Just as he would converse in Spanish to a native Spanish speaker, Saranga continued, he “tweets” with the population that is fluent in cyber-speak.
“My hope continues to be that when people engage on the Internet, especially because we’re sitting at our desk and are not face to face, it should be easier to debate tough questions,” added Zimon, who scours live blogs like “The Muqata” and “Israellycool” that are closely monitoring the war’s progression.
Not only do so many young people prefer to get their wartime news from online feeds, but many also said they are disillusioned by mainstream media sources.
“We feel that Israel’s military action to protect its citizens is being portrayed very inaccurately in the media,” said Lance Laytner of Fuel for Truth, a volunteer organization of Jewish young professionals, who gathered last Friday for a rally in front of the Fox News building in Manhattan. Chanting mantras like “never again” and bringing in a fake Hamas militant, the several hundred attendees waved 1,000 cardboard Kassam rockets in protest of the mainstream media’s coverage of Israel. “We have not been fans of coverage in The New York Times and the L.A. Times, and we feel that CNN’s coverage has been quite skewed,” Laytner said.
And as the Israeli government and citizen journalists continue to tweet and post YouTube videos, they say they are hoping to provide the factual, immediate information that young people so crave.
Like the New York Israel Consulate, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit also has a Twitter account, through which it links to its own live blog updates throughout the day. The IDFspokesperson.com blog posts include a range of multimedia content, including videos of air strikes and daily military recaps, focusing on the facts rather than spewing opinions, an IDF spokesman said.
Along the same lines, a Facebook and Twitter application called QassamCount can automatically update users’ status every time a rocket lands in Israel, through sources like YNetNews.com, Ha’aretz and the IDF. In its first three days of operation, QassamCount membership grew virally to 10,000 subscribers, according to its creator, Dan Peguine.
“I think it has a tremendous effect because it’s simple and factual. We never take any position, we don’t say how we feel about the war in Gaza — we just give the facts,” Peguine said. “[Subscribers] are doing a huge thing for Israel’s public relations because they’re informing their friends who might not know or care or have access to the information.”
“It’s very easy to see the pictures now and take sides,” he continued. “At least this way we bring forward some information that they don’t know.”
In yet another effort to provide instant, factual information and through online mechanisms, Marty Davis of the World Zionist Organization created a Facebook “event” with the help of his son Seth, called “I support ASHKELON and the South of Israel.” During a four-day virtual rally rooted in the city of Ashkelon, approximately 15,000 Facebook members argued, exchanged YouTube clips and wrote sympathetic messages to the city’s residents this past weekend, said Davis, who is the director of the Department for Zionist Activities there.
Yet the new media wartime explosion is by no means limited to supporters of the Israeli government. Fervently pro-Palestinian Twitter member “Gazanews,” for example, has nearly 2,000 followers, and Al-Jazeera’s online edition has a special Twitter feed called “AJGaza,” with over 5,200 subscribers as of Tuesday evening.
With no clear victor in the online media war, both sides will push on, and the Israel Consulate intends to maintain the Twitter account long after the current conflict is over.
“In wars there are no winners. There are no total victories,” Saranga said. “If we are looking at the balance, then there isn’t a knockout.”
Signup for our weekly email newsletter at this link