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November 26, 2012

Israel finally joins the online arms race

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/israel_finally_joins_the_online_arms_race

Students at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) work on the "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page. Photo by Simone Wilson

Students at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) work on the "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page. Photo by Simone Wilson

Mere hours after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) took down their first Hamas official at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, an army of young Israelis took to the Internet. Not to be out-tweeted by the people of Gaza and their supporters around the world, as has been the case in Israel-Palestinian conflicts past, hundreds of college-aged millenials uploaded the Israeli perspective onto a Facebook page called "Israel Under Fire."

The account has since racked up an impressive 27,000-plus followers. And although it was founded by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy in Jerusalem with the help of young volunteers, one of its most vital command centers was located an hour north — in a glass-walled classroom at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), a small private college along the Israeli coast.

Armed exclusively with the password to the "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page, the IDC volunteers created a sort of meme factory in this room adjacent their campus library. One row of computers was devoted to quick Photoshop jobs such as slapping captions onto images of Gaza rocket damage, or depicting the world’s other major cities under siege; another row was staffed by international students who translated these perfect little shareables into more than 20 languages; and yet another row funneled all the material into an online dropbox, which could then be accessed by volunteers and their contacts the world over.

By way of this rapidly growing friend network, the “Israel Under Fire” posts — such as an image of rockets flying over Times Square, with the caption: “Would you be willing to live like this for one day? How about 12 years??” — were viewed by millions, according to the site’s administrators.

At the height of the Gaza conflict last week, lead organizer Yarden Ben Yosef was eager to tell his startup story.

He and some close friends initially reached out to the Israeli government, he said, "because we understood that the Palestinian side was so strong in new media. In my opinion, maybe it’s because government [in Gaza] is less organized — because they don’t have a department for advocacy."

Indeed. Despite the fact that the Israeli government has been hiring lots of new social-media hands, according to Eddie Yair Fraiman, director of new media for the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, these paid PR experts lack, by definition, the air of sincerity and authenticity — street cred, you could call it — that any image or story needs to go viral.

Fraiman stressed over the phone that it was he who first “decided to go viral with the page.”

However, many student organizers said they felt their work had succeeded in large part because of the distance they’d put between themselves and public officials. Ben Yosef, head organizer at IDC, noted that "when we speak with the government, we see that they don’t understand this medium.”

The Prime Minister’s office knew all too well that if Israel was to avoid being painted as a ruthless baby-killer this time around, Operation Pillar of Defense would need to be narrated by real Israeli citizens caught in the crossfire — through a personalized, relatable feed of instant wartime updates.

And it was Israel’s Gen-Y, speaking social media as an innate second language, who had the peer-to-peer legitimacy to make it happen.

Although the Israeli prime minister and president likewise have huge social-media followings, their Facebook and Twitter posts are impeccably starched. And even further biased (for obvious reasons) is the IDF's official Twitter account, which like its Hamas counterpart has achieved global infamy for framing the conflict like a videogame — complete with Dr. Evil sneers. (For example: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.")

Government officials claim to have contributed zero funding to the “Israel Under Fire” effort. Instead, they've showered young volunteers in praise and encouragement; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even called them up last week for a face-to-face video chat, thanking them for their "very important work."

Netanyahu told the volunteers in Hebrew: "What you are doing greatly strengthens us on the public diplomacy front. We must fight for the truth, for the facts, and your help is worth more than gold."

The private college where students were stationed also gave up space and resources to support the effort.

Last week, IDC’s Vice President for Student Affairs showed up to the command center with boxes of chocolates. “It’s something very extraordinary, what they’re doing there,” she boasted of her students.

A young man named Tal, who didn’t want to give his last name, sat at the row of computers designated for "data collection,” where volunteers watched what was going viral, and filled comment sections on anti-Israel news stories with pro-Israel arguments.  As his eyes flicked down the screen, Tal explained: "I think there was a lack of awareness on our end [during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010], which is literally a crime. There was a complete misunderstanding that current modern warfare has gone in the direction of social media. The Palestinians understood that."

It's tough to compete with photos of dead children — a constant stream of which have been uploaded from within the Gaza Strip. But overall, judging by the overwhelming online response to "Israel Under Fire" and photos of support from Los Angeles to Berlin, the Israeli campaign (and other civilian social-media efforts like it) waged a war that the IDF never could.

As one female student, Adi Kadussi, put it: "If we weren't doing this, all the world will see is only the crap about Israel. We want to show the balance."

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