Friday, April 1, 2016

Digital diplomacy in Arab world is an uphill battle

Niv Elis, Jerusalem Post

Image from article, with caption: Computer keyboard with an Iranian flag

The ministry tries to target and engage with social media “influencers,” who have large followings.

The social media age may have ushered in unprecedented methods of communication between governments and peoples, but Israeli efforts to engage the Arab world through public diplomacy face tough challenges.

“I would like to give people glasses so that they will see better the Israel that I would like them to see, the Israel beyond the stereotype,” said Noam Katz, who runs public diplomacy projects in the Foreign Ministry.

Yet despite efforts to create official Arabic-language social media pages in several countries, the government has managed to amass a combined 881,000 Facebook and 80,000 Twitter followers to its Arab accounts. Of those, 83% are men ages 18-34.

Among the roughly 156 million estimated Internet users in the Arab world, that’s a drop in the bucket.

In order to overcome that problem, the ministry tries to target and engage with social media “influencers,” who have large followings.

Another difficulty comes from the usage of Israel’s official seal on the pages, which sets off red flags in the Arab world, and often causes ugly backlash.

“It’s not a tool of propaganda, because I won’t convince anyone in the Arab world to vote for Benjamin Netanyahu or support Israel,” Katz said.

But the goals are more modest; efforts can lead to conversations that portray Israel in a less negative light, and change some perceptions about it.

A Google search of “Israel” in Arabic, Katz said, returns images of soldiers and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ministry wants to show off Israel’s other sides.

Katz was speaking at a digital diplomacy conference, a first in Israel, held at Tel Aviv University.

Guests from 25 countries discussed the ways their governments had sought to engage with local populations, or keep track of their own expats, a seemingly more simple task.

For example, Sebastian Beaulieu, executive director for Middle East relations at Global Affairs Canada, discussed how simple photos of the Canadian ambassador in Tunisia enjoying a typical Tunisian lunch went viral, or how they managed to attract local attention by allowing local graffiti artists to paint murals on the embassy walls.

They, too, took some risks.

Beaulieu said theirs was the first Canadian embassy in the Middle East/North Africa region to post a gay pride flag on the International Day Against Homophobia.

“All the comments were not positive, and we didn’t expect them to all be positive,” he said.

But net, they gained more followers than the ones they lost.

“More importantly, it got conversations going,” he said.

Canada also discussed how social media helped it track its missing citizens in Nepal after a devastating earthquake there.

A Finnish representative talked about gathering support through a national emoji project.

But for Israel in the Arab world, the challenges were far greater, and the ministry is still relying on trial and error to see what works.

Articles in Arabic media that discouraged citizens from interacting with Israel online could be seen either as a setback, or a sign that such interaction is indeed meaningful.

There were also questions as to whether Israel is putting the right message at the core of its public diplomacy effort. Katz, for example, said one of the points the government wants to convey is that Israel has military might.

“There’s always room for nuance, and nuance gets lost in 140 characters,” said Jay Rosen, COO of the Xhibition Creative Agency, who argued that there should be effort to coordinate with private sector actors.

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