Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Does Social Media Give Israel An Advantage in Public Diplomacy?

Bennett Ruda, The Jewish Press, December 25, 2018

cropped image
Image from article

One of the last speakers to address the recent Jewish New Media Summit was Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He spoke on the topic of “Israel and the Media: Challenges and Opportunities.”

Nahshon noted that there are between 250 and 300 foreign journalists posted in Israel on a permanent basis, even while the nature of media in the 21st century is changing. “Classical” media is in a battle with social media, and losing its importance.

This change impacts on how the Foreign Ministry now does business. As Nahshon puts it:
“Talking to journalists is one thing, but conducting public diplomacy [JB emphasis] on social media is something totally different”
Though we tend to think that the image of Israel in the world is not necessarily positive, Nahshon believes that actually, the reality is a little bit different — it depends on where and how you look.

Israel’s New Image

He noted that in major parts of the world, Israel is actually perceived in a positive way. The key is that there are people who look at Israel not only through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but in a larger way. This is especially true in areas such as Latin America, Africa, India, China, and Eastern Europe.

The Foreign Ministry conducts public opinion polls regularly, asking people in those areas what comes to mind when they hear the name Israel, and they usually give positive responses, such as:
  • Water management
  • Desalinization
  • Agriculture
  • Security
  • High tech
  • Medicine
  • Literature and art
Nahshon’s point, about changing the prism through which people see Israel, from one of conflict to one of Israel’s achievements, was suggested 10 years ago.

In 2008, an article in The Canadian Jewish News described a new effort in “branding” Israel, outlined by Ido Aharoni:
Aharoni said the ministry has conducted market research over the past few years that showed “Israel is viewed solely through the narrow prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict… Israel’s personality is 90 per cent dominated by conflict-related images and some religious connotations,” he said. “Those of us who know the brand intimately are disturbed by the divergence of brand and the perception.”
 …aspects of Israel are worthy of promotion, including its culture and arts; its accomplishments on environmental matters such as water desalination, solar energy and clean technology; its high-tech successes and achievements in higher education; and its involvement in international aid, he added. [emphasis added]
Apparently, the branding effort has been a success.

The Remaining Challenge

According to Nahshon, the biggest challenge facing Israel is in Western Europe and some of the media outlets in the North American continent. Just because Israel has a relatively positive image in Africa and Latin America does not mean it can ignore the negative media in those areas, where Israel is viewed mostly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This view of Israel persists there, despite the best efforts to explain that Israel is more than just that conflict, and that conflict is not at the heart of the existence of Israel.

The reason some do see the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as the heart of what Israel is about is because the foreign media assigned to Israel tends to report mostly on the issue of the conflict. They see the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the ones the editor will want to publish and that the public will want to see.

There remains a lot of work to be done to change that perception. Changing this perception of the media is something that Matti Friedman addressed when he spoke at the Summit.

He said it couldn’t be done.

Nahshon says he explains to foreign journalists that there is more to see in Israel – not in an effort to hide the conflict, but to show there is more to Israel.

But the journalists are not interested. There seems to be a very rigid mind-set among journalists that the context has to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that solving it will bring peace. As if the responsibility for tensions is on Israel’s shoulders, and if only Israel would do x or y, things would be wonderful.

On the contrary, solving the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will do nothing more than solve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Israel’s Success in the Arab World

In parallel to its efforts in other parts of the world, the Foreign Ministry is working with social media in the Arab world and keeping track of the perceptions of Israel in the Arab world and in Iran.

In the last few years, this perception is becoming increasingly positive.

The Foreign Ministry does polls in the Arab world via international companies and there is a changing perception whose beginnings can be traced back to the Arab spring.

This change in perception can also be tied to the advent of smartphones, which Nahshon describes as a big instrument for change because they enable the free flow of information.

As he puts it: if you are a young Arab person “no one can tell you lies about Israel anymore because you can check it personally.”

(This may be a bit too optimistic, seeing how there is nothing to stop the free flow of lies — as we regularly see on Facebook and Twitter.)

Israel’s Foreign Ministry invests a lot of time, effort and energy on developing contacts with the Arab world via social media and has millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The idea is to reach young people, without telling them what to think or what to do.

According to Nahshon:
“We have abandoned any concept of propaganda…a long time ago”
Instead, the goal is to present the Israeli reality in all of its complexity, but also all of its beauty. He says the results are extremely convincing and extremely positive and that people are happy to receive Israeli videos and posts on Facebook. They understand that Israel is not only not the problem in the Middle East, but Israel is part of the solution.

This change in perception is the basis of the recent major diplomatic developments:

  • Netanyahu visiting Oman
  • Gradual normalization with the Gulf states
  • Possible changes we may see with Saudi Arabia

    When the president of Chad visited Israel, he did not visit because he suddenly became a Zionist. Rather, he understands that Israel is able to provide the means to help his own country, with expertise in the area of agriculture, water management, and security.

    That is why Arab countries want closer ties with Israel.

    But also, the Arab Street is no longer brainwashed against Israel — because, going back to his earlier point, the Arab leaders understand that brainwashing is no longer a viable option: they can no longer tell their people lies, because they can see the truth for themselves.

    According to Nahshon, we are just at the beginning of a revolution, a major change.

    Nahshon certainly paints an optimistic picture, even while admitting the problems that remain. Judging by developments in the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states, it is hard to deny that there is something to what he says.

    Yet it is hard not to see social media as a two-edged sword. If it can be used as a tool to enhance Israel’s image in the world, it can be — and has been — used as a weapon to damage that image as well.

    The New Media still presents challenges as well as opportunities.

    Bennett Ruda has been blogging at daledamos.blogspot.com for 13 years. He is active on Google Plus, while also posting under his blog pseudonym on Facebook and Twitter. He lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he lives with his wife, two children and 2 cats.
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