Ilan Shturman, Deputy Director of the Israeli Department of Public Relations at the Ministry of Foreign AffairsNIS 600,000 from the Israeli Foreign Ministry budget will be devoted this year to the establishment of a professional team of talkback writers who will flood websites throughout the world with pro-Israeli messages. Senior Ministry official: “When we expand, we will also work in promoting Israeli companies throughout the world.”
After becoming an integral part of the services provided by advertising and public relations firms, professional talkback writers are being enlisted in state service. The Israeli Foreign Ministry is establishing a team of students and discharged soldiers who will work around the clock in writing pro-Israeli talkbacks on internet sites throughout the world, and will participate in discussions concerning Israel in international blogs and in sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The project will be managed by the Department of Public Relations in the Foreign Ministry and will be a part of it. In the 2009 government budget this project is dubbed “Internet Combat Campaign”, a name given to distinguish it from the existing public relations units, and thus enabling it to receive a separate budget. Although its size was not published, sources in the Foreign Ministry reported to Calcalist that it will be approximately NIS 600,000 in its first year, and will be expanded in the future. From the initial budget, approximately NIS 200,00 will be invested in round the clock activities on Twitter.
“The internet is an arena in every way in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we must act here or otherwise we lose,” says Ilan Shturman, Deputy Director of the Department of Public Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the direct supervisor of the project’s establishment. “Our achievements to date in public relations via the internet are impressive in comparison to the resources allocated thus far, but the other side also invests money in the internet. There are endless pro-Palestinian websites, with huge budgets, rich in information and video clips which everyone can download and publish on their own sites. They flood the internet with material in English from the Hamas news agency. This is a well-greased campaign. Our goal is to penetrate into the world in which these discussions are being held, and in which news and video-clips are sent onwards to blogs, social networks and news sites of all sites. We are going to bring to these places a pro-Israeli voice. The proof for the need of an operational arm such as this is what is currently happening in Iran,” adds Shturman. “It’s not that a few of the guys will bring down the government through messages on Tweeter, but it helps to expand the struggle into bigger dimensions.”
The Foreign Ministry will enlist young people who speak at least one foreign language and who study communications, political science or law, or have a background in military units involving data analysis. “This is a young language,” explains Shturman. “Older people don’t know how to write in blogs, how to act there, what the accepted manners are. The fundamental condition is a strong ability of expression in English, although we also have French and Swedish speakers, and an understanding on the online world. We are looking for people who already write blogs and are hanging around Facebook.”
Staff of the new unit will work from the Ministry (“they will clock themselves in” says Shturman) and will enjoy full technical support from the body responsible for the computer infrastructures and internet services for government offices. “Their tasks will be defined in accordance with the lines of government policy they will be asked to defend on the internet. This could be the situation in the Gaza Strip, the situation in the North or anything else we determine. We will define to which audiences in the world we wish to reach through the internet and the strategy through which we will reach them, and the workers will implement this on the ground. They will of course not distribute spokesperson’s announcements, but will craft the conversations themselves. We will also employ a ‘monitoring’ system on the internet—people will follow blogs, the BBC and Arab websites.”
According to Shturman the project will begin with a small budget, but there exist plans to expand the team and its tasks: “the new center can also serve as support for Israel as an economic and commercial entity”, he said. “Alternative energy, for example, currently interests the American public and Congress more than the conflict in the Middle East. If in the framework of my project I can enter blogs focused on alternative energy and push names of Israeli companies, I will strengthen the image of Israel as a developed country which contributes to the environment and humanity, and together with this perhaps I’ll manage to help an Israeli company receive contracts for millions of dollars. The economic potential here is huge, but for this we will require a large number of people. The singularity of the internet is the division into various communities, each one with its own interests. And to each community like this we need to bring the specific content that interests it.”
Inspiration: Hidden Advertising on the Internet
The inspiration, admits the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, comes from the maligned area of financed commercial talkbacks: workers of companies and public relations firms who write commercial and financed talkbacks on the internet that praise their employers. The paid talkback writers generally identify themselves as random readers responding to an article they read, or as “satisfied customers” of the company they praise.
Will Talkbackers in the Project Disguise Themselves as “Regular Internet Surfers”?
“Of course,” said Shturman. “Our people will not say ‘Shalom, I am from the public relations campaign of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and this is what I wanted to say to you.’ They will not necessarily identify themselves as Israelis, they will speak as internet surfers and as citizens, and will write responses that look personal but are founded on a pre-prepared list of messages that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will draw up.”
Testing Out the Tools during the War in Gaza
Shturman relates that although the project is only now receiving funding and for which a special department is being created in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in actuality the Ministry is employing talkback writers already since the last war in Gaza, during which the Ministry enlisted volunteers. “During ‘Operation Cast Lead’ we turned to Jewish communities abroad and with their assistance enlisted several thousand volunteers, to whom Israeli volunteers joined. We sent them background and public relations material and sent them to represent the Israeli perspective in the news websites on the internet,” says Shturman. “Our target audience then was the European Left, which was not friendly towards the government policy. We therefore began to get involved in discussions on blogs in England, Spain and Germany, very hostile environments.”
And How Much Have You Already Managed To Change?
"It is difficult to prove success in such actions, but it’s clear that we succeeded in bypassing the European television channels, which are most critical toward Israel, and generated direct dialogue with the communities.”
What Things Did You Do There?
“For example, we sent someone to write in the websites of a left-wing group in Spain. He went in and wrote ‘It is not exact what you are saying’. Someone on the website responded and we answered again, bringing evidence, photographs. Such dialogue opens people’s eyes.”
Alon Gilad, a Foreign Ministry staffer who coordinated the talkback volunteers during the war in Gaza and who will coordinate the hired talkback writers in the new project, relates that the volunteers came spontaneously. “Often people turn to us and ask how they can help with public relations. They do this primarily during periods such as that of Operation Cast Lead. People simply requested information, and afterwards we saw that the information was disseminated to many places on the internet. The Ministry of Absorption also did an operation back then, and sent us hundreds of volunteers who know foreign languages, who assisted in disseminating this information. Also in this new project we will be primarily disseminating information on the internet.”
“Impossible to Win”
While a majority of the surfers were enlisted through sites such as www.giyus.org, which was officially maintained by the Jewish lobby, in several cases it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that initiated contact with surfers, and asked them to publish talkbacks supportive of government policy and to help in finding volunteers. This is how Michal Karmi, an active blogger, was enlisted in the online campaign.
“During Operation Cast Lead the Foreign Ministry wrote to me and other bloggers and asked that we reflect our opinions also in the international arena,” notes Karmi. “They gave us pages with ‘talking points’ and sent us many many video clips. I focused on activity in Facebook, and here and there I wrote responses in blogs that mentioned words such as ‘Holocaust’ and ‘murder’ in the context of the action in Gaza. I had extremely difficult conversations. Occasionally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that we go into specific blogs and intervene in the conversations that developed.”
Did it Work?
“I am not certain that this strategy was correct. The Ministry did excellent work, flooded us with precise information, but they focused on the Israeli suffering and the missile threat. Yet the vision of the Europeans is one-dimensional. The Israeli suffering does not appear relevant vis-à-vis the Palestinian suffering.”
“You cannot win in this struggle. It is possible to just be there and express our opinions,” summarizes Gilad the efficacy of the actions to date, and his expectations of the actions when they will be financed by the government budget.
This article originally appeared in Calcalist on 5 July 2009. Translated from Hebrew by the Alternative Information Center.