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Israel to amp up its side in the cyber war

  • paula_slier
During one of my assignments with pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, I found myself in the direct firing line of the Ukrainian military. Wearing a helmet and bulletproof jacket with the word “Press” emblazoned across both, I assumed I had some level of protection.
by PAULA SLIER | Mar 15, 2018

But I’ll never forget a fighter asking me to remove the signs because, as he explained to me, identifying myself as a journalist put me more at risk. In today’s world, no longer is the journalist perceived as a neutral observer, but rather, as an information soldier in the growing number of battles being fought online.

The eight-day Israel-Hamas conflict in 2012 was the turning point. From the moment an Israeli airstrike killed Ahmed Jabari, Hamas’ military wing chief, the world’s first social media war erupted.

The Israeli Defence Forces and Hamas started sharing clips on YouTube and posting messages on Facebook and Twitter.

At the same time, civilians on both sides uploaded pictures and videos in real time, alongside blogs, stories and links. This became a high-intensity virtual war, aimed at capturing the hearts and minds of viewers.

Fast forward to 2014, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped while hitchhiking home. The next day, four friends – motivated by “the international media’s deafening silence” – shared a flurry of phone calls and messages that led to an online campaign, #BringBackOurBoys. One of the friends was Ido Daniel, now senior director for digital strategy at Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs and public diplomacy.

“Each of us represented a different background, organisation and outlook,” said Daniel, “but we all agreed to put aside our differences and work towards helping garner support for Gilad, Naftali and Eyal [the three teenagers] around the world.

“The next two and a half weeks were intense, but they also highlighted the teamwork possible among the pro-Israel networks… The spirit of online activism for Israel was inscribed into history.”

With this in mind, this week marked the first time ever that the ministry of strategic affairs and public diplomacy brought together in Jerusalem many leading pro-Israel social media experts from across the world. The aim was to “unite and develop the tools necessary to fight BDS and share the truth about Israel”, according to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

Erdan stressed that one of the best ways to fight anti-Israel delegitimisation was to promote co-operation and knowledge-sharing among pro-Israel supporters online. This way, they can help one another and lead co-ordinated initiatives and campaigns in real time.

“The challenges facing Israel in the social media arena are significant and many,” said Erdan. “The anti-Semitic hate campaign known as BDS uses social media to intimidate artists, harass companies and threaten academics who plan to come to Israel. However, the challenges go beyond just BDS. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas use social media to create a culture of hatred and incite terror.

“At the same time, online media uses edited videos and misleading headlines to delegitimise Israel’s efforts to defend itself. The result is that social media has become a weapon in the hands of those who legitimise violence against Israel.”

The conference comes as the Israeli government amps up efforts to counter international anti-Israel campaigns.

Erdan recently pushed a decision through Cabinet to create a shared civil-governmental entity to provide a speedy, co-ordinated response against attempts to smear Israel’s image on the world stage.

The minister has repeatedly said that Israel boycott organisations are well co-ordinated and financed, and that Israel needs to match them with similar such initiatives.

Speaking at the conference, David Keyes, the Israeli prime minister’s spokesperson to foreign media, observed that traditional media was slowly dying and that, because “we live in a world where one picture replaces everything, short videos are the future”.

Yaron Fishelson of ACT.IL, an online community based on the experiences of university students who rallied together to support Israel during the last two wars with Hamas, stressed consistency in getting the message out. “We need to be working continuously, not only during war times,” he remarked.

In trying to bring together the “many Israeli supporters out there who sometimes don’t know how to help or support”, the app ACT.IL has been launched. It is the first of its kind. It crowdsources pro-Israeli activists around the world to leverage the power of communities to support Israel’s image and fight against its demonisation.

A theme echoed by various speakers was to apply the power of harnessing talent that already existed to identify people or organisations already creating content that could be used in the pro-Israel campaign, and bring them on board.

As one delegate remarked: “It might seem as though the whole world is against us, but social media shows us this is not true.”

In the coming weeks, the strategic affairs ministry will launch an upgraded 4IL website, focused on thwarting anti-Israel delegitimisation and BDS initiatives. The site will serve as a one-stop-shop digital platform for collecting and distributing materials for the pro-Israel network. Services will include video distribution, articles, caricatures, information, events and op-eds, all of which will be freely available for distribution, including in a number of different languages.

Perhaps this means we will see a very different view of Israel from now on...

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers

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