Israel presses internet PR campaign over Gaza

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The Israeli government is trying to pre-empt a publicity pounding over its Gaza offensive by aggressively pushing out its version of events, furiously tweeting and Facebook posting updates from a “media bunker.”

The instant they heard about a bus bombing in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, scores of tech-savvy youth in Israel's government media command center in Jerusalem sprang into action.

They began flooding social media with updates and created a graphic exclaiming: “We didn't send in our ground troops, but they sent in theirs! (at)IsraelUnderFire.”

In an operation attached to Israel's press office, hundreds of volunteers produce and post instant videos and graphics about the latest twists in the Gaza offensive from Israel's point of view. Its Facebook site, “Israel Under Fire,” has gained more than 24,000 “likes” over the last week.

Israel began its campaign of airstrikes in Gaza last week following months of rocket fire from Gaza-based Palestinian militants. More than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed in the violence.

“People need to put themselves in Israelis' shoes,” said Natan Epstein, 22, putting the finishing touches on an animation of Manhattan under a simulated rocket attack. “And luckily we don't need a biased media to help us do that anymore.”

“We're removing the media middle men,” said Daniel Seaman, deputy director general of Israel's Ministry of Public Diplomacy, as youth buzzed around with computers and smartphones. “They used to say the Elders of Zion controlled the media. Well, here are the youngsters of Zion who are running it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rallied the volunteers earlier this week in a video conference, where he reflected the widely held view among Israelis and many of their supporters that the news media are anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

“We are (operating) on four fronts: The military front, the home front, the diplomatic front and the public diplomacy front. We must fight for the truth, for the facts, and your help is worth more than gold ... refuting the industry of lies,” he said.

The Israeli military spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a self-described Twitter addict, heads a two-month-old “Interactive Media” branch, staffed with around 30 soldiers trained in writing and graphic design. She plans to devote full time to the new effort next year.

For its part, Hamas is countering Israel's Internet firepower with only an unverified Twitter account, though legions of pro-Palestinian activists around the world are peppering the internet with posts and tweets.

Media experts say that Israel's public relations campaign is just an extension of the traditional effort by government propaganda machines to dictate and control the media narrative during a conflict.

“The underlying reasons of Israel's propaganda are to silence the enemy, gain international support and justify wars,” says Helga Tawil-Souri, associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

“Their goal has not fundamentally changed over the years, only the platforms on which these are disseminated,” she said.

Yuval Dror, head of the digital communication program at Israel's College of Management Academic Studies, questioned how effective the government's information campaign would be.

“The Vietnam War was the first war that was televised, and this war might be one of the very first that's being battled so energetically across all web fronts and platforms. The medium is the message,” he said. “But whose message will win the Internet and its users in this war is still unclear.”

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