Conventional Israeli wisdom has it that we are losing the cyber Hasbara war to our opponents, be it the BDS movement, peace activists or the Palestinians. This belief has often found its way to the Times of Israel blogosphere where many bloggers have called for the launch of Hasbara 2.0. As the multi-talented Sarah Tuttle Singer once put it, “we need a new strategy and a new word (referring to Hasbara). And we need it quick”.
However, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it’s often based on assumptions rather than facts and is rooted in observation but not in research. Since diplomacy is a subject that currently occupies my every waking hour, I thought I might attempt to separate fact from fiction.
For years, Israel used the term Hasbara when referring to its efforts to promote policies abroad. Yet Hasbara was to a large extent the Hebrew term for a specific form of diplomacy known as Public Diplomacy, one that took shape during the turbulent beginning of the past century.
Diplomacy altered considerably throughout the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, diplomacy had the rather strict interpretation of all communication between the government of one country and the government of another. Direct communication between the government of one country and the population of another was banned by the international community and was regarded as a breach of sovereignty.
But three world events in the 1920’s and 30’s altered the definition and practice of diplomacy. The first was the widespread use and immense popularity of the radio. The second was the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933 and the third was the use made by both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks of the radio in order to propagate similar revolutions in neighboring countries. Both Russia and Germany spoke directly to the populations of neighboring nations thereby circumventing their respective governments. And just like that, Public Diplomacy was born.
Defining Public Diplomacy:
Public Diplomacy refers to processes in which countries seek to accomplish their foreign policy goals by engaging with foreign publics. It is also a tool for creating a positive climate amongst foreign populations in order to facilitate the acceptance of one’s policies. Following the revolutions of the 1920’s and 30’s, numerous countries began to practice Public Diplomacy. France sent cultural attaché’s to its embassies abroad, the United States established the Voice of America radio station and the BBC’s world service began broadcasting in a variety of languages. As the Cold War intensified, direct communication with the opponent’s population was perceived to be just as important as one’s nuclear arsenal.
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has been practicing the art of Public Diplomacy in order to communicate with foreign publics, the Jewish Diaspora and foreign legislatures. Given the ongoing nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel’s leaders realized early on the importance of Hasbara and the role it would play in enabling Israel to carry out it defense policies.
During the beginning of the First Lebanon War in 1982, former MK Geula Cohen addressed the Knesset as part of a discussion regarding the need to explain the importance of war to the world. “If we needed more proof of the connection between Hasbara and policy…The announcement that President Reagan made today demonstrates this connection. Reagan said I find it difficult to continue supporting (the Israeli military operation) considering the pictures of killing and destruction in the area, as seen on TV, which influence public opinion in the United States”.
Yet as the 20th century came to end, a new form of diplomacy known as Digital Diplomacy began to immerge.
The Global Rise of Digital Diplomacy:
First described in 2001, Digital Diplomacy is the talk of the town in the corridors of international diplomacy. Some have defined Digital Diplomacy as the growing use of Information and Communication Technologies and social media platforms in the conduct of Public Diplomacy. Those who adopt this definition believe that the medium has changed but not the message. Instead of talking to foreign publics over the radio, we now communicate with them through our twitter channel.
Others believe that Digital Diplomacy is more than a new tool in a used tool box.
Via its twitter channel an Israeli embassy can now establish two communications with its followers. Instead of speaking at audiences through the TV, Israeli diplomats can now talk with publics by responding to posts on their Facebook profile. This is the dialogue made possible by Digital Diplomacy which should replace the monologue of Public Diplomacy. Such two way communication offers more opportunities for engagement with foreign publics, engagement that may facilitate the creation and leveraging of relationships between Israel and foreign populations. Moreover, ministries can now measure the acceptance of foreign policy messages amongst foreign populations and amend them if necessary thereby tailoring foreign policy messages to the unique characteristics of specific audiences.
This is where diplomacy meets Savile Row.
If one wishes to understand the scope of the Digital Diplomacy phenomenon he should examine the State Department’s Digital Diplomacy mechanism which includes more than 288 Facebook profiles, 200 twitter channels and 125 YouTube channels. This mechanism has been referred to as a global media empire.
The Case for Israel:
Israel does not lag behind in the practice of Digital Diplomacy. On the contrary, it has one of the most active Digital Diplomacy units in the world. The vast majority of Israel’s embassies and missions abroad operate both Twitter channels and Facebook profiles with a large number of them also active on YouTube. In a recent research I undertook at Tel Aviv University, I found that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has one of the largest following in the world. Out of a sample of 85 countries spanning the globe, the Israeli MFA’s twitter channel ranked fifth boasting more than 36K followers well ahead of Sweden, Germany, India and France. Israel’s MFA was also the ninth most active MFA on twitter. As for its Facebook profile, Israel’s MFA has more than 145K followers making it the tenth most popular MFA out of the 85 foreign ministries evaluated.
This is Hasbara 2.0. It is already here. There is no need for a new word.
At times, there is a puzzling plurality to Digital Diplomacy. In the US for instance, President Obama has a twitter account in which he routinely refers to world events as does the Pentagon, the State Department, US embassies and American ambassadors stationed abroad. In Israel’s case, this plurality was addressed following the Second Lebanon war.
An in-depth analysis of Israel’s Public Diplomacy apparatus published by the Molad think tank states that following the war Israel established a National Hasbara Forum in which all actors taking part in Israel’s Public Diplomacy activities meet in order to coordinate efforts and messages. These include, amongst others, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the IDF spokesperson. Molad’s thorough analysis concludes that Israel is more than affective in reaching large audiences and delivering its public diplomacy messages, be it online or offline. Whether these messages are accepted or not is a different issue.
So why aren’t we winning?
If Israel is so good at Digital Diplomacy, why do most Israelis feel that we are losing the cyber war?
First, there is the conventional wisdom regarding Israel’s lack of capabilities which is often fueled by foreign affairs commentators in Israeli news outlets. Commentators are a popular form of Israeli reporters who relish generalizations and have little regard for facts. Secondly, Israel’s opponents are just as active and just as tech-savvy. This is a war over narratives, and there are currently numerous battlegrounds shaping the discourse. Some are won, some are lost. Thirdly, there are the politicians from all sides of the aisles who use the topic of Hasbara when attacking the government.
Finally, one must take into account that the problem is not with the medium or with the messenger but with the message. As Israel Barzilai, Israel’s former Minister of Health, said in June of 1967,
“As for Hasbara- there is, of course, much to repair and a lot to do, but sometimes I have the feeling that we turn this issue into a scapegoat and make it easy on ourselves. There are facts that even the best Hasbara will not be able to justify or to be understood by thinking people. If you blow up villages and force people out of their houses, it is unexplainable even with the best Hasbara”.
The following source material was used in this article:
Cull, N. J. (2008). Public diplomacy: Taxonomies and histories. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616(1), 31-54.
Metzger, E. T. (2012). Is it the medium or the message? Social media, American public relations & Iran. Global Media Journal, 1-16.
Roberts, W. R. (2007). What is public diplomacy? Past practices, present conduct, possible future. Mediterranean Quarterly, 18(4), 36-52.
Shenhav, S. R., Sheafer, T., & Gabay, I. (2010). Incoherent narrator: Israeli public diplomacy during the disengagement and the elections in the Palestinian Authority. Israel Studies, 15(3), 143-162.
Hayden, C. (2012). Social Media at State: Power, Practice and Conceptual Limits for US Public Diplomacy? Global Media Journal, 1-15.
Dizrad Jr, W. (2001). Digital diplomacy U.S. foreign policy in the information age. London: Praeger