All’s fair in Israeli politics, where the soundbites on radio and TV often consist of sniping and put-downs of rivals. But on the Internet, where politicians can say whatever they want for as long as they want, a rule has emerged: The further behind you are in the polls, the nastier your Facebook page.
Case in point: Out of all the major parties running, the nastiest pages seems to belong to Kadima, which some polls say won’t even get into the next Knesset. Kadima’s Facebook page is rife with attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kadima gets credit for one of the most entertaining, albeit meanest, Facebook apps in this election.
In the app, you’re asked to help an IDF bigwig capture some cash for the army’s use. The pitch: In a Pac-Man-style game, try to collect as much money for a serving IDF soldier as an ultra-Orthodox family gets if its breadwinner studies in yeshiva (the site claims that the sum is NIS 3,400 per month). The message: Likud’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners are stealing money from the army, and smart voters should choose Kadima, which would never agree to allocations for Haredi yeshiva students (an apparent policy change from when Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were Kadima heads).
Also not doing as well as it hoped is the Labor Party, whose official Facebook page — along with the official page of party chairperson Shelly Yachimovich — bashes Netanyahu for his shortcomings. Labor also has an app in the Android appstore, the BibiApp, which “takes and takes, but never gives.” The app costs 700 shekels, and does nothing but show a picture of the prime minister. Seven-hundred shekels is a lot of money for an app that doesn’t do anything, the party admits, but “it’s a relatively reasonable price compared to what we are going to have to pay if Netanyahu is elected again.”
Social media has been around in one form or another for the past decade, but Facebook, Twitter, and the other popular services have only over the past few years become important in politics. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign was perhaps the first major one to be waged on social media networks, yielding great success for Obama according to most analysts. In the 2012 election, both Obama and rival Mitt Romney ran extensive campaigns on the web and all the social networks.
In Israel, too, social media is making its mark on the current Knesset election, far more than the last time the nation voted in 2009. All the parties — even some ultra-Orthodox parties that strongly discourage their followers from using the Internet altogether — have a web presence, with some of them very actively promoting their agenda and denigrating everyone else’s. And why not? Social media is a lot cheaper than TV or print ads. All you have to do is come up with a gimmick that gets the voters’ attention.
Like the pop-up ad that appeared on the Internet portraying Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett as seeking to keep national religious voters “in the ghetto,” locked into supporting a sectarian party and ignoring the greater issues that concern most Israelis instead of supporting a larger party like Likud. Nothing wrong with that as a campaign message — except that the message was accompanied by visuals showing Bennett behind Holocaust-style barbed wire, evoking images not of a ghetto, but of a concentration camp. After much complaining by the Jewish Home, the Likud-related sponsors of the ad removed it — but replaced it with another ad aimed at discouraging religious voters from supporting Bennett, with the same message but with tamer imagery.
That Holocaust-themed ad would never have made it on television, and no respectable (or even non-respectable) newspaper would have run it either. But the ad was right at home online.
You need “shtick” — creativity, flexibility, endurance and vigilance to make a successful online election campaign, says social media expert Yotam Tavor, whose company, Promodity, provides marketers with an online platform to build their own web promotion campaigns. “There’s a lot of competition on the social web, and if you want to make an impression, especially in politics, you have to stand out, yet be quick on your feet to fine-tune your message. Often that means outdoing the other parties with attention-getting, sometimes even outrageous ideas.”
“It’s the online equivalent of the media soundbite,” said Tavor, “but online there are no limits — you can keep repeating your ideas until they stick or even have multiple ideas aimed at different audiences to optimize your efforts.”
It’s questionable if social media efforts actually convince the undecided to support a particular party, or if they are “preaching to the choir,” Tavor added. But for many parties, just confirming that their message registered with supporters who can go out and recruit others to the cause is enough.
If your party is doing well in the polls, as is the Likud, you can afford to take the high road. After the removal of that anti-Bennett Holocaust-themed ad, Likud-oriented pages are sticking to positive messages, especially the Facebook page belonging to Netanyahu himself, which is by far the most popular in terms of likes and activity of any Israeli political Facebook. Netanyahu’s page ticks off what he considers the most important accomplishments of his government, such as “We have issued free education for all children ages three and above. This is saving families with children all over Israel hundreds of shekels monthly,” and other similar messages in Hebrew and English about the economy, the security fence in the south, and so on.
Also rife with positive messages is Naftali Bennett’s page, which emphasizes the “big house” concept of his Jewish Home party to unite the religious and secular right, and where you can download a free copy of Bennett’s book, “Exit,” about how to get your start-up sold. The page also related to the now apparently defunct Likud campaign targeting Jewish Home, protesting against the tone of the aforementioned Holocaust ad, among others. But Bennett has taken great pains to keep the campaign upbeat, with lots of photos of young party volunteers in different settings in line with the cool image Jewish Home has been trying to project.
Facebook is where it’s at for Israeli politicians, with YouTube serving as an adjunct for video storage. The reason: Facebook has many tools to encourage interactivity, which is what politicians on social media are looking for. “Interactivity keeps you in the mind of voters and lets people feel they have a voice in ‘managing’ the campaign,” said Tavor. “The more interactivity, the better the connection with voters, and the more likely they are to remember you on election day.”
While a politician would hope that the interactions are positive, even negative comments are welcome because it means people are reading, said Tavor. Here, Bennett has a clear advantage. According to Israeli social media analysis site Tracx, Bennett has the smallest number of negative status postings by followers and visitors (he’s got about 130,000 followers, third among Israeli politicians behind Netanyahu and his number 2, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman).
By rabbis’ order, ultra-Orthodox Jews aren’t supposed to use the Internet except for work purposes, and then only if it cannot be avoided. True to their sages, United Torah Judaism has nearly no presence in social media at all, with just “holder” pages claiming the name of the party and its sub-components (Degel Hatorah and Agudat Yisrael), probably so no one would claim those names and set up pages that would misrepresent the party.
Shas, on the other hand, has several Facebook pages, including an official page and pages for Eli Yishai and Aryeh Deri, the frenemies who are running the party. The official page mostly features videos, audio, and writings by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, with many exhortations from him to vote for Shas. Yishai’s page highlights his work as interior minister, mostly trumpeting the sharp fall in the number of illegal aliens making it into Israel in recent months.
Deri, who doesn’t have a record one would want to run on, displays photos of himself interacting with the “common folk” (mostly non-Haredi) and points out instances of what he considers to be discrimination against Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin in the media and on the part of the European-origin “Ashkenazi leftist” entities. To this end, he posts a chart that shows that Army Radio has 14 Ashkenazic program hosts but only 3 Sephardic ones, that 84.3% of programs on the station are presented by Ashkenazim as opposed to 8% presented by Sephardim, etc.
Yair Lapid’s Facebook page — one of the most popular among Israeli politicians with over 110,000 “likes” — also features lots of interactions between himself and his “common folk,” in this case the middle-class families and young professionals whom he sees as the main constituency for his Yesh Atid party. In fact, Lapid uses the page to point out parallels between Yesh Atid and Shas, proclaiming his party as the “Shas of the middle class. Not that I like what Shas does, but I admire how they have been able to set the agenda in this country with only 11 mandates” — the number of Knesset seats many polls expect Yesh Atid to get. “If they can do it, we can do it,” he adds.
In recent days, as talk has grown of a center-left coalition to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government too easily, Lapid has posted numerous messages in which he attempts to distinguish himself from his ostensible partners, Shelly Yachimovich and Tzipi Livni, refusing to declare, like them, that he would refuse to join a Netanyahu-led coalition.
Perhaps because it is less interactive, or because Israelis are less focused on Twitter, most of the politicians are using the platform to tweet out versions of the same postings that are on their Facebook pages. Others don’t even use the platform.
The one notable exception is Ahmad Tibi, who tweets the snarky, cynical comments we have come to expect of him: “How is it that the media are demanding that the Arab parties stop talking about security issues and concentrate on social issues, and they are demanding the opposite from Shelly Yachimovich,” he asks rhetorically. About half of Tibi’s tweets are in Hebrew, with the balance in Arabic (his Facebook page is mostly in Arabic).
There’s no question that social media has already significantly changed politics and will continue to do so, as politicians learn how to use it effectively, said social media expert Tavor. Facebook is a perfect platform for politicians to get their message out, because it’s so public and interactive. Factors like confirmation bias (in which the beliefs and biases of voters, exposed to extensive elaborations of their favorite politicians’ positions, are strengthened) and social influence (where you get “swept away” when masses of others adopt or agree with a position) are two important factors politicians are just learning to harness, said Tavor. Whether you realize it or not, “you are strongly influenced when you see who your friends ‘Like’ and when you read the comments they made.”
With social media, politicians have an enhanced ability to “build their brand and create online ambassadors,” Tavor added. “Savvy politicians are able to leverage to their own benefit the social influence we are all sensitive to.”