Israel, the hasbara nation, feted for its digital diplomacy clout

The Foreign Ministry’s strong online presence earns it the eighth spot in a new ranking unveiled in Tel Aviv

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Foreign Ministry's Yuval Rotem speaking at the first International Digital Diplomacy Conference in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2016. (Courtesy Israel MFA)
The Foreign Ministry's Yuval Rotem speaking at the first International Digital Diplomacy Conference in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2016. (Courtesy Israel MFA)

Israel prides itself on being a wellspring of technological innovation. But one thing the self-styled start-up nation does not often garner much praise for is its ability to present its best face to the world.

Yet, when it comes to combining public advocacy, or hasbara, with social media, Israel apparently doesn’t do too shabbily, at least according to a study published Thursday.

In the field of digital diplomacy, the study says, Israel’s Foreign Ministry is the eighth-best player in the world, beating powerhouses such as Germany, Japan and Switzerland.

The importance Israeli diplomats place on harnessing social media was evident as study author Gökhan Yücel, from the Istanbul Center for Digital Affairs, presented his findings Thursday in Tel Aviv at the first International Digital Diplomacy Conference.

Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold, who does not use Twitter, called the conference “a revolutionary event,” at the opening Tuesday.

“If a crude diplomat had to write a good cable 200 years ago, today he has to learn how to use social media to serve his country’s cause. That’s the new world we live in,” he said.

The conference, co-hosted by the Foreign Ministry and the Partner Institute for Internet Studies at Tel Aviv University, hosted delegations from over two dozen countries, including senior diplomats and academics from the US, Britain, Sweden, France, South Korea and Germany.

According to Noam Katz, of the Foreign Ministry’s media and public affairs division, the ministry operates some 350 channels on various platforms, including websites; Twitter feeds; Facebook pages; and profiles on Instagram, YouTube, Vine, Pinterest and other social media sites, all of which are constantly updated.

Every Israeli embassy across the globe has its own social media platform, run in the host country’s language, Katz said. In other words, Israel conducts digital diplomacy in over 50 different languages.

“As opposed to common wisdom, Israel is in a very high place regarding its digital diplomacy,” said Katz, who co-organized this week’s conference. “Our public diplomacy is geared to connect government to people, but also people to people. That is part of the power of public diplomacy.”

Gold called social media platforms “some of the most powerful tools in the diplomatic arsenal today.”

That could be because Israel is so often pilloried and subjected to criticism around the world. According to Gold, by using such platforms effectively, Jerusalem can bypass the mainstream press to get its message across.

“Israel does always have these uphill battles in this respect. Social media serves as a great equalizer; it allows us to reestablish the moral strength of our position,” he said.

Particularly interesting for Israel is the fact that digital diplomacy allows outreach to people the government could not connect with through conventional means. “We’re very active and successful in the Arab world,” Katz said.

For instance, the Foreign Ministry has been running a Twitter account about Israel in Arabic since January 2011. It has more than 63,000 followers.

Foreign diplomats at first International Digital Diplomacy Conference in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2016 (courtesy Israel MFA)
Foreign diplomats at first International Digital Diplomacy Conference in Tel Aviv, March 31, 2016 (courtesy Israel MFA)

Jerusalem’s effort in this area has been recognized by several researchers in recent years. In 2015, Portland, a global communications firm, ranked the world’s countries in terms of how much “soft power” they wield. Soft power was measured based on performance in six sub-indices: government, culture, engagement, education, digital and enterprise.

In the overall ranking, Israel came in 26th. But in the digital category, the Jewish state took the bronze medal, behind Britain and France. Israel has gained a strong reputation for its “capacity for innovation in various sectors of technology” and has “a solid track-record of digital diplomacy, using social media to engage with international audiences,” the study’s author, Jonathan McClory, wrote.

“Israel — no stranger to information wars — has taken to social media and digital diplomacy enthusiastically,” he noted. “The success of that digital engagement is up for debate, but when many leaders shy away from the lack of control that can come with social media dialogue, Israel has actively embraced it.”

The conference, Katz told The Times of Israel Thursday evening as the event came to a close, “was further evidence of Israel’s standing as a leader in the field of digital diplomacy.” There will be another conference dedicated to online hasbara next year, he added, though it is still unclear whether it will be in Israel or elsewhere.

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