In what might be the next iteration of government public relations during wartime, different parts of the Israeli government have recently created a range of social media sites. An IDF Youtube channel highlights videos from air strikes it is undertaking in the Gaza Strip, interspersed with clips showing humanitarian aid deliveries. Its blog contains posts about recent operations it’s engaged in and statistics on rocket attacks towards Israel, among other things. Following the US government’s embedded reporting program during the Iraq War, this is a logical step in information warfare, essentially cutting out any intermediary between the public and a government’s message.
I’m dubious, though, as to whether the Israeli government will have a net gain in its information war by moving into the social media sphere. Its success or failure will be dependent on it having a deep understanding of the environment in which it’s now experimenting, something I would definitely not assume of any government bureaucracy.
From the standpoint of traditional dialectics, if people are linking to, commenting on and embedding its content, it can be argued that it implicitly sets the terms of the debate. The question is whether through the content and delivery of its messages it will be able to win this debate in an environment where this content can be so easily re contextualized and appropriated and the medium of delivery does not imply a traditional dialectic.
I’ve already seen newspaper outlets that are reporting on the practices as gloating (referring the IDF air strike videos), not to mention observing the vitriolic debates and inane musings in the comments sections of some of the Youtube videos. While one would hope that the availability of a comments feature would allow for healthy debate between viewers of differing opinion, this is Youtube here, and few sites on the internet are as notorious for their lack of mature debate. On the IDF blog, comments seem to be closed, sending its own message about the kind of conversation (or lack thereof) it’s willing to have.
Interestingly, there are actually other parts of the Israeli government using social media in ways that display a greater understanding of the nuances of internet culture. On its Twitter stream the Israeli Consulate in New York City is experimenting with a relatively innovative practice of taking questions from other twitter users and then answering them on its blog. While it can be argued that it is only exposing itself to a distinct demographic as most of twitter users live in Western countries, I think on the whole this kind of practice is a good thing, as I’ve mentioned in the past.
At the same time, it’s also much savvier than the IDF’s venture, which easily loses control of the message through a foray into Youtube comment culture. The consulate is making dialogue the message, as contrasted to the IDF’s posting content and letting others decide how it’s framed (as on youtube), or simply not letting them say anything at all (as on its blog).
The stark contrast between the social media engagement strategies displayed by these two parts of the Israeli government reflects their constitutions; the military is simply throwing media messages at the public with little consideration for the nuance of the culture receiving them, and the diplomats are engaging in a conversation about their government’s actions with a global audience in a way that takes advantages of the cultural practices and technological affordances of the medium in which that conversation is situated. Regardless of whether you agree with either of these government institutions’ public relations objectives, I think there’s little doubt as to which will more effectively see those objectives reached.