Fri, Nov 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Israel's Web propaganda war

Following its invasion of Lebanon this summer, Israel was said to have largely lost the PR battle to Hezbollah, but armed with a major online offensive, it's fighting back

By Stewart Purvis  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Amir Gissin runs what he calls "Israel's Explanation Department." Which is why it is surprising to hear him admit that many Israelis think "the whole problem is that we don't explain ourselves correctly."

Last week, as al-Jazeera launched an Arab view of the world into English-speaking homes worldwide, Gissin was a man under pressure.

At the David Bar Ilan conference on the media and the Middle East, he faced an audience of Israelis who were unhappy about the way the propaganda battle with Hezbollah was fought and lost during the war in Lebanon. They wanted to know how it could be done better next time, because most people in Israel seem to think there will be a next time with Hezbollah soon.

Gissin said the words of his English-speaking spokespeople could not compete with the power of the pictures of civilians killed in the Israeli attack on Lebanese towns like Qana. And the Israeli parliament will not spend the money on an Israeli counterpart to al-Jazeera.

But Gissin was not downhearted. He declared there to be a "war on the Web," in which Israel had a new weapon, a piece of computer software called the "Internet megaphone."

"During the war we had the opportunity to do some very nice things with the megaphone community," he said at the conference.

Among them, he claimed, was a role in getting an admission from Reuters that a photograph of damage to Beirut by a Lebanese photographer had been doctored to increase the amount of smoke in the picture. This was first spotted by American blogger Charles Johnson, who has won an award for "promoting Israel and Zionism."

POWER

To check out the power of the megaphone, I logged onto a Web site called Give Israel Your United Support (GIYUS) on the afternoon of Nov. 15. More than 25,000 registered users of the site have downloaded the megaphone software, which enables them to receive alerts asking them to get active online.

It did not take long for an alert to come through. Kim Howells, a British Foreign Office minister, had issued a press statement condemning that day's Palestinian rocket attack which killed an elderly Israeli and wounded other civilians. GIYUS wanted site users to "show your appreciation of the UK's response."

One click took me to a pre-prepared e-mail addressed to Howells, and a slot for me to personalize my comment. A test confirmed that the e-mail would arrive at his office, as if I had spotted his comments on a news Web site, in this case Yahoo, and sent it to him with a supporting message. In the e-mails, there would be no indication of the involvement of GIYUS, although Howells may have been suspicious that so many people around the world had read the same Yahoo story about him and decided to e-mail him.

The British Foreign Office confirms that e-mails were received on Nov. 15 but will not go into any more detail.

The most popular target of the online activists is the foreign media, especially the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the news organization which they love to hate.

Earlier this year I was a member of the independent panel set up by the BBC governors, the panel of 12 outsiders who regulate the corporation, to review the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We reported on the high number of e-mails we had received from outside the UK, mostly from North America, and the evidence of pressure group involvement.

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