In May of 2021, during the Israel-Gaza crisis, Israelis were running to bomb shelters as Hamas launched hundreds of rockets at them. A dozen Israelis died and hundreds more were injured.
At the same time, social media blew up with aggressive and sometimes antisemitic rhetoric against Israel. Memes accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and wrongfully stated that Israel was massacring the Palestinian people.
In response, the Jewish community did what it always does during times like these: It urgently fundraised to increase Israel advocacy training for young people on campus and online, and set up war rooms in multiple languages to respond to the naysayers. Pro-Israel influencers on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok worked overtime. Everyone fought the good fight. But was it effective? Did we really win on the digital battlefield?
If we’re being honest, the answer is no. It’s infuriating, isn’t it? Why is it that whatever we do, we can’t seem to win the PR war for Israel, especially on social media?
We blame antisemitism, the BDS movement and Bella Hadid, but perhaps the answer is that Israel advocacy on social media just isn’t effective and our attempt to win the PR war by using traditional advocacy tactics online could be in vain.
Think about it: Nobody goes on social media to admit that they’re wrong. We go on to validate our opinions and find people who agree with us. In other words, the platform itself is the problem, not the valiant efforts being made by passionate advocates.
On social media, there’s no time to make a solid argument. Conversations take place at breakneck speed, especially if many people are commenting and responding to one another. You simply cannot shift a person’s deeply held position in three or four seconds. You need more time. Much more.
There’s also no common ground on these platforms. Human beings naturally distance themselves from people they have nothing in common with. If you know nothing about the person you’re engaging with and they know nothing about you, all you’re left with is two people accusing one another of having a worldview that is different from their own.
Online, just like offline, you are totally reliant on facts, figures and credible sources of information to make your case for Israel. However, in the era of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and minimal fact-checking even by reliable media platforms, the information you provide can be easily disputed, skewed and discarded as unreliable. It’s very hard to change a person’s mind when they don’t believe the basic facts you’re presenting them.
According to The Harvard Business Review, it is an evolutionary fact that our brains are hardwired to become defensive at times of conflict and to shut out any views that are contradictory. We say to ourselves, “I’m right and you’re wrong,” even though we are ordinarily able to see multiple perspectives. In other words, in conflict, we tend to become even more entrenched in our own opinions and dismiss countering views out of hand.
This is exacerbated by the fact that when the social media algorithm detects conversations with a lot of interaction—as well as arguments—they are given more “airtime.” They are prioritized over other content being posted, and pushed into more and more news feeds. What started as one person stating an opinion turns into hundreds of participants, sometimes thousands, joining the debate. In a sense, it was our own doing that brought all this negative attention to Israel. The BDS movement should be thanking us.
Instead of following the impulse to respond to every anti-Israel post or meme on social media, here’s what you can do instead:
- Don’t engage publicly. When you see negative comments about Israel, don’t respond. There is no point in engaging because you likely won’t win the debate, for all the reasons listed above. And because it takes two to tango, if you don’t respond, the algorithm won’t detect increased interaction. Thus, the shelf life of the statements shared by the naysayers will expire much faster.
- Do engage privately. If you must respond, look for the more moderate people participating in the exchange and invite them to discuss the matter privately by pinging them a non-combative message offering a deeper conversation in private. The algorithms stay out of private zones, so you won’t be rousing the beast.
- Positively promote Israel before and after the crisis. Operation Guardian of the Walls lasted for all of 11 days from start to finish. Are we really going to let 11 days define Israel’s image for months and years to come? Pew and Gallup poll data consistently show that most people are indifferent to Israel, not against it. Why concentrate on trying to change the minds of the negative minority, when you have a neutral (and positive) majority with whom you can start building a constructive relationship?
Ultimately, it is we, Israel’s stakeholders, who should be defining Israel’s narrative, not the haters. We have an opportunity to do so and we must do so before the next crisis occurs. Then, we will have a fighting chance of winning the PR war for Israel.
Joanna Landau is country branding expert and founder of Vibe Israel. She is co-author of the book Ethical Tribing: Connecting the Next Generation to Israel in the Digital Era.