Dangerous social media games

When a state must pay citizens to fight its online public relations wars, it has already lost.

The Israeli government has set up Twitter accounts, but they have failed to attract a large following [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, California – The emergence of China’s “50 Cent Army” in 2004 marked a new phenomenon by paying commenters, working for or in close conjunction with the state, in an attempt to influence local attitudes. In the years since, numerous governments have tried their hand at similar efforts, with varying degrees of success.

Now, a new plan exposed by the Electronic Intifada reveals that Israel’s National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) has created a scholarship programme to pay Israeli university students $2,000 to “help in the struggle against the delegitimisation of the State of Israel and against hatred of Jews in the world” by refuting online misinformation. Students would be required to attend training, after which they would be paid to work five hours per week from home. 

While not directly a project of the Israeli government, according to original source documents, NUIS’s project will act in co-operation with government ministries and external organisations – such as the US-based StandWithUs – to accomplish its goals.

This isn’t the first time Israel has engaged citizens in shilling for the government. In 2009, the country’s Foreign Ministry earmarked 600,000 NIS to establish an “internet warfare” squad to tackle online criticism of Israel. Israeli columnist Rona Kuperboim criticised the effort as “dangerous”, writing: “The internet was meant to serve as an open platform for dialogue between people, rather than as a propaganda means.”

Bad company

Though they may differ in methods or target audience, the various initiatives by governments to influence public opinion through online propaganda are striking in their similarities.

In Russia, “web brigades” linked to state security services are rumoured to comment on popular blogs in an effort to defend the government. In 2011, Bahrain and Syria both appeared to employ citizens to spread pro-regime messages, the latter going so far as to encourage the hacking and defacement of sites supporting the opposition. And China’s 50 Cent Army is notorious for its attempts to steer discussion on comment boards away from anti-government or dissident activity.

Even the US government has gotten in on the game. The Department of State’s Digital Outreach Team paid Arabic and Farsi speakers to comment on anti-American content (though its staffers were required to identify themselves as paid employees). And again, in 2011, reports emerged that the US military Central Command (CENTCOM) was planning to create a system, dubbed Operation Earnest Voice, to target foreign websites with pro-US propaganda. The system would add to the existing efforts by the Department of State, but would differ in that CENTCOM’s system would not identify commenters as working for the military.

Despite the efforts of his colleagues at the Department of State, Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe “propaganda works on social media”. To Ross’ credit, he and his colleagues’ approach to Twitter tends to be more subdued and conversational, though other efforts from his office have been likened to propaganda as a “21st century complement to the more traditional broadcasts from Voice of America”.

Dangerous games

While earlier initiatives such as China’s were aimed primarily at the citizens of a given state, the recent plans unveiled by Israel’s NUIS are aimed at influencing foreign public opinion. It’s easy to see why China would want to lead its own citizens away from anti-state material, but will Israeli students be successful in convincing a global populace of the Israeli state line?

The answer is complicated, but could be found by analysing existing efforts by the Israeli government. In the wake of the Israeli army’s 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, the Israeli government launched a comprehensive online diplomacy effort complete with blogs, accounts on social media, and even a Twitter Q&A with the country’s New York consulate.  

The success of these initiatives is difficult to measure, but seems minimal: Not one of the Twitter accounts boasts more than 35,000 followers (compare that with the White House account, which has 2 million), and none of the recent posts on the official Israeli policy blog, israelpolitik.org, have received any comments.  

“… any attempt by a government to win over the hearts and minds of its detractors by ignoring their negative perceptions comes across as disingenuous.”

On the other hand, the country’s online outreach has sparked several controversies: Last summer, a damning video of a young gay activist claiming to have been excluded from the Gaza flotilla campaign that went viral with the help of the Israeli press office turned out to be a hoax, starring an intern from Netanyahu’s office (the video’s creator remains unknown). More recently, comments made by IDF spokesperson Avital Leibovich in respect to the killing of Mustafa Tamimi by soldiers sparked outrage in the blogosphere.

The outreach programme has also spawned numerous parodies, particularly on Twitter, where accounts such as @FakeIsraelMFA mock the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Part of Israel’s problem may lie in its strategy. While Israeli consul general Ido Aharoni has argued that Israel’s diplomatic “mistake” has been in defining itself in terms of conflict, Founder and President of Empax, Martin Kace, said at the Herzliya Conference that “a brand when it comes to a nation has to be true … [That’s why] Israel’s communications need to embody the conflict. Israel’s brand lies in its difficulties, lies in its challenges. The conflict is such an integral part of what Israel is about.”

In an age when even corporate brands are aiming to generate genuine dialogue and forge relationships with customers on social media, any attempt by a government to win over the hearts and minds of its detractors by ignoring their negative perceptions comes across as disingenuous. Rather than engaging detractors in dialogue, the propaganda undertaken by state actors is instead perceived as spam. Even more dangerous is the idea that journalists, still grappling with how best to report on social media, might be taken in by state propagandists.  

It remains to be seen what approach Israel’s NUIS will take, but if its scholarship recipients are to act as paid shills for the government, promoting Israel’s successes whilst brushing aside its aggression, there is little indication their efforts will be successful.

Ultimately, Kuperboim is right: When a state – be it Bahrain, Israel, Syria or China – needs to stoop to the level of paying citizens to fight its public relations wars, it has already lost. 

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.