The vast amount of anti-Israel sentiment on the Internet never fails to amaze me. It’s everywhere you go, and nearly impossible to miss. Just type “Israel is” into Google, and one of the first and most searched-for phrases that appears is “Israel is evil.”
This fall, I set out to discover why the tides of the web have seemingly turned against my country of origin. I met with hundreds of the Internet’s most notorious over-sharers — American college students. In workshops at 12 college campuses around the U.S., I encountered millennials who described their connection to Israel in positive, even glowing terms. Yet many of them were wary of sharing those views online.
I had seen this kind of self-censoring when I worked as an Israel Fellow at the University of California, Irvine in 2011. UCI had earned a reputation for being virulently anti-Israel. Few students had the courage to publicly broadcast their support for Israel. Those who did attempt to respond to the many anti-Israel campaigns on campus saw their efforts amplify the negative voices. The anti-Israel stories — and the responses to those stories — became the only stories told. I’ve seen similar public relations problems plague Israel ever since my post graduate days in Sderot, a city in Southern Israel that is regularly hit by Kassam rockets lobbed from Gaza. When Israel would retaliate against these attacks, international news outlets rushed to cover the Gaza side of the story, leaving Sderot’s perspective uncovered. I frequently asked journalists who would visit about their one-sided coverage, and they often gave me the same answer: The human-interest stories from Gaza were more compelling. In contrast, the office of Israeli Public Affairs mostly dealt in facts and figures, and they often left out the human toll of Israeli civilians living under constant threat, with only 15 seconds to find safety once the alarms sounded. Even though it was Gaza who provoked retaliation by lobbing rockets at a civilian population, Israel was branded the bad guy. We need a new approach. Instead of disputing distortions and anti-Israel claims, we need to support the dissemination of favorable and enthusiastic attitudes that exist among Israeli supporters around the world — especially those who have experienced Israel firsthand.
The time to implement such a strategy could not be more perfect. Consumers of online media have a fast-growing appetite for upbeat stories. For evidence, look no further than the meteoric rise of Upworthy, a one-year-old media company that nearly surpassed 50 million unique visitors in October. Their recipe for success: select heartfelt video content depicting real-life stories of inspirational people, and blast it out over the social web. In my workshops this fall, I ran a demonstration that shows the power of positive and personal messages on social media. At the beginning of each session, I ask an attendee to post a personal message about Israel on their Facebook page — anything will do. It usually takes some coaxing, but participants soon see that the payoff is worth the risk. In one California workshop, a student posted why she loves Israel on her Facebook page, citing her feeling of connection to her history and her people. By the end of our workshop a few hours later, her message had generated almost 100 “likes.” Gone are the days when gloom and doom media reports are the only things that attract attention online. To solve Israel’s public relations crisis, Israeli advocates must ride the wave of inspirational content that is emerging on the web by encouraging supporters, especially millennials, to express their sincere and authentic positive and personal stories towards Israel online.
Itzik Yarkoni is the founder of BOMAH: The Brand of Milk & Honey, a branding consulting firm specializing in social media. He lives in Jerusalem. The workshops mentioned in this article were done in partnership with the Hasbara Fellowship in Jerusalem and School of Communication of Bar Ilan University.