Earlier this month, the liberal Zionist Haaretz newspaper reported that the Israeli government has purchased a new software system which will enable it to “plant” its propaganda online. The system, created by an Israeli company called Buzzilla, will allow ministries “to monitor social media in general and specific users in particular.”
The automated, or semi-automated, system means that Israel can have its agents and employees joining online conversations while posing as ordinary members of the public. The objective is to improve Israel’s failing public image around the world.
Such “astroturfing” efforts are not entirely unusual. Badly-behaving corporations and authoritarian regimes the world over are known to employ such tactics. It is unsurprising that the apartheid regime would stoop to such a level; Israel and its surrogates have, after all, long experience in this.
In a 2014 undercover investigation for The Electronic Intifada, I revealed that the website Israel21c was hiring students to pose as ordinary members of the public in online forums in order to spread pro-Israel propaganda. Israel21c is an odd little website which contains a flurry of puff pieces about the supposed positive side of the Zionist state. It pushes out feel-good stories about Israeli high tech developments and the country’s supposed green credentials. The idea is to distract conversations about Israel away from its war crimes, apartheid laws and other human rights abuses.
The website itself is not very widely known, but it has had a certain success in “planting” its stories in the mainstream media. Indeed, it has boasted of this using a strikingly similar turn of phrase to the new software system purchased by the Israeli government. One example from 2015 came when a New York Times story about the wonders of Israeli wine turned out to be based very heavily on an Israel21c piece. This essentially amounted to the NYT’s Jodi Rudoren rewriting a press release and passing it off as unbiased journalism.
I contacted Israel21c’s PR rep posing as a student interested in the internship on offer. He confirmed very explicitly that, should I take on the role, I was not to reveal that I was being paid by the company: “You wouldn’t directly reference that you’re interning for Israel21c… that would sort of defeat the point of posting it.”
He also made it clear that Israel21c’s paid-for online interactions would be the polar opposite of grassroots and organic comments: “We’ll send you the posts… we’re basically going to tell you what to say… and you’re going to have to send this out to people that you know… you’re going to be limited in your ability to tailor it… What would be your job is to push that article out on social media… point to this sort of article on a community website, on a message board. Sort of a, ‘oh hey,’ you know, ‘you should look at this, here’s some good information on that.’”
What’s more, during Israel’s brutal 2014 offensive against the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, students at IDC Herzliya, an Israeli university, were recruited into a “war room” in order to help spread Israeli government propaganda online. During that war, Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children. In western capital cities whose governments were supportive of Israel, thousands of people went onto the streets in protest against the war, which was quite understandably unpopular around the world; calls to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel only grew louder. It is little surprise, therefore, that the Israeli government and its supporters should feel the need to use such desperate and underhand tactics in a futile attempt to turn back the tide of history.
However, instead of ditching their contempt for UN resolutions and international law and conventions, its propagandists are obsessed with the false notion that the reason for Israel’s global unpopularity is little more than bad PR. Indeed the term “hasbara” – the officially-used Hebrew word for Israeli propaganda – reflects this. The word translates literally as “explanation”, as if Israel by definition only ever does good things and the only problem there could possibly be is that its policies and actions are not explained properly.
The tactic of covertly “planting” such propaganda online is dishonest and undemocratic, but unlikely to succeed in the long run. The millions of dollars that Israel is throwing at its anti-BDS efforts are no match for the essential legitimacy and moral rightness of the Palestinians’ struggle for justice, freedom, equal rights and full return to the land from which they have been ethnically-cleansed ever since 1948.