Information and conflict - case study Israel 2014

I'm about to talk about Israel and Palestine ... Let's hope it doesn't end up like this...

Well, actually, it's not really Palestine and Israel I want to talk about but the use of information and communications in war. 

There has been something different about the coverage of Israel's latest offensive against Gaza. Israel is usually understood to be a master at controlling the narrative. But, something has changed. You could argue that in previous conflicts Israel has killed civilians, including children and aid workers. You could also argue that there have been demonstrations against Israel's use of force before, or that Israelis and Jews around the world have stood against the actions of the government in other cases. 2014, however, will be remembered as the year that Israel lost the narrative wars. Some have said to me that a bit of bad coverage in some outlets and the recalling of the ambassador of Brazil account for little. But I bet Israeli policy makers see it differently. For them, losing public support for their actions in Western Europe and North America has a direct, real-world impact.  

Israel's predicament has been picked up the mainstream press:

Channel 4 News reporter Paul Mason, makes some very good observations from a reporter's perspective - and bear in mind that for reporters, social media being used to report and consume news, is a sort of professional competitor:

- Twitter provides an unfiltered, alternative news source - one that young Americans trust more than traditional networks

- Journalists are reporting via tweets from inside Gaza - these comments, pictures etc are not filtered by editors 

- The collective assessment of information that happens via social media makes it difficult for governments to provide their own gloss on events and makes it easier to quickly spot wrong information

- It is harder for ordinary members of the public to avoid the human tragedy of a violent event when friends and family are flooding your Facebook, Twitter, Google+ etc timelines  

New York Magazine outlines how this has affected the way audiences see the conflict:

"I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances."

I think it is highly probable that this conflict will be studied by information operations, strategic communications and political communications practitioners in the future. Israel is losing the media war largely because the environment (technology, Western popular exposure to the Middle East, the media industry etc) has changed. Similar factors to those that are upending the news industry are making it difficult for those who developed tactics for influencing it to carry on as before. Whereas in the past, it might have been enough to influence a few gatekeepers (eg. correspondents, editors, proprietors), today there are few obvious individuals to influence.

However, in a recent report about the Syrian conflict and social media, Marc Lynch made the point that gatekeepers hadn't been removed altogether, only that they had been replaced by informal networks that collect and curate information. He also raised the point that news consumers tend to gravitate to those sources of information that they already agree with - which calls into question thoughts that what we are seeing is a movement towards the democratisation of information and therefore a more just and equitable outcome. 

In the specific example of Israel; I'm guessing that the reaction we are seeing is a result of a number of factors, including those already mentioned in the articles I've linked to above. But one that hasn't been mentioned is how the new environment affects Israel's existing strategy. I'd have to admit I'd be guessing at what Israel's outreach strategy would be, but having seen the output I would say that it broadly aimed at creating the overall impression amongst mainstream Western audiences (ie. not the religious right) that Israel and its society is familiar, comfortable and friendly (i.e. culturally and politically similar), but to avoid or downplay too much focus on the conflict with Palestinians.  

If this strategy is undermined every time there is a similar conflict, Israel will have to reassess its actions in the future. However, for Palestinians to turn this coverage into concrete actions that improve the lives of the population of Gaza, the Hamas and PLO leadership will need to take political steps on the back of the coverage. 

Marc Lynch on strategic communications in Syria

Middle East expert Marc Lynch has a policy brief out over at the Center for New American Security (CNAS) arguing for more diplomatic pressure on Syria rather than armed intervention.

Two recommendations that caught Londonstani's eye were what Marc calls "counter regime propaganda" and "support and encourage unity amongst opposition groups".

On the communications approach, Marc suggests that an effort that would publicise the regime's atrocities to effectively disabuse supporters of the convenient falicy that the government is not massacring civilians to cling to power, but rather fighting a militant insurection.

Londonstani hasn't been in Syria since the uprising, but keeping in mind what he remembers of the media environment there, he suspects that Syrians who want to know what's happening are likely to be able to find out. What the regime is relying upon is the desire not to know. This may be because people have a personal link to the establishment, or a personal stake in the status quo (which could, but not necessarily, have an ethnic/sectarian element).

An effective communications campaign against the Syrian regime would start where all effective communications begin; figuring out what the regime is saying and trying to understanding what emotions/fears/hopes it's trying to tap into.

The most obvious regime line of argument - as seen time and again in other Arab states - is the claim of "Western conspiracy"and the appeal to Arab/national pride. Addressing, disproving and defusing this narrative is key. Marc's point about reassuring minorities that the fall of the regime might actually be a good thing for them, makes sense within this approach.

The point about the Syrian opposition could also be linked to diplomacy and communications. Yes, the opposition needs unity. One way to encourage that would be to leverage Syrian civil society groups, diaspora communities and individuals inside the country to press their would-be representatives to shoulder their responsibility more effectively.