Feature: Israel's effort in digital diplomacy fosters new connections, reaching audiences in hostile countries

Source: Xinhua| 2020-06-04 17:02:50|Editor: huaxia

by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, June 4 (Xinhua) -- Top Israeli foreign ministry officials say that increasing efforts in social media targeting countries and audiences usually hostile to the Jewish state are increasingly bearing fruit.

In a video briefing held on Wednesday by officials from the digital diplomacy department at the ministry, they described the efforts being made and the results they are increasingly seeing. The online platforms allow direct contact with citizens of neighboring countries which Israel does not have diplomatic relations with.

"Digital activities have become a core activity of the ministry," said Yiftah Curiel, head of digital diplomacy department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The department was formed in 2011, when it was becoming increasingly evident that what was once a side task for a diplomat, online activity is now a major part of the job. Upon beginning their training, ministry cadets are immediately instructed to open and actively maintain Twitter accounts.

The office operates five channels on the different online platforms in six languages with 80 accounts in total, all run by 25 staffers. According to the officials, they reach 12 million people every week through the various outlets.

One of the concerted efforts undertaken by the ministry is the maintenance of a Persian language Instagram account targeted at bringing in Iranian audiences. Instagram is the only social media platform not banned in Iran. There is a concerted effort by diplomats to establish direct contact with Iranian citizens. The account has half a million followers, a milestone that was celebrated by the ministry earlier this week.

"Our goal is not only to interact directly but also try to break stereotypes about Israel," said Mr. Yonathan Gonen, director of New Media in Arabic at the Israeli foreign ministry.

There have also been several online exchanges between Israeli and Iranian officials, the only arena in which the two interact.

Gonen and his staff also operate two virtual embassies, one for Iraq and one for the Gulf states. According to him, people are interested in the cultural and hi-tech scenes in Israel. The majority of comments on those pages are positive, Gonen said.

The pages focus on "mutual interests and common values," with short movies being posted frequently. The recent hot topic is the global fight against the spread of COVID-19, which has further highlighted the commonalities between countries.

According to ministry data, the number of followers on all platforms combined doubles every year. Polls conducted by the department annually demonstrate changes in public opinion towards Israel. They have seen improvement especially in Gulf states and in Iraq, with a slight improvement in attitudes in northern African countries.

"It's not always about numbers though. People tell us in comments that they have changed their mind. This is a sign of success," said Gonen. But, he says, the change cannot be only attributed to social media activism. Other changes in the Arab world in recent years have also shifted opinions.

While the pages attract many positive responses, the officials acknowledge there are still many negative comments on the pages. They try to answer as many as possible, both favorable and the less sympathetic ones.

"It will take some years, perhaps not generations, before we see more positive than negative comments," he added.

However, according to the ministry, the change is significant and must not be underestimated.

"Israel is no longer seen as the big problem for their local issues. This is a big change we see," he said at the briefing, "We hope that we are planting the seeds for the future. Enditem