Those of us who are highly critical of Israel’s ability to manipulate U.S. foreign policy frequently note how sites that permit comments on our articles are almost immediately inundated with hostile postings that are remarkably similar in both tone and substance. Given that it is unlikely that large numbers of visitors to the sites read the offending piece more-or-less simultaneously, react similarly to its content, and then go on to express their disgust in very similar language, many of us have come to the conclusion that the Israeli government or some of the groups dedicated to advancing Israeli interests turn loose supporters who are dedicated to combating and refuting anything and everything that casts Israel in a negative light.
The fact is that Israel is extremely active in an enterprise that falls in the gray area between covert operations and overt governmental activity. Many governments seek to respond to negative commentary in the media, but they normally do it openly with an ambassador or press officer countering criticism by sending in a letter, writing an op-ed, or appearing on a talk show. Such activity is generally described as public diplomacy when it is done openly by a recognized government official and the information itself is both plausible and verifiable, at least within reasonable limits. Israel does indeed do that, but it also engages in other activities that are not so transparent and which are aimed at spreading false information.
When an intelligence organization seeks to influence opinion by creating and deliberately circulating “false news,” it is referred to as a “disinformation operation.” But Israel has refined the art of something that expands upon that, what might be referred to more accurately as “perception management” or “influence operations” in which it only very rarely shows its hand overtly, in many cases paying students as part-time bloggers or exploiting diaspora Jews as volunteers to get its message out. The practice is so systemic, involving recruitment, training, Foreign Ministry-prepared information sheets, and internet alerts to potential targets, that it is frequently described by its Hebrew name, hasbara, which means literally “public explanation.” It is essentially an internet-focused “information war” that parallels and supports the military action whenever Israel enters into conflict with any of its neighbors or seeks to influence public opinion in the United States and Europe.
The hasbara onslaught inevitably cranks up when Israel is being strongly criticized. There were notable surges in activity when Israel attacked Gaza in 2009 and 2012, as well as when it hijacked the Turkish humanitarian relief ship the Mavi Marmara in 2011. The devastating 2014 Gaza fighting inevitably followed suit, producing a perfect storm of pro-Israel commentary contesting any published piece that in any way sympathized with the Palestinians. The comments tend to appear in large numbers on websites where moderation and registration requirements are minimal, including Yahoo! News, or Facebook and Twitter.
The hasbara comments are noticeable as they tend to sound like boilerplate, and run contrary to or even ignore what other contributors to the site are writing. They often include spelling and syntactical hints that the writer is not natively fluent in English. As is the practice at corporate customer support call centers in Asia, the commenters generally go by American-sounding names and use fake email addresses. They never indicate that they are Israelis or working on behalf of the Israeli government and they tend to repeat over and over again sound bites of pseudo-information, as when they falsely insist that Hamas was solely responsible for the recent Gazan wars and that Israel was only defending itself. The commenters operate in the belief that if something is repeated often enough in many different places it will ipso facto gain some credibility and create doubts regarding contrary points of view.
That Israel is engaged in perception management on a large scale has more-or-less been admitted by the Israeli government, and some of its mechanisms have been identified, to include the Strategic Affairs Ministry headed by Gilad Erdan. The most recent wrinkle, focused on countering the nonviolent Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, is an app called ACT.IL, that was developed by Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) in collaboration with the Israeli American Council, which can be downloaded at iTunes, Apple app store and Google Play. The app enables one to tap into “the collective knowledge of IDC students who together speak 35 languages hail from 86 countries and have connections to the pro-Israel community all over the world.” The Jerusalem Post, in an article praising the new initiative, describes how, “in this virtual situation room of experts, they detect instances where Israel is being assailed online and they program the app to find missions that can be carried out with a push of a button.” What does it do? In a trial run, an Australian business that allegedly refused to serve Israelis was bombarded with negative Facebook comments that reduced its rating from a 4.6 to a 1.4.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has sent a letter out to a number of pro-Israel organizations emphasizing the “importance of the internet as the new battleground for Israel’s image.” Haaretz reported in 2013 how Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office collaborated with the National Union of Israeli Students to establish “covert units” at the seven national universities to be structured in a “semi-military” fashion and organized in situation rooms. Students are paid as much as $2,000 monthly to work the online targets.
The serious collaboration between government and volunteers actually began with Operation Cast Lead in early 2009, an incursion into Gaza that killed more than 1,800 Palestinians, when the Foreign Ministry pulled together a group of mostly young computer savvy soldiers supplemented by students both overseas and within Israel to post a number of government-crafted responses to international criticism.
Many of the initial volunteers worked through a website giyus.org (an acronym for Give Israel Your United Support). The website included a desktop tool called Megaphone that provided daily updates on articles appearing on the internet that had to be challenged or attacked. There were once believed to be 50,000 activists receiving the now-inactive Megaphone’s alerts.
There have also been reports about a pro-Israel American group called Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) preparing to enter its own version of developments in the Middle East on the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia. E-mails from CAMERA reveal that the group sought volunteers in 2008 to edit material on Wikipedia “to help us keep Israel-related entries … from becoming tainted by anti-Israel editors,” while also recommending that articles on the Middle East be avoided initially by supporters so as not to arouse suspicions about their motives. Volunteers were also advised to use false names that did not hint at any Israeli or Jewish connection and to avoid any references to being organized by CAMERA. Fifty volunteers reportedly were actively engaged in the program when it was exposed in the media and the program was put on hold.
CAMERA is an Internal Revenue Service-approved 501(c)(3) organization, which means that contributions to it are tax exempt. Such exemptions are granted to organizations that are either charitable or educational in nature and they normally preclude any involvement in partisan political activity. As CAMERA would not appear to qualify as a charity, it is to be presumed that its application for special tax status stressed that it is educational. Whether its involvement in “un-tainting” Wikipedia truly falls within that definition might well be debated, particularly as it appears to have been carried out in semi-clandestine fashion. CAMERA might well also be considered to be a good candidate for registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), as its activity is uniquely focused on promoting the perceived interests of a foreign government.
The use of Israel’s universities as propaganda mills by the government also raises other significant issues. The growing BDS movement has included some Israeli universities as targets because of their alleged involvement with the government in the occupation of the West Bank. That the universities are also involved in possible government-sponsored information operations might be an additional convincing argument that BDS supporters might use to justify blacklisting at least some Israeli academic institutions.
Every government is engaged in selling a product, which is its own self-justifying view of what it does and how it does it. But the largely clandestine Israeli effort to influence American opinion is unique in that it comes from a country which receives more than $3 billion annually from the U.S. taxpayer. We Americans are therefore paying to be propagandized by people working for a foreign government who often pretend to be our fellow citizens but are not. What is occurring is essentially an intelligence operation directed against the United States, something that the CIA would have run back in the 1970s and 1980s. That Israel can continue to reap huge amounts of aid and political cover from Washington while it is actively working to make sure that Americans are poorly informed about the Middle East reveals more than anything the corruption of our political class and media, both of which appear to be ready to sell out for thirty shekels to anyone with the cash in hand. Time to drain the swamp, indeed.