The war for public opinion may not be as deadly as the military one being waged on Lebanese and Israeli soil, but it is surely more bizarre.
Alarmed at what it perceives as a pro-Lebanese bias in the MSM and in cyberspace, the Israeli Foreign Ministry itself has called up a different sort of reserve force — Jewish activist and student groups — in an organized effort to win the PR war.
An appeal in the form of an emailed letter, signed by Amir Gissin, the Director for Public Affairs at the Israeli Ministry, identified the Internet as “the new battleground for Israel’s image.” He must have in part been referring to the almost overnight proliferation of blogs from Lebanon, which seem to be spontaneous and unsupported by any Lebanese ministry. The outpouring of first-person accounts coming out of Lebanon via newly constructed blogs and mass emails has managed to give a human and sometimes charismatic face to a country oft beleaguered by war but unable until now to disseminate with speed and savvy Lebanese narratives of what is happening in that country.
The blogs and emails have been so effective that stories have run on them in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), MSNBC.com, and the Associated Press. The keepers of these blogs have also been interviewed on Nightline, BBC, and CSPAN, not to mention a host of European media.
Simultaneously, the Internet has allowed Lebanese and other Arab voices to be accessible to English-language consumers, especially those not satiated by the MSM’s coverage of the conflict. With these new ways of communicating — blogs, forums, mass emails — being heard is no longer dependent on wealth and power or even on volume, membership in political parties, or in armed militias. The convergence of these dynamics has meant readers are hearing the unfiltered voices of regular yet diverse folk —voices that have often been eloquent, artistic, reflective, even academic, a notable difference from the hysterical, wailing, or angry masses the MSM tends to capture on the “Arab Street.”
Now, to counter these voices, the Israeli FM is urging supporters of Israel to go to the Web site, Give Israel Your United Support, and download the “Megaphone” software, developed by an Israeli company to alert subscribers to internet polls, “problematic” articles, and online debates which the Ministry would like Israel supporters to “talk back” to. GIYUS.org puts activists just a click away from the forums in which they are asked to participate or the media outlets to which they are asked to complain.
To counter the counter-move, pro-Lebanon and other Arab supporters have circulated the link to GIYUS.org and told their supporters to download the software and be alerted to the same discussions. So these “enemies” are now using each other’s tools.
The result: Deeply entrenched partisans yelling at each other in a sort of orgy of catharsis long overdue in a region where people literally could not speak directly to each other while remaining in their countries. Now, with chat-rooms and the like, a space that transcends borders has been created, where dialogue can bloom. Sure, right now it doesn’t sound like dialogue, but there is some evidence in these discussions that there is room to hear The Other — once partisans get over the initial shock of being confronted with positions that hate had until now shielded them from hearing before.
Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.
That dialogue is perhaps a far better chance for lasting and viable resolution in the region than any military campaign or ceasefire.