Covert Units: The Latest Hasbara Eye Wash From Israel
Last week news came out regarding a program in Israel under which students, enticed by scholarships, would be recruited into “covert units” whose mission would be to sit at computers and post comments favorable to Israel on the Internet. What most of the stories failed to mention, however, is that this is nothing new for Israel.
The practice of recruiting “explainers” to push the “Israeli message” has been going on for at least the past six or seven years, and truth be told most of us have probably encountered these people in the comments sections of various websites we visit. Abnormal constructs regarding cause and effect, avoidance of substance in favor of character assassination—these are often indicators you’ve stumbled upon one.
But just for the record—and so that we might place this latest news into its proper context—let’s go back and review what has come out on this subject over the past several years or so, because it does make for some interesting reading and/or viewing.
Back in 2006, during the July war in Lebanon, Israeli students were rallied to participate in a program entitled “Take Three Minutes,” an effort designed to influence public thinking about the war then in progress. As with this latest scheme, the participants were advised to go to websites and post comments. The following comes from Ynet:
In an international effort they launched a campaign called “Take three minutes.” Starting Friday, some 500 students and activists of the Israel at Heart organization will start different type of war: The talkback offensive.
The students are set to log onto different websites considered hostile to Israel, with the goal of visiting few sites every day and flooding the different polls on the legitimacy of Israel’s operation with pro-Israel answers and points of views.
Each student sends the poll to his/her email list with a request to take three minutes and send the link to that poll to each person’s own email list, thereby hopefully creating a positive public opinion regarding Israel in the world.
The Israel at Heart organization was established by the American-Jewish businessman Joey Lowe.
According to Lowe, “along with the work done by the Foreign Ministry and the IDF’s Israeli spokespersons on international television networks we must not abandon the arena of the leading news sites. Those news sites allow surfers to respond to articles and participate in polls that they publish daily in response to the situation.
The article goes on to mention that the National Union of Israeli Students had lent its support to the cause. The program’s overall effectiveness is probably difficult to gauge, but perhaps worth noting is that even if the shooting war in Lebanon didn’t go so well for Israel, Israeli leaders were pleased generally with how the war for public opinion turned out:
“We have never had it so good,” said Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry’s then-deputy-director general for media and public affairs. “The hasbara effort is a well-oiled machine.”
Hasbara is a Hebrew word meaning literally “explanation”; it is viewed generally either as “public relations” or “propaganda,” depending upon one’s point of view.
The “well-oiled machine” continued receiving its periodic doses of lubrication in the years to come. In 2009 blogger Richard Silverstein published an article on a 116-page “hasbara handbook” written for The Israel Project (TIP) by Republican Party strategist Frank Luntz. Silverstein comments:
The first thing to say is that the entire document is a pathetic piece of propaganda. While it ostensibly is addressed to TIP’s leaders and advises them how to shape a pro-Israel message when they lobby Congress, the media and other critical power brokers, the entire thing reeks of desperation and a lost cause.
It goes without saying that the arguments offered are not only devoid of truth, they’re devoid of rigor or credibility. There is literally no substance to the claims offered on Israel’s behalf. It’s an empty exercise in every sense of the word. Reading this makes you realize that the entire Israel lobby edifice is a house of cards.
Well, maybe. But at any rate, Silverstein gives us a few sample quotes from the book. One is from a chapter entitled “25 Rules for Effective Communication”:
The first step to winning trust and friends for Israel is showing that you care about peace for BOTH Israelis and Palestinians and, in particular, a better future for every child. Indeed, the sequence of your conversation is critical and you must start with empathy for BOTH sides first. Open your conversation with strong proven messages such as:
“Israel is committed to a better future for everyone – Israelis and Palestinians alike. Israel wants the pain and suffering to end, and is committed to working with the Palestinians toward a peaceful, diplomatic solution where both sides can have a better future. Let this be a time of hope and opportunity for both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.
Silverstein goes on to describe the passage as “empty meaningless drivel,” and in that he is certainly correct; one who has to be coached to express empathy or humanity toward children living under an occupation probably doesn’t possess abundant amounts of either.
Also in 2009, writer Greg Felton published an article entitled, Israel’s Propagandists Shoot Themselves in the Foot as They Shoot Off Their Mouths:
If you’ve come across a hasbarat, on-line or otherwise, you have learned that no amount of reasoned argument or intellectual maturity has any effect. That’s because hasbarats don’t care if they come across as ignorant, obnoxious, nasty or inane. All that matters for them is sabotaging criticism of Israel and support for Muslims. They’re like anti-intellectual stink bombs: designed to cause maximum discomfort but have little if any real power.
This deliberate proliferation of on-line hasbarats raises two points. The first concerns why anyone would spend hours a day to prostitute themselves for Israel. Money, of course. Ilan Shturman, deputy director of the Israeli foreign ministry’s hasbara department (!), told an Israeli business newspaper in July that US $150,000 had been allocated for the first stage of a campaign to seed the Internet with hasbarats:
“Our people will not say: ‘Hello, I am from the hasbara department of the Israeli foreign ministry and I want to tell you the following.’ Nor will they necessarily identify themselves as Israelis. They will speak as net-surfers and as citizens, and will write responses that will look personal but will be based on a prepared list of messages that the foreign ministry developed.”
The second point is why Israel felt it had to resort to intellectual fraud on an international scale. The Internet has shown that Israel is a failed oppressor state that commits crimes against humanity as a matter of policy. The last straw for many was “Operation Cast Lead,” an act of such unspeakable unapologetic sadism that allusions to Nazi Germany are entirely appropriate.
Much of what we are seeing now does in fact seem to have gotten started with Operation Cast Lead. This was commented upon as well by Jonathan Cook in an article entitled Israel’s Internet War:
Elon Gilad, who heads the internet team, told Calcalist [an Israeli business publication] that many people had contacted the ministry offering their services during the Gaza attack. “People just asked for information, and afterwards we saw that the information was distributed all over the internet.”
He suggested that there had been widespread government cooperation, with the ministry of absorption handing over contact details for hundreds of recent immigrants to Israel, who wrote pro-Israel material for websites in their native languages.
The new team is expected to increase the ministry’s close coordination with a private advocacy group, giyus.org (Give Israel Your United Support). About 50,000 activists are reported to have downloaded a programme called Megaphone that sends an alert to their computers when an article critical of Israel is published. They are then supposed to bombard the site with comments supporting Israel.
Interestingly, Cook goes on to mention a “Brand Israel” campaign launched as far back as 2005, in which the Jewish state would “seek to use websites” to promote Israeli business successes and scientific and medical advances, and he also informs us that present-day Israeli leaders are “particularly concerned” over ebbing support among younger generations of Jews in the US and Europe.
In 2010, Haaretz reported on a new campaign to add pro-Israel slants to Wikipedia articles. It seems the effort was especially spearheaded by settlers, and who knows? It may still be going on to this day. I have never heard Wikipedia comment publicly as to what steps, if any, they have taken to insulate their content from Zionist hasbara tampering. At any rate, here’s an excerpt from the Haaretz article:
Now the Yesha Council of settlements and another right-wing group, Israel Sheli, are embarking on a Wikipedia battle: Zionist editing on the Web-based encyclopedia. The first course was held yesterday in Jerusalem.
“The idea is not to make Wikipedia rightist but for it to include our point of view,” said Naftali Bennett, the director of the Yesha Council.
“The Internet is not managed well enough, and Israel’s position there is appalling. Take for example the Turkish flotilla [to Gaza]. During the first hours we were nowhere to be found. In those first hours millions of people typed the words Gaza-bound flotilla and read what was written on Wikipedia.”
The course was designed to teach how to register for, contribute to and edit for Wikipedia.
The organizers’ aim was twofold: to affect Israeli public opinion by having people who share their ideological viewpoint take part in writing and editing for the Hebrew version, and to write in English so Israel’s image can be bolstered abroad.
Note Bennett’s comment about desiring to see better “management” of the Internet. This would of course be the same Naftali Bennett who recently said, “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life—and there’s no problem with that.” It seems Bennett may be invested, on the one hand, with improving Israel’s image on the Internet, while on the other expressing (in his perhaps more unguarded moments) pride in how many Arabs he’s killed. Bennett, who today heads up Israel’s Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor, can also be seen in the video below—apparently shot at the same training session as that mentioned in the Haaretz piece:
While the above didn’t take place until 2010, apparently at least the idea of influencing Wikpedia content germinated as far back as 2008. That was when the Electronic Intifada published an article accusing the Zionist organization CAMERA of planning “to rewrite history on Wikpedia”:
A pro-Israel pressure group is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.
A series of emails by members and associates of the pro-Israel group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), provided to The Electronic Intifada (EI), indicate the group is engaged in what one activist termed a “war” on Wikipedia.
A 13 March action alert signed by Gilead Ini, a “Senior Research Analyst” at CAMERA, calls for “volunteers who can work as ‘editors’ to ensure” that Israel-related articles on Wikipedia are “free of bias and error, and include necessary facts and context.” However, subsequent communications indicate that the group not only wanted to keep the effort secret from the media, the public, and Wikipedia administrators, but that the material they intended to introduce included discredited claims that could smear Palestinians and Muslims and conceal Israel’s true history.
As in the other cases previously discussed, the plan by CAMERA seems to have entailed a certain clandestine element. “Throughout the documents EI obtained, CAMERA operatives stress the need for stealth and secrecy,” the writer states.
And so it is with the latest scheme come to light. Israeli govt to recruit students as undercover agents on social media, headlined RT in a story published last Thursday:
Israel is set to recruit students to work undercover in “covert units” at universities. The students will post messages on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on the Israeli government’s behalf – without identifying themselves as government agents.
The students participating in the project will be part of the public diplomacy arm of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s office. Leaders of the “covert units” will receive full scholarships in return for their online public diplomacy (hasbara).
The Prime Minister’s Office is looking to invest up to 3 million shekels ($840,000) to recruit, organize and fund the activities of hundreds of university students, Haaretz reported.
The amount mentioned is of course considerably greater than the $150,000 appropriated back in 2009, but I suppose one must make allowances for inflation.
“We will get authoritative information out and make sure it goes viral,” commented one unnamed Israeli official. “We won’t leave negative stories out there online without a response, and we will spread positive messages. What we are doing is revolutionary. We are putting public diplomacy in the hands of the public.”
Arab-killer Bennett would doubtless be pleased at this efficient “management” of the Internet, and who knows? Maybe Bennett himself is the unnamed official quoted.
By the way, it seems Netanyahu picked a fine and upstanding Israeli gentleman to head up the new program. Daniel Seaman, who previously served with Israel’s Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, apparently has a natural, innate fondness for posting racist comments on Facebook—something which seems to be sort of a national pastime in Israel (see my article on Sacha Dratwa, the Israeli Army’s “social media guru,” who last year posted a photo of himself in blackface along with the words “Obama style.”)
Seaman reportedly posted a comment in which he referred to Palestinians as “stupid,” and at the beginning of Ramadan last month he publicly wondered whether the month-long observance would mean “that Muslims will stop eating each other during the daytime?” Seaman also created a diplomatic row with Japan by expressing dislike toward the annual remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, commenting that the atomic bombs dropped there were “the consequence of Japanese aggression,” and that “you reap what you sow.”
After these and other comments came to light, it was rumored that Seaman’s name had been withdrawn from consideration, but according to the Times of Israel, he is, for now, still in the running:
Over the weekend, Seaman, who had been told weeks ago to stop posting inappropriate statements, deleted the Facebook profile on which he had posted the offensive posts.
As of Sunday, Seaman’s professional future was unclear, according to sources familiar with the case, since an internal investigation into his behavior is ongoing and a decision is forthcoming. As a tenured civil servant with seniority, it is difficult to fire Seaman from government service, but it is possible to rescind his recent appointment, they said.
Finally one other thing worth mentioning. The Jewish Daily Forward published a story last Thursday that has no connection, or at least no apparent connection, to the brigades of Internet trolls being formed, but which does nonetheless underscore the Jewish state’s seemingly unbending obsession with public relations and perception management.
A Jewish Agency for Israel plan currently in development would combine donor dollars from the United States with Israeli government funds to create what is likely the most expensive pro-Israel campaign ever.
If brought to fruition, the initiative would eventually spend $300 million a year on pro-Israel efforts in the United States and other parts of the Diaspora.
Underscoring perhaps what Cook said above regarding ebbing support for Israel among younger generations of Jews, the plan does seem to be targeted, at least for the most part, toward diaspora Jews, particularly the younger set.
Under the proposed plan, some funds would be spent on Birthright and other Israel trips for Diaspora Jews. Another pool of funds would be used to bolster immigration to Israel among young Jewish professionals. Other money would be used to support Israel education in Diaspora Jewish communities and to send Israelis to Jewish institutions outside Israel. Finally, some funds would be used for pro-Israel programming on campuses.
And as with the “covert units,” this initiative, too, seems to have sprung from the prime minister’s office.
It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. None of Israel’s previous efforts over the years seem to have reversed its plummeting national image. Is there any reason to believe these latest endeavors will be any different? Hard to say for sure, and it’s not impossible the Israelis have something up their sleeve this time, a new false-flag attack, or something of that nature. All I can tell you for sure, is there seems to be a considerable level of optimism that this new effort is going to be a roaring success.
“It’s about having a table where the government of Israel and a strong, upstanding agency and Diaspora Jewry… can sit to really have a discussion about the Jewish future,” said one Jewish agency official quoted in the story.
Rather than engage in speculation, I’ll simply leave up to the reader to judge, for himself, or herself, the level or degree of insanity bell-towered in such a statement.
Of course, there is one thing Israel could do to boost its image worldwide, something that could be done relatively quickly and that would work rather almost like magic: dismantle its illegal settlements and give the land to the Palestinians for a state. One would think this would be a far easier undertaking than spending enormous amounts of time, effort, and money engaging in relentless hasbara deceits, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be part of the game plan.