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  • Michael Dickson

The Online Frontline

Originally published in The Jewish News

Days before thousands of Israeli reservists were called up by the army, hundreds of their counterparts were being conscripted and armed only with a computer to fight in the new frontier of warfare: the Internet.

Israel's campaign against Hamas may be the world's first social war, being fought on social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, on talkbalks of leading media sites and on blogs.

As news of the air campaign broke, our organisation, working closely with Israeli authorities set up an Internet Task Force to lead the fight. A multilingual and web-savvy core group of around 15 bloggers and experts were brought together to co-ordinate a strategic battle for public opinion which, within days comprised thousands of activists. They are working around the clock to respond in real-time to online criticism of Israel and to help counter misinformation about the situation.

Why is this important? Consider this: the most viewed YouTube clip has been seen by over 60 million people, Facebook has some 65 million users and around 200 million blogs have been created in the last five years. The 'Web 2.0' revolution has opened up the Internet. Media websites either get interactive or they die and that means that everyone gets a say. There is a debate out there; we must engage in it.

Via the internet, organisations or individuals can have a greater effect than that of a country and Israel's enemies have long known this. In a perceptive article in The Washington Post shortly after the terror attacks on 9/11, US diplomat Richard Holbrooke asked of Osama Bin Laden, "How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?" The terrorist adversaries of Israel know that as well as being a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, the Internet is the central battleground for their PR.

And so to the current efforts: within a short period of time, a 'Situation Room' had been set up and our Task Force was live-blogging, posting up YouTube videos, coordinating media responses and using innovative tools to put Israel's message across. These included people adopting a special 'I Love Israel' profile pictures on their social networks and also a web application created by two internet pioneers (called 'QassamCount') which changes peoples status on Facebook or Twitter every time a rocket falls on Israel. If we can harness the power of the masses and focus them on particular problems, we begin to make a difference. The IDF's new YouTube channel has some 12,000 users and there are several Facebook groups backing the IDF's operations, among them "I support the Israel Defense Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks from Gaza" which has more than 53,000 members.

The internet is the frontline of the battle for public opinion. This is web advocacy on a war footing and we are making a significant difference. Israel's case in this operation against Hamas is rock-solid; we have seen demonstrable evidence that when given the facts, presented by real people using the Internet, it changes people's minds.

This effort has been born in battle but it must continue. For too long Israel has allowed itself to be defined by others and the Internet has been a breeding ground for the deligitimisation of the Jewish state. The danger of the Web 2.0 revolution is also the beauty of it: everyone is involved and that means you, too. Consider this your call-up for reserve duty.

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