Web 2.0 warfare from Gaza to Iran

Twitterati hack official Iranian websites
Twitterati hack official Iranian websites

by Tom Griffin

Recent weeks have seen an explosion of interest in Twitter, a social networking application which has been used by thousands of internet users to pass on news, views and rumours about the situation unfolding in Iran in the wake of the disputed presidential election.

The Iranian struggle is not however, the first conflict in which emerging ‘Web 2.0’ social media technologies have played a significant role. Israel’s offensive in Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009 provides an important precedent which shows that, despite its undoubted potential for empowering new forms of bottom-up organisation, the social web is not immune from very traditional propaganda techniques.

Operation Cast Lead – The First Social Media War
The roots of Israel’s media strategy in Gaza emerged in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War. The Winograd Commission appointed by the Israeli Government to look into the conflict criticised a lack of co-ordination in the country’s media effort. This led to the creation of the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office to co-ordinate efforts across government departments.[1][2]

The new directorate became operational some eight months before the Gaza conflict, and began planning for the offensive two months later, well before the events that ostensibly led to the breakdown of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.[1] As well as co-ordinating government ministries, the directorate also liaised with bloggers and community organisations. [3]

One key reservoir of new media expertise in Israel was the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, a private college with some notable connections to Israeli intelligence. It hosts the Institute for Policy and Strategy formerly headed by Uzi Arad, an ex- Mossad intelligence director and currently an advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu. Arad was questioned by the FBI and barred from the US for several years because of his contacts in Washington and Herzliya with Larry Franklin, a US official jailed for leaking classified documents to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.[4]

IDC Herzliya’s GLORIA Center is also the base for the Middle East Review of International Affairs, the journal from which the British Government plagiarised elements of the February 2003 ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq.[5]

In June 2007, the IDC’s Sammy Ofer School of Communications became the home for a new centre with an explicit remit to develop new media technologies for ‘telling Israel’s story to the world’, The Asper Institute for New Media Diplomacy.

According to its founding statement , the Institute “provides workshops on creating effective new media advocacy campaigns and works with students in producing video, audio and written content about various aspects of life in Israel for use in new media channels such as the blogosphere, virtual worlds, social networks, computer games, pod casts and more.”[6]

The Institute’s project’s include a media fellows programme , which trains 15 students in “promoting Israeli advocacy using new media tools” each of whom “will be expected to be on call ready to provide credible, first hand information on their experiences in Israel.”[7]

Also notable is a year-long Israel advocacy course for international students called the Ambassador’s Club.  This programme is run by the Institute in conjunction with US-based Israel advocacy organisation StandWithUs, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry.[8][9]

The three-way relationship between IDC Herzliya, StandWithUs and the Foreign Ministry was central to Israel’s new media operation following the launch of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

As the Israeli offensive got under way in December 2008, the Sammy Ofer School and StandWithUs came together to launch an online operation entitled Help Us Win.

Working with Stand With Us, the school’s dean, Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich-Latar and Major Reserve Jonathan Davis of the IDC, prepared the IDC students with relevant information that would help their cause. Asaf Talmor-Wertheimer, CEO and Co-Founder, Atarim Group Ltd. took time from work to join the Help Us Win cause as one of the group leaders.[10]

The project established two situation rooms, in Herzliya and Jerusalem, staffed around the clock by 15 to 20 volunteers whose role, according to the JTA news agency, was to “promote pro-Israel content on social networking Web sites, respond to online opinion polling and try to alter the tenor of discussions in Internet chat rooms.”[11] In the US, the New York office of StandWithUs was also co-ordinating with these efforts.[12]

One of those hired by StandWithUs to lead the project was social media consultant Niv Calderon.[13] In an online résumé Calderon described his role during this period as “social media presence and crisis management for the Israeli For[e]ign Ministry during operation Cast Lead”.[14]

Calderon issued an appeal for volunteers on his personal website on 29 December, and provided an update on progress on 1 January.[15][16]

So what have we been doing so far?

Fighting the “First Social War” made us realize we are fighting a multi-platform, multi-language, cross-cultural, cross-technology battle. Two days ago(Tuesday) I took part in building the Jerusalem Social Media Situation Room for the recent Israel Hamas conflict. Yesterday I’ve joined forces (along with other friends) with the second situation room in the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya which generously hosts us and let us use its facilities, personnel and connections.[16]

The post highlighted the following activities:

This is what we’ve got so far:

1- A blog: Help Us Win. The center of attention.
2- A multi language Status Report center that can show you (currently in English and French) what’s going on all over the social web, divided to tabs for the different subjects and languages.
3- A Recruiting System – please register if you wanna help.
4- a Twitter account.
5- Two Facebook groups, in English and French.
6- A Press Releases Blog for government and IDF press releases. They should be more available anyway.[16]

According to Calderon, the tools used by HelpUsWin up to this point included: Gmail, Google Docs, WordPress, Tumblr, Picasa Web, Netvibes, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Wufoo Forms.[16]

They also produced a social networking application called QassamCount, to track the number of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel. This was initially created for Twitter by Dan Peguine, who went onto develop a version for Facebook with Arik Fraimovich.[17]

75,000 people had downloaded the application by February 2009, according to Calderon, who predicted that its influence would long outlast the conflict:

That’s where the real power of QassamCount is. Most people haven’t removed it and it reminds us of things we don’t hear on the everyday news anymore, it travels the social web (and the social graphs), it shows you what we’ve been trying to say all this time, all these 9 years of crazyness that we’ve enduered, that no country will allow its citizens to be targeted. As the Qassams are the justification for operation Cast Lead , QassamCount is bookmarking tool and the constant reminder to the public around the world that there is more than one truth in this story.[18]

According to one member of the group, Ahuvah Berger, the HelpUsWin team also advised the Israeli government on its own extensive official social media effort.[19]

In the opening days of the conflict, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit established its own blog and YouTube channel featuring footage which purported to demonstrate the precision of Israeli targeting in Gaza.[20] The Israeli Consulate in New York also launched its own Twitter page. The first message announced an online press conference about the conflict with the Consul for Media and Public Affairs, David Saranga.[21]

As the conflict wore on, such tactics were widely seen to be successful.  Historian Avi Shlaim suggested that the National Information Directorate had managed to establish three core messages in the international media, messages which he suggested amounted to ‘a pack of lies’.[22]

It was not Hamas but the IDF that broke the ceasefire. It did so by a raid into Gaza on 4 November that killed six Hamas men. Israel’s objective is not just the defence of its population but the eventual overthrow of the Hamas government in Gaza by turning the people against their rulers. And far from taking care to spare civilians, Israel is guilty of indiscriminate bombing and of a three-year-old blockade that has brought the inhabitants of Gaza, now 1.5 million, to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.[22]

Guardian contributor Rachel Shabi suggested that the PR offensive was enabling Israel to prolong the physical assault on Gaza.[23]

Indeed, that’s a core discussion within the Israeli media: how long have we got before the world forces us to stop? Reports, especially in the first week, comprised interviews with Israeli correspondents in Europe and the US commenting on how well the media had swallowed the Israeli message.[23]

Following the unilateral ceasefires which ended the operation in mid-January, Herzliya became the venue for an evaluation of Israel’s social media effort.

The GLORIA Center at IDC gathered about thirty Israeli bloggers and members of Israel’s foreign and defense ministries for an informal gathering to evaluate the blogging effort during the Gaza war, new techniques and future challenges. Topics discussed included lessons of the Gaza battle for blogalogical warfare, live-blogging, new technologies and interactions with government. Bloggers delivered short presentations on their personal experiences and discussed future plans for cooperation.[24]

The lasting legacy of Israel’s approach to new media during the conflict was reflected in June when Consul David Saranga told the 140 Characters Conference in New York that Twitter had revolutionised Israeli diplomacy.[21]

Saranga said his goal is to use any platform necessary to present Israel’s voice.

“I believe that if we want to win the cyber war – War 2.0 – the only way to win it is by coalitions, by bringing our people on board in order to participate in this conversation,” he said.[25]

Even as Saranga was speaking a new conflict was unfolding, which would bring Twitter and its political potential to global attention as never before.

Twitter, Iran and the Green Revolution

In the aftermath of Iran’s disputed election on 12 June, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest against the return of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.[26] In the face of a government clampdown on the international media, the internet became a key source of news on the ‘Green revolution’, and nowhere more so than Twitter. Thousands of users turned their icons green in solidarity with the protestors, and passed on, or ‘re-tweeted’, reports from ‘twitterers’ inside Iran. In many cases, they removed the original sources and listed their own Twitter locations as Tehran, in the hope of confusing the Iranian authorities. They even (with the help of the US State Department) persuaded Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance to allow coverage of events in Iran to continue.[27]

Not everyone was enthusiastic about this development, however. US blog Charting Stocks claimed to detect an Israeli hand behind the explosion of Iranian coverage on Twitter.

I narrowed the spammers down to three of the most persistent – @StopAhmadi @IranRiggedElect@Change_For_Iran
I decided to do a google search for 2 of the 3 – @StopAhmadi and @IranRiggedElect. The first page to come up was JPost (Jerusalem Post) which is a right wing newspaper pro-Israeli newspaper.
JPost actually ran a story about 3 people “who joined the social network mere hours ago have already amassed thousands of followers.” Why would a news organization post a story about 3 people who JUST JOINED TWITTER hours earlier? Is that newsworthy? JPost was the first (and only to my knowledge) major news source that mentioned these 3 spammers.[28]

The Jerusalem Post defend its coverage as “part of an online documentation of Iranians’ reaction to the election results on social media outlets” and argued that many stories spread on Twitter had subsequently been verified by journalists.

One important example includes several Twitter reports on Sunday that government forces were heard speaking Arabic, raising suspicions that Hizbullah and Hamas reinforcements have been brought in.

This item was only available in the mainstream media on Wednesday, three days later; a correspondent for The Jerusalem Post in Teheran reported first-hand allegations of Hamas involvement overnight Tuesday.[29]

The Post story went on to explain the influence of Twitter with the help of an academic voice:

“We used to be customers of the media,” said Dr. Yair Amichai-Hamburger, director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology at Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. “Now we produce the media.”

Regular, everyday people have become journalists and social activists, he added, and a group of people with a shared interest can form a small but influential army. This allows the ability for real, dynamic opposition that is nearly impossible to suppress, even in a dictatorship like Iran, Amichai-Hamburger said.

Twitter in particular works well for such communication because it is short, simple and instant. Amichai-Hamburger explained that Twitter’s immediateness escalates users’ emotions, because people who are always online and always connected are always involved.[29]

The Sammy Ofer School had of course been heavily involved in the HelpUsWin project six months earlier. In rejecting the notion of an Israeli-orchestrated social media campaign on Iran, the Post had turned to the very institution at the centre of the social media campaign on Gaza.

It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Dr Amichai-Hamburger’s theory of user involvement is as applicable to the Gaza conflict as to Iran.  If Facebook users gained a sense of involvement in Gaza though updates from QassamCount, Twitter uses following the Iranian struggle did the same by greening their avatars at HelpIranElection.com.[30]

That was not the only thing the two applications had in common. HelpIranElection.com was created by Arik Fraimovich, the same IDC Herzliya student who adapted QassamCount for Facebook.[30]

Fraimovich is also a former consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, a fact which caused some controversy when it was noticed by some users of HelpIranElection.com.[31] Challenged by two Egyptian Twitterers, Fraimovich responded:

@ahmedsalem309 @mshady a. I no longer work for MOD; b. while I don’t like their administration, I do have sympathy for the people.[32]

At some point after this conversation, the reference to the Ministry of Defense consultancy was removed from the about page on Fraimovich’s blog. Interestingly, so too was the reference to his studying at the IDC Herzliya.[33]

Fraimovich’s QassamCount application was clearly an instrument of Israeli foreign policy. It is surely legitimate to ask, therefore, whether the same might not be true of HelpIranElection.com.

It is not necessarily obvious what the object of such an exercise might be, but it is doubtful whether Israel’s goals would have much in common with those of the Iranian protestors.

Mossad Chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset on 16 June that if Mousavi had won the election “Israel would have had a more serious problem” because Iran would have been in a stronger position to defend its nuclear program.[34] Among Israel’s neoconservative supporters in the US, key figures such as Daniel Pipes and Michael Rubin took a similar view in the run-up to the election.[35]

One neocon who took an opposite stance, Iran-Contra player Michael Ledeen, foresaw the prospect of violence but was also notably optimistic about the prospects for “a free Iran that worries about Iranians instead of Palestinians.”[36] In the wake of the disputed poll more neoconservatives swung towards this view, to the consternation of Iranian-Americans Trita Parsi and Reza Aslan.

At a time when the movement in Iran is paralyzed, efforts by exiled groups — groups that scorned the protesters only weeks ago for choosing to participate in the elections — to fill the leadership vacuum are viewed as nothing less than a maneuver to hijack the movement.

This is playing right into the hands of the Ahmadinejad government, precisely because it would weaken, if not eliminate, the indigenous movement’s trump card: its ability to attract the Iranian swing-voters back to its side. If the exiled opposition groups and their neo-conservative backers in the United States prevail in aiding the Ahmadinejad government, what started out as the largest Iranian mass movement since 1979 may end up as little more than the student demonstrations of 1999. Which is to say, an instance of hopes raised, then dashed.[37]

The danger of weakening the domestic Iranian opposition might not deter Israel’s supporters if their most important aim is to weaken Iran’s diplomatic position regardless of who is in power.  If that is the case, then it may be the repression from the Ahmedinejad-Khamenei  faction which has played into Israel’s hands rather than the Mousavi-led opposition, whose support from neoconservatives seems to have varied in inverse proportion to their prospects of actually winning power.

Significant evidence that this is indeed the Israeli government’s position is provided by a story which appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz, almost two weeks before the election.

Organizing demonstrations in front of Iranian consulates worldwide, staging mock stonings and hangings in public, and launching a massive media campaign against Iran – these are just some of the steps Israeli diplomats have been told to take in the coming weeks. The goal, according to a senior Foreign Ministry official, is “to show the world that Iran is not a Western democracy” in the run-up to the country’s presidential election on June 12.

About a week ago, the head of the ministry’s Task Force on Isolating Iran sent a classified telegram to all Israeli embassies and consulates, titled “Activities in the Run-up to Iran’s Presidential Election.” It detailed things Israeli representatives should do before, during and after the election.[38]

Given that Twitter is supposed to have revolutionised Israeli diplomacy, one might expect a “massive media campaign” to “show the world that Iran is not a Western democracy” to include a social media element. One might not be surprised to find that element based on the people and tactics employed in the Gaza social media effort.

The role of Arik Fraimovich and helpiranelection.com is perhaps the best evidence that this is what happened, and that the Israeli government’s pre-election plan to isolate Iran played a role in igniting the Twitter revolution that has unfolded across the internet in recent weeks.

It is important to note that there is nothing unprecedented about a state seeking to advance its interests in this way. Throughout the 20th century major  powers employed state-private propaganda networks in the quest for geopolitical advantage. The technique was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s through the network of front organisations associated with the Comintern. It was adopted by Britain in the 1940s with organisations like British Security Co-ordination, which in turn provided a precedent for post-war CIA networks such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. All were quick to adopt the latest information technology available in their day. The Twitter revolution may just be the latest chapter in that story.

Tom Griffin is the managing editor of openDemocracy’s OurKingdom blog. He is a member of Spinwatch and a former editor of the Irish World. This investigation first appeared on Spinwatch.

— References —
[1]Anshel Pfeffer, Israel claims success in the PR war, Jewish Chronicle, 31 December 2008.
[2]Haviv Rettig Gur, ‘Coordination is putting Israel ahead in the media war‘, JPost.com, 30 December 2008.
[3] Rachel Shabi, Special spin body gets media on message, says Israel, Guardian, 2 January 2009.
[4]Eli Lake, EXCLUSIVE: Israel’s national security aide barred from U.S, Washington Times, 17 March 2009.
[5]Barry Rubin, British Government plagiarizes MERIA Journal: Our Response, MERIA website, accessed 2 May 2009.
[6] Official Opening of the Asper Institute for New Media Diplomacy (pdf), Asper Foundation, 4 June 2007.
[7] Asper Fellows Program, Asper Institute for New Media Diplomacy, Sammy Ofer School of Communication, IDC Herzliya, accessed 22 June 2009.
[8] Ambassadors’ Club, Asper Institute for New Media Diplomacy, Sammy Ofer School of Communications, IDC Herzliya, accessed 22 June 2009.
[9] StandWithUs International, accessed 22 June 2009.
[10]Help Us Win – IDC Guerrilla Bloggers Fight war online, OPERATION CAST LEAD: IDC RESPONDS, The IDC Herzliyan (pdf), p.55 Spring 2009.
[11]Ben Harris and Joshua Spiro, Israel activists blending new, traditional tactics in PR battle, jta.org, 13 January 2009.
[12]JTA, Leading the Internet battle for Israel, Jewish Herald-Voice, 8 January 2009.
[13] Jaron Gilinsky, How Social Media War Was Waged in Gaza-Israel Conflict, Mediashift, PBS.org, 13 February 2009.
[14] Niv Calderon, linkedin.com, accessed 19 June 2009.
[15]Niv Calderon, Help Israel on Social Media: 1, nivcalderon.com, 29 December 2008.
[16]Niv Calderon, Help Israel on Social Media: 2, nivcalderon.com, 1 January 2009.
[17] Stephanie Rubenstein, Twitter, Facebook users show solidarity with QassamCount, jpost.com, 4 January 2009.
[18] Niv Calderon, QassamCount: A Continous Reminder, nivcalderon.com, 16 February 2009.
[19] Ahuvah Berger, email to SpinProfiles editors, 23 June 2009.
[20] Max Socol, IDF launches YouTube Gaza channel, JPost.com, 30 December 2008.
[21] Shlomo Shamir, ‘Twitter revolutionized Israeli diplomacy‘, Haaretz, 17 June 2009.
[22]Avi Shlaim, How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, The Guardian, 7 January 2009
[23]Rachel Shabi, Winning the Media War, Guardian.co.uk, 10 January 2009.
[24] Response to the Media and War Coverage, OPERATION CAST LEAD: IDC RESPONDS, The IDC Herzliyan (pdf), p.55 Spring 2009.
[25] E.B. Solomont, Winning the propaganda war, in 140 characters or less,  JPost.com, 17 June 2009.
[26] Poll results prompt Iran protests, Al Jazeera English, 14 June 2009.
[27] Steven Musil, Week in Review: Twittering for Tehran, cnet, 19 June 2009.
[28] Proof: Israeli Effort to Destabilize Iran Via Twitter #IranElection, Charting Stocks, 15 June 2009
[29] RICKY BEN-DAVID AND RACHEL GEIZHALS, Is JPost behind the ‘Iranian Twitter Revolution’?, JPost.com, 18 June 2009.
[30] helpiranelection.com, accessed 18 June 2009.
[31] Arik Fraimovich, About, Obvious Ideas, archived at the Internet Archive, 4 February 2008.
[32] Arikfr, Twitter.com, accessed 18 June 2009.
[33] Arik Fraimovich, About, Obvious Ideas, accessed 28 June 2009.
[34] Yossi Melman and Yuval Azoulay, Mossad head: Iran riots won’t escalate into revolution, Haaretz, 17 June 2009.
[35] Rachel Weiner, Right-Wing Neocons Rooting For Ahmedinejad Win, Huffington Post, 12 June 2009.
[36] Michael Ledeen, The Iranian Circus (cont.), Pajamas Media, 10 June 2009.
[37]  Trita Parsi, Reza Aslan, The End of the Begnning: What will be the legacy of the Green Revolution? Foreign Policy, 26 June 2009.

NB: Also see this piece by one Twitterati  on his exploits.

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