Late last month, the Israeli Consulate in New York held a Twitter-based press conference, inviting anyone to ask questions of the Israeli government about the conflict in Gaza. While activity around their conference blossomed, President-elect Obama’s Twitter account has had little to say since election day last year.
The conflict in Gaza has become a growing international issue. Israel only recently sent in ground troops as part of Operation Cast Lead, while Hamas’s missiles have slowly made their way deeper into Israel than ever before. Though the Israeli Government has declared a cease-fire for the operation, the conflict—and the conversation surrounding it—has continued. The repercussions have become global as supporters on both sides broadcast their sentiments publicly over the internet.
Since the beginning of the Operation Cast Lead, Twitter, a micro blogging service that limits posts to 140 characters, has been a major forum for users to constantly debate and report on the conflict, marking relevant comments with the hash-tag #gaza in order to indicate the ongoing conversation. David Saranga, the Consul of Media and Public Affairs for the Israeli Consulate in New York, took notice of the conversation.
“There is a lot of interest, in the public opinion, in the web, in the blogs, and on Twitter regarding the operation in Israel,” he said. “So we decided that if these people want to know about the events in Israel the best way to do that is to ask us directly.”
With so much of the conversation occurring on Twitter , it was the obvious platform to engage in a discussion.
“Twitter is becoming ubiquitous and everyone is starting to use it,” said Tamar Weinberg, a blogger and social media consultant, who does some pro-bono consulting for the New York-based Israeli Consulate.
“Twitter is really taking off and people are coming here for the conversation,” she said. “It’s becoming more of a tool where everyone can congregate.”
It is obvious that the goal of Saranga and his government is to engage Israel’s detractors where they live on the Internet. The Israeli Consulate in New York also has a blog, a Facebook page, and a MySpace page. The Israeli Consulate in Boston has opened up their own Twitter account and the Israeli Defense Force has begun posting videos to YouTube.
While some participants in the Twitter conference were promoting their own agendas, many interacted with the Israeli Consulate through genuine discussion. Some would only find their answers on the Consulate’s blog after the event, but many were addressed on the spot, with around 60 questions answered through Twitter.
“We were very happy to see that people were taking the time to ask serious questions,” said Moriel Schottlender, the internet applications development manager for the consulate general of Israel in New York, one of the primary organizers for the event. “We were hoping that people would communicate with us and join in on the discussion and in that aspect our hopes were met.”
Conference participant and Twitter user skap5 was one of those who were satisfied with the conference.
The question no one seems to be asking is, what might have happened if the US Army had done the same thing at the beginning of the Iraq war? The military caught on a little late, they opened up TroopTube, a military-run video sharing site, late last year. However, running their own closed site seems to be missing the point of social media. Until recently, the U.S. government has done little to try and engage the community, and perhaps has missed out on the opportunity to connect with constituents.
Part of the challenge are the stringent rules for use of communications technology and the release of information. As has been seen with Obama, our laws even make the use of a Blackberry a difficult proposition.
Joshua S. Fouts is the chief global strategist for Dancing Ink Productions and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. On January 29, he will be releasing a report to the Obama administration entitled “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds.” His report will include recommendations to the Obama administration on how they can leverage virtual communication.
Accordingly the government is adapting. Officials ranging from mayors to Senators, along with a number of government agencies, have put up accounts on different forms of social media. The people with something to say come to Twitter. A full list was referred to by Weinberg, called the GovTwit directory.
“Any person who needs to broadcast something should be using Twitter,” Weinberg said.
Many of these accounts don’t interact, but simply broadcast a stream of news or facts. That sort of behavior doesn’t integrate them into the community and does not take advantage of the platform. Bringing policy to the people takes more then opening up a virtual storefront.
“In order to use these spaces in a way that is intelligent they need to learn to speak the language they need to understand the culture,” said Fouts. “Busy people have to take the time to understand these cultures by actually engaging these cultures on their own terms.”
The Obama campaign became experts in using new media to communicate with their fans. The technology advocates within the campaign had the know-how when it came to understanding and interacting with social media.
“Obama’s campaign was a really good example for how to use social media in a clever way,” Saranga said. “It was also an inspiration to us to see how to engage young people in the public that were, in the past, less interested.”
Since the end of the campaign, Obama’s social media efforts have severely decreased. After November there have only been two out of 264 tweets on the BarackObama Twitter account. His MySpace and Facebook pages are also relatively inactive. The Obama administration has cnot yet figured out how to get around some very stringent policies.
“I think what the Obama administration is experiencing right now is that they went from being a political campaign in which they could employ all sorts of innovative technologies to now being the U.S. government,” Fouts said. “The U.S. bureaucracy is intentionally rigid in order to remove or alleviate unpredictability.”
With the nomination of Julius Genachowski, one of the main architects of the campaign’s technology strategy, to the FCC, Obama seems to be signaling that he has not forgotten about his 165,414 Twitter followers.
“A campaign that was elected on the premise of change is actually going to be able to employ that change,” Fouts said. “Not only economically, not only in terms of foreign policy, but also culturally with regards to the bureaucracy.”
It would be wise for the Government to work with social media, instead of outside it. The power of communities like Twitter are growing every day and attracting serious attention from the mainstream media. TV News shows now pull comments from Twitter users and when US Airways flight 1549 ditched into New York’s Hudson river, it was a Twitter user who used his iPhone to snap the defining photo of the event.
Social media may very well be powerful enough to change how the Obama administration deals with Israel, at the very least it will change how the U.S. explains its actions and force the new administration to pay closer attention to the conflict in Gaza. The Israeli Government’s Twitter conference is only the beginning of a new way to talk about policy, one that empowers citizens.
“Social media can, absolutely, serve to influence policy and change,” Fouts said.
This sort of activity can only occur more frequently and a new standard is being set, one in which creating policy includes direct conversations with citizens. If so, the change that’s coming may not be from the president, but from the people.