Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Israel to pay for online backers

An Israeli soldier gets to grips with social media (AP)
An Israeli soldier gets to grips with social media (AP)

Israel is to pay university students to post supportive messages on social media networks without identifying their government backing.

The Israeli prime minister's office said students on Israeli university campuses would receive full or partial scholarships to combat anti-Semitism and calls to boycott Israel online. It said students' messages would parallel statements by government officials.

"This is a groundbreaking project aimed at strengthening Israeli national diplomacy and adapting it to changes in information consumption," it said.

"Everyone who believes in the cause, and wants to join, can join," one Israeli official said. He said the office was looking to budget $778,000 for the project, and that the national Israeli student association would select participants from a pool of applicants.

The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz identified the official heading the project as Danny Seaman who has written posts on his personal Facebook page which Haaretz described as being incendiary and anti-Muslim.

Haaretz posted what it said were four screen shots of his recent posts. In one of them, Mr Seaman wrote: "Does the commencement of the fast of the Ramadan mean that Muslims will stop eating each other during the daytime?" In another, he uses profanity in a comment about the chief Palestinian peace negotiator.

The Israeli official said the posts were "unacceptable and do not reflect the position of the Israeli government." He said the national communications directorate in the Prime Minister's Office had instructed Mr Seaman to "immediately cease from making such pronouncements."

Israel is not the only country to set up such a system. In China, members of the so-called "fifty cent army" sprinkle positive, pro-government messages across the web and social media.

Public image is also a paramount concern to Israeli officials. The prime minister's office oversees a national initiative for "hasbara" - a Hebrew term that officials translate as public diplomacy and critics call propaganda. This initiative is intended to combat what officials see as popular discourse that goes beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and constitutes hate speech that threatens the very legitimacy of Israel's existence.

The Israeli army has set up an "Interactive Media" division of a few dozen soldiers tasked with spreading the army's message on social media sites.

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