PJ Media

Web 2.0 vs. Israel

It features Milli Vanilli and Baghdad Bob, the 2003 Iraqi minister of information. It’s funny, it’s timely, it captures the zeitgeist, and it has a great beat to it. Too bad it’s just a beautiful piece of libel. “Internet Killed Israeli PR,” a parody music video set to the tune of The Buggles’ 1979 “Radio Star,” has been getting some recent attention on various video sharing websites. It’s considered a response to Latma TV’s hit video “We Con the World.” It has been featured over the past few days on the Ma’an News Agency, Israeli blogs such as Holes in the Net (in Hebrew), and the Los Angeles Times‘ “Babylon and Beyond” blog. And it joins other works, like Doc Jazz’s “Freedom Flotilla song,” in an orchestrated, ongoing Israel-bashing campaign, now repackaged with a stylized Web 2.0 sheen.

This mashup, or audio-video montage, runs the gamut from innocent shots of Star Wars Kid and of Herzl waterskiing, through irrelevant shots of the IDF general staff from the mid-2000s, to a shot of Hitler delivering a speech, all meant to persuade the viewer: Israel is a human rights violator. Its spokespeople lie for it, and not very competently at that. We, the creators of this video, are anti-Israel internet activists, we are onto them, and our activism renders them useless. We’re the cool guys; join our side.

The creators of the video sport the moniker “Minor Demographic Threat” and say they are a “multi-ethnic group predominantly of American and Israeli Jews, but also Palestinians and others.” Their name was chosen, among other reasons, as “a parody of Israel’s race-based arguments against the right of return,” which, in plain English, means their end goal is the dissolution of the Jewish nation-state, in favor of a one-state Utopian solution where everyone will live miserably ever after. The fake “BDS records” label shown at the beginning of the video is a reference to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which aspires to destroy Israel as we know it by economic pressure rather than via scrupulous video editing. (“Aspires” is the action word here: BDS movement motions so far have largely failed, even in UC Berkeley’s student senate. Ouch.)

The Minor Demographic Threat describes itself as a “marauding band of anarcho-Yiddishist minstrels,” where “Yiddishist” evidently refers not to an in-depth understanding of the rabbinic civilization that Jews developed for centuries in the Pale of Settlement, but to having the inalienable right to crack circumcision jokes, compare Israel to Nazi Germany, and call Hitler a “putz.”

That the “peace activists” on board the Mavi Marmara started the fight is well documented. It’s been long established that the knives used to stab Israeli soldiers were nothing of the sort Barbara Streisand probably ever wielded. The actual facts of the events of May 31 are known to any news observer that cares enough to look at evidence, and they are not the focus of the video, so there is no point in attempting to counter the non-facts of a propaganda piece. Instead, let’s consider what sort of messages the video conveys, whom they were probably meant for, and what those who support Israel can learn from this work and others like it.

The Transparency Claim: “The Shin Bet mined my SD card / and played it back on NPR”

“4:00 AM: Israel […] confiscates all footage found. 4:01 AM: Attempts to spin edited footage commence.” Some of this is nominally true. The IDF confiscated the footage and kept it, mostly for security reasons. The video could have captured the identities of the commandos, which could put them at personal jeopardy and at risk of lawfare abroad. The footage could have captured the naval commandos’ modus operandi and other classified information. However, the IDF was unusually media-oriented in planning and executing the flotilla takeover. By the IDF spokesperson’s own words on Israeli Channel 2 News, video feeds from night-vision drones were sent to shore, and promptly driven by motorcycle to video editors to facilitate fast distribution of a finished product.

As previously noted, though, we should not only evaluate the veracity of this claim but its propaganda value, and in this case it is indeed high, if only because it is a sign of things to come. Even if the IDF released all footage of the flotilla incident that did not harm OPSEC, its critics will never be satisfied. Just as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Israel’s Western critics hold Israel to an impossible standard in avoiding civilian casualties, so they hold Israel to an unprecedented standard of transparency, which no nation’s military can operate under. This is the first of a few claims that show that in many ways, Israel’s critics seek to export the asymmetric warfare from the ground into the media. Nevertheless, a quick look at the IDF’s official YouTube channel, its Scribd and its Swivel profiles shows the IDF still pushes the envelope in terms of military media transparency, which could help counter these claims in the future.

The Cultural Message: “Born & raised in Arkansas / I brought 6 nukes for the Hamas”

These lines are sung in a heavy Hebrew accent, with the word “Arkansas” mispronounced and the signature “ch” sound for “Hamas,” which is used neither in Arabic nor in English. As I understand these words, they are mainly meant to portray Israeli spokespeople as boorish, foreign, and ignorant. They stand in stark contrast to the slick, suave language the rest of the video “speaks” in, with meticulous attention given to everything from the sound production all the way down to the typography of the yellow labels that mimic the IDF’s video annotations. These Israelis are not like us, the viewer is led to believe. They have no culture. They’re behind the times, they just don’t “get it,” and that cultural gap is so uncool it’s hilarious.

Culture has a long history as a talking point in psychological warfare. One U.S. propaganda poster in World War I portrayed Germany as an enraged ape with a bloodied club that says “Kultur,” a scathing stab at German pride in giants from Bach to Goethe. The Fascists responded in kind in WWII with a poster depicting the U.S. as a black corporal stealing Venus de Milo and putting it up for sale for two dollars. Someone who’s different is easier to hate and fight against. (Just ask the post-colonialists — they wrote the book about it).

Will Israel’s official spokespeople ever be able to be as cool as a mashup video? The answer is no. Here, too, Israeli officials are in an asymmetric conundrum, and probably rightfully feel they must maintain a serious, professional, yet decidedly un-Web 2.0 demeanor. So asymmetry extends to this argument as well. But here’s the catch: Non-official actors have put up a good fight on Israel’s behalf (evidently good enough to merit this response) and will continue to do so. Besides Latma TV, some other pithy pro-Israel productions include No Laughing Matter and EnoughNews’ video on the BDS movement. Rather than focusing on empty rhetoric, both No Laughing Matter and the BDS video aim to inform and educate the viewers, as well as provide sufficient evidence to allow them to make up their own minds on the matter. Now, students, compare and contrast with Keyboard Cat.

The Target Audience

The funny thing about “Internet Killed Israeli PR” is that despite all the technical expertise and work that went into it, it’s really a piece for insiders only. While “We Con the World” was designed to be accessible to anyone who’s ever heard the voice of Cyndi Lauper, only the extremely media-savvy would recognize the name of Michael Sfard, identify the face of Mark Regev, or know what StandWithUs is.

One could make the argument that this appeals to a small yet influential minority of media-savvy surfers everywhere, the early adopters that lead the way in public opinion. Another plausible suggestion would be that this video has value as internal propaganda, as a self-congratulating piece to rally the troops of the extreme Israel-hating fringes. (Sure enough, a quick look at the swastikas in the avatars of Minor Demographic Threat’s YouTube fans shows that if this was the objective, it was effectively reached). Either way, this is hardly a video for the novice, and that is a point worth remembering when evaluating videos on the conflict from either side.

“We are the Mavi Marmara / You are the sloppy hasbara”

The video not only portrays Israel’s spokespeople as foreign, stupid liars, it also claims they do a poor job at lying. The mashup “rightfully ridicules Israel’s futile desperation to maintain a clean public image while carrying out rabid attacks on human rights on the ground (or in international waters),” Artists Against Apartheid music producer and engineer Andrew Felluss told Ma’an. “This had been working OK for the Zionist movement, until now, when internet 2.0 is increasingly decimating its information power. […] Now we are seeing this impotence in action, in real time, and the effect is quite hilarious.”

The speakers’ smooth talk is contrasted with shots of Israel’s official spokespeople, Mark Regev, Maj. Avital Leibowitz and Lt. Aliza Landes, edited to look like a secluded, ridiculous set of talking heads. (Who’s distributing edited footage for spin now?)

That “the internet” will defeat Israeli PR is really just a chest-beating, self-congratulating message that repeats, unsubstantiated, throughout the video. The visuals in this case constitute an ad hominem against Minor Demographic Threat’s interlocutors, while they hide behind a snarky collective name, aviator sunglasses, and a distortion effect. And while it is probably meant to intimidate those who speak for Israel, I very much doubt it will ever work.

Summary and Conclusion

“Video is an extremely powerful tool as is humor. When those intersect they can be used to an even greater effect,” Minor Demographic Threat told the Ma’an news agency. I agree, and it’s plain to see that while the libel R&D departments are working overtime, so are the pro-Israel responses evolving — and more surfers get an unfiltered, fact-based, multifaceted impression of what Israel is really like. So has the internet killed Israeli PR? I don’t think so. No matter what a small fringe group of fanatics would like to believe, we’ll continue to see a PR arms race with each side of the debate seeking, and finding, new ways of persuasion. If anything, we’ve gone from a Pallywood-infested mainstream media to a more leveled playing field. Game on.