The Foundation for Defense of Democracies has released a study on Palestinian social media entitled “P@lestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media.” Researchers analyzed Arabic-language blogs, news sites, forums, and other resources, the majority of which were said to have originated in Gaza and the West Bank, in an attempt to take a temperature reading of Palestinian public opinion.
As Mondoweiss pointed out last week, the report puts forth the (rather unsurprising) findings that Palestinian social media users are educated and primarily use Arabic online, and that the Palestinian Internet is largely uncensored. All true, certainly. The report also found that, generally, Palestinians have an overwhelmingly negative view of Israel, that Israel has no genuine interest in the peace process, and that the two-state solution is “on its deathbed.” Also unsurprising. There were, of course, more specific findings, but I’m more concerned about the policy recommendations.
The first two recommendations acknowledge that the Palestinian online environment should not be taken lightly be policymakers, and suggest that more intensive study of the environment should be undertaken to get a better feel for what Palestinians think. Fair enough.
The third recommendation, however, is incredibly troubling when looked at in detail. The researchers recommend that the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team become more engaged in Palestinian online discourse. I had the pleasure of meeting one of the people involved with the team at this year’s Al Jazeera Media Forum. I was pleased, actually, to see such an attempt to engage with them. What the Outreach team does is engage in conversations online in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu in attempt to “correct misinformation.” They sign all of their messages with “firstname.lastname@example.org” and are required to be transparent in their conversations. Though I’m personally not a fan of this approach–I can’t imagine it’s terribly effective at changing people’s minds–I also think it’s relatively harmless.
The Foundation’s researchers, however, would prefer the Outreach Team not identify themselves a la China’s 50 cent army:
FDD’s research found that, during the nine-week observation period, the State Department’s efforts to influence the online discussions were largely ineffective. This may stem from the fact that the team is small in number, and cannot possibly challenge even a plurality of the views expressed on sites where sentiments run counter to U.S. objectives. However, it also may stem from a process whereby the engagement team has the odds stacked against it. Indeed, the Digital Outreach Team identified itself in every online interaction, which nearly always drew fire from users with a pre-existing bias against the United States.
To be effective, the outreach team must not advertise its presence. More importantly, it must launch a broader campaign to limit and discredit violent messages, expose Palestinian extremists on the Internet, and thwart their ability to gain credibility. This will require a more aggressive approach than the one currently employed. It may also require additional personnel.
The Digital Outreach Team should also be viewed as an important source of intelligence. Indeed, they regularly assess sentiments expressed online in the same way that Foreign Service Officers assess political sentiments on the ground. As such, they can add an additional window of understanding into the Palestinian political landscape. To this end, they could participate more actively in conversation threads and pose specific questions on a range of topics. This will allow them to assess opinions on a range of issues with a higher degree of focus, nuance, and specificity more commonly gauged by polling.
State Department decision-makers can benefit from these findings. For example, if anti-peace sentiment is running high online, an understanding of these sentiments could inform the decisions of State Department officials responsible for advising the White House and briefing Congress on peace talks or other diplomatic initiatives.
Let’s ignore for the moment the disingenuous definition of “anti-peace sentiment” and focus solely on the recommendation at hand. What we have here is a lobby group that purports to promote democracy suggesting that the United States government manipulate Palestinian conversations in an attempt to “win the hearts and minds” of the Palestinian people…secretly.
The fear, of course, is that the State Department might take this seriously; after all, FDD credits itself with pushing them to shut down Al-Manar broadcasts. Were the State Department to implement such practices, they would follow in the footsteps of Israel and China. Incidentally, there is already plenty of suspicion in the Arab blogosphere that the U.S. does pay commenters to surreptitiously engage in discussion, so were it to actually be implemented, it’s possible that Palestinian netizens would be wary enough not to fall for it.
I don’t see how this is in the spirit of democracy. It seems to be that an institution that claims to defend democracy would consider it wise to honor Palestinian agency, but hey, what do I know?