Thursday September 3, 2015
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78,000 'likes' for 'Bring Back Our Boys' Facebook page
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Lital Shemesh

E-magining public diplomacy

Students and social media activists launched the Bring Back Our Boys campaign soon after the news of the kidnapping broke. The name is very similar to that of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign that was set in motion following the recent kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, and it has parallels: people taking pictures next to a sign with the slogan (often with a hashtag) and posting them on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The Facebook campaign page generated tens of thousands of "likes" in just three days. But unlike the Nigerian campaign, the Israeli campaign was all but ignored by the foreign media.

The BBC, which initially ignored the unfolding kidnapping story, eventually changed course and began reporting on it. Yet it they made sure to insert quotation marks when referring to terrorists. One piece spoke of a "terror group," and had a picture of an Israeli soldier hoisting a weapon in front of a Palestinian man sitting next to the front door of his home. It also decided to have the Israeli arrests of Palestinians as the lead story. The American media apparently decided to keep a low profile and wait for good news.

The social media campaign was designed to raise international awareness to the kidnapping and to increase the pressure on the Palestinian Authority so that it helps bring about their release. Precisely because the media tends to focus on Israeli retaliatory bombings on Gaza rather than on the 15 years of rocket fire that stretch of land has produced, social media campaigns are vitally important, particularly when this is a grass-roots campaign. The citizen-soldiers have already set up a command center on two university campuses and have seen many students rally to their cause, taking to the social media and appealing to international outlets to make their case.

I have worked on a number of Israel-advocacy projects for the past several years. I often lecture before American audiences on the complex situation in Israel. I can credibly say that grass-roots campaigns are often much more effective than a campaign led by the government or the IDF spokesperson using traditional media. The straightforward, simple cry to have the boys come home, without any political undertones, has resonated with the public at large all over the world, which had all but ignored the story. We must change the narrative so that this story is not about "the settlers" nor about "boys who got lost in the West Bank," as some media outlets have reported. We must frame the narrative and make it about the release of the captive teens.

If you look at the various Palestinian Facebook groups created in the wake of the kidnapping, you would notice a disturbing picture. Some 200,000 "likes" were generated by a Hebron-based group exalting the perpetrators. The images on these pages show celebrations and people holding three fingers up in the air as a new victory sign, one for each of the kidnapped boys, as well as a mock FIFA World Cup score-board with the score Gaza 1 (referring to the now-released GIlad Schalit), Hebron 3. These posts are being reposted and shared at a dizzying pace.

In this day and age, public diplomacy is all about social media. Any grass-roots effort that could help shape public opinion on the world stage while condemning and rebuking the acts of terror should be encouraged.

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