Scholars of digital diplomacy often criticize diplomats for not realizing the potential of social media to stimulate conversation with online publics. Indeed I have often advocated the use of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms for conversing with online publics that are opinionated, well informed and clamoring to be heard.
One method of stimulating conversations between foreign policy makers and connected publics is social media Q&A sessions. The disadvantage of such sessions is that they attract online criticism at best and violent trolling at worst. Moreover, media outlets covering Q&A sessions often label them as disasters given the negative backlash they invite. However, such sessions also hold many advantages as they enable policy makers to narrate their governments’ actions, thoroughly explain their policies and openly address criticism of these polices.
Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to hold a special Twitter Q&A session as part of the celebration of Israel’s 68th Independence Day. The invitation to the Q&A was published on the PM’s Hebrew, English and Arabic Twitter channels thus enabling him to converse with the domestic Israeli population, foreign populations and the Arab world.
In this post I attempt to explore the extent to which the Prime Minister was able to leverage his Q&A session in order to converse with online publics and frame Israel’s policies. To do so I first analyzed the overall reach of the PM’s Q&A session. Next, I evaluated whether global audiences were in fact willing to converse with the PM. Finally I analyzed the actual dialogue between the PM and Twitter users.
Reach of #AskNetanyahu
Using the Twitonomy application, I analyzed the number of Tweets using the hashtag #AskNetanyahu over a two hour period. As can be seen in the image below, during that time period there were more than 3,000 tweets using the hashtag #AskNetanyahu. The majority of these tweets were published at 15:30 Israel time which is when the Q&A began.
Moreover, during the two hour time period I analyzed, Tweets using the #AskNetanyahu hashtag had an accumulated reach of 15 million Twitter users. A far higher number than I had anticipated.
When analyzing which #AskNetanyahu Tweets were most trending online I found both negative and positive examples as can be seen in the image below. While the first two Tweets are quite critical of the PM, others were more favorable. In addition, the PM’s own Tweets were also trending online. This might suggest that the PM had a relatively receptive audience that was willing to carry his message throughout the Twittosphere.
In addition, my analysis shows that the most favored #AskNetanyahu Tweets were also those authored by the PM, as can be seen below. Theses results suggest that the PM was in a position to get his message across to the diverse audiences he had invited to the Q&A.
Did #AskNetanyahu Reach Global Audiences?
Next I used the Twittonomy application to geo-locate Twitter users employing the #AskNetanyahu hashtag. As can be seen in the image below, the PM’s Q&A session seems to have created a truly global online conversation attracting Twitter users throughout Europe, Asia and N. America.
Especially interesting was the amount of users using the #AskNetanyahu hashtag in the Arab world. As can be seen in the image below, users from Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were all actively engaging with the PM’s Q&A session. This finding suggests that the PM was presented with a unique opportunity to engage with Arab twitter users including those living in nations that do not have diplomatic ties with Israel. This is the very manifestation of the potential of digital diplomacy.
The PM’s Q&A session also attracted attention from users in India and Pakistan. These two nations are of special relevance to Israel as the current government is attempting to strategically bolster its ties with India while Pakistan has no official relations with Israel.
Finally, as can be seen in the two images below, the majority of users engaging with the PM’s Q&A session were from Europe and the USA.
What Questions Did Netanyahu Answer?
Even before the Q&A session began, the PM’s Twitter channel was bombarded with verbal attacks, trolls and a barrage of images depicting Israeli cruelty alongside victims of Israeli military campaigns. Such Tweets, which are shown below, are not surprising given the policies pursued by the Netanyahu government (note: I have not included graphic images though there was plenty).
What was surprising, however, was that the PM rarely answered critical questions even when these were presented in a sincere manner. In fact, what characterized the PM’s Q&A session was an emphasis on accepting praise, commenting on Jewish history, thanking followers for their support and choosing levity over substance as can be seen in the Tweets below.
When finally commenting on policy related issues, the PM again chose relatively soft issues including the security challenge ISIS presents to Israel, the importance of US military aid to Israel, new relations between Israel, Cyprus and Greece and his quest for peace.
However, the PM did not address concerns that Israel was marginalizing the Palestinian-Israeli minority nor did he comment on issues relating to settlement expansion, the military blockade of Gaza, the high death toll of Palestinian citizens during Israeli military campaigns or Israel’s use of the LGBT community to better its image abroad. All of these issues which raised by Twitter users undermine Israel’s global image and impede its ability to achieve its foreign policy goals.
When conversing with Arab Twitter users the PM was more willing to answer difficult questions. He stated that Israel would accept an Arab peace initiative if it included Israel’s misgivings, he called on President Abbas to join him at the negotiation table and even answered a Tweet accusing him of stealing Palestinian land by saying he remains committed to a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. See a selection of such Tweets below.
When commenting on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Twitter Q&A, news outlets in Israel and abroad labeled it a failure given the amount of verbal attacks and trolls that spammed the PM’s account. My analysis offers a more complex picture. On the one hand, the PM used the Q&A session to converse with Arab Twitter users throughout the region while addressing their criticism and explaining his government’s policies.
On the other hand, having attracted global attention, the PM could have utilized the Q&A session to engage with global audineces and explain his polices, respond to criticism and frame Israel in a more positive manner. By choosing to avoid difficult questions, and settling for levity over substance, the PM squandered this unique opportunity. Given the negative perception of Israel around the world, and the rejection of many of its policies, this was a wasted opportunity.