Covert Twitter Ops: Israel's Latest (Mis)Adventure in Digital Diplomacy

There's a new front in the social media wars: Israeli university campuses.

In cooperation with Israel's national student union, Haaretz reported today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office is planning to create "covert units" of students who will fight for the country -- on social media, that is. While never disclosing their identities as government operatives, these teams will be tasked with generating posts on networks like Facebook and Twitter about everything from anti-Semitism to diplomatic and security issues to what the Israeli paper describes as the "delegitimization of Israel." Student leaders will receive scholarships for their work.

In short, it's a campaign to exchange around $800,000 in educational grants for roughly 500 Twitter propagandists. And while the move may be unconventional, it's just Israel's latest foray into waging public diplomacy over social media -- an effort that, to put it mildly, has produced mixed results.

Israel's aggressive use of social media can be traced back to at least 2009 and its Operation Cast Lead offensive in Gaza. During that conflict, Israel shut out the foreign media and assumed greater control over the footage released, inadvertently creating a social media sensation with its YouTube channel. The experience taught Israeli officials that social media could serve as a nifty wartime tool and prompted them to expand the military's social media presence.

So when the Israeli army killed Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari in an airstrike last year, it didn't just inform the media about it -- it posted the video of the strike on YouTube and tweeted a warning to Hamas (Israel's aggressive use of social media during the conflict got even more controversial when pictures of the army's social media director in blackface surfaced on Facebook):

But that of course wasn't the end of it. Israel's warning resulted in the following surreal response:

Social media was bound to infiltrate warfare at one point or another, but the Israeli army has proven to be one of the most enthusiastic innovators in this space. When a botched 2010 Israeli raid on a Gaza bound flotilla left nine dead, the army turned to YouTube to carry out a real-time propaganda war, releasing videos of what it claimed were acts of aggression against Israeli soldiers that prompted the violence. Here's an example of one of those videos, which, amazingly, has over 2 million views:

Israel's latest "covert" maneuver on social media, in other words, is far from surprising, though the entire thing smacks of a bad spy movie. The idea that 500 Twitter soldiers would be able to make a meaningful difference in the global morass of social media sounds unlikely. In Israel alone there are at least 5 million Internet users.

The man behind the plan, it seems, is far from a social media maven himself. The Haaretz article that unveiled the covert program is sourced to a report authored by Daniel Seaman, the outgoing deputy-director general of the country's Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. Seaman is now moving to a new position within the prime minister's office -- the director of "the interactive media unit" -- in which he will supervise the covert social media initiative. But Seaman, as Haaretz revealed in a separate report Tuesday, has an alarming history of making racist and stunningly hostile statements on his Facebook page.

Here's one example from Aug. 8, two days after the anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on Hiroshima:

I am sick of the Japanese, 'Human Rights' and 'Peace' groups the world over holding their annual self righteous commemorations for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the consequence of Japanese aggression. You reap what you sow.

Instead, they should be commemorating the estimated 50 million Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Burmese and other victims of Japanese imperial aggression and genocide. Not to mention nearly 120,000 Allied military casualties who fought to defeat the genocidal Japanese. These are who deserve to be and should be remembered this week.

Here, in a post from May 26, he attacks Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in peace talks slated to begin later this week:

"Erekat, said his side would only agree to renew peace talks if Israel ceased all settlement activity and openly declared that a future state of Palestine would be created on the 1967 lines adding that this should not be viewed as a precondition to talks but rather as an Israeli duty. Is there a diplomatic way of saying ‘Go F*^& yourself'?"

This, apparently, is the man who will be in charge of Israel's covert social media efforts. Things look to be off to a roaring start.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


Why Letting Foreigners Invest in Mexico’s State-Run Energy Giant Is About More Than Oil

It was not shocking news, exactly, when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed Monday that foreign companies like ExxonMobil and Shell be able to invest in Petróleos Mexicanos, the troubled national oil company more commonly known as Pemex. Peña Nieto has been making it clear for months now that oil-sector reform is high on his agenda, and Mexican politicians have been debating overhauling Pemex for years. This week's announcement may only be the first in a series of reforms that could finally set the lumbering, outdated, corruption-plagued behemoth to rights.

And yet even though it's been clear for quite some time that an overhaul was coming, the proposed changes still managed to stir up powerful emotions among Mexicans. "We will defend our natural resource," lawmaker Benjamín Robles declared defiantly on Twitter. To understand why, it helps to look at the outsized role this single company has played in Mexico's history and national mythology.

"For Mexicans, Pemex is like the Virgin of Guadalupe - it has the magic of symbolism," one political analyst told the Washington Post on Tuesday. "It's like apple pie for Americans."" There's the Fuente de Petróleos, a granite statue in the middle of a busy intersection in Mexico City that pays tribute to Pemex and its workers, depicting them as Soviet-style, hard-muscled oil men amid drilling machinery. Historian Lorenzo Meyer has likened the day Pemex was founded to Mexico's "moon landing."

The power of Pemex over the Mexican psyche stems from the circumstances under which it was birthed: The company was formed on March 18, 1938, when then-President Lázaro Cárdenas sided with striking oil workers against foreign management, and nationalized Mexico's reserves and foreign companies' equipment. The nationalization is remembered in the country's textbooks as a seminal moment in Mexican history, and since then "generations of Mexicans have been raised on the idea that Pemex embodies national independence from foreign intervention," according to the Los Angeles Times.

Generations of Mexicans were also raised on the idea of Pemex as a quasi-secondary state: Not only did Pemex supply Mexico with social services indirectly, through the billions of dollars it paid under a tax burden typically described as "crushing," but it also supplied them directly, running schools, day cares, and hospitals for its workers. It was in part this kind of largess -- put in place during the days when the money was flowing -- that has left Pemex in such bad shape today (combined, of course, with a slew of other usual suspects: corruption, incompetence, outright theft).

Peña Nieto's bill, significant as it is, doesn't even go as far as those who would like to see Pemex fully privatized might like. Still, the notion of foreigners investing in this piece of national heritage -- Exxon, Chevron, and Shell are among the major producers that have expressed interest in Mexico's "enormous" potential -- has the power to strike a nerve. Leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dismissed those offering Mexico's resources to foreigners "traitors," and has called for protests next month.  Whether Peña Nieto will be able to get his proposal through Mexico's legislature remains to be seen -- but rest assured his fight will be about more than just oil.