What does fraudulent “anti-gay flotilla” video tell us about Israeli hasbara strategy?

Last Saturday, The Electronic Intifada revealed the true identity of “Marc,” the star of a YouTube video, who claimed to be a disillusioned activist turned away from the Gaza Freedom Flotilla because he’s gay. He was in fact Omer Gershon, a minor celebrity in Tel Aviv’s club scene.

Israeli government role

Since then the hoax video affair has turned into a major public relations embarrassment for Israel. It seems most likely that the Israeli government, or an organization affiliated with it was behind the video, and it is very possible that more such propaganda is in the works. Robert Mackey writing at The Lede blog of The New York Times has tried to follow the threads of the story:

On Tuesday, an Israeli government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that while similar efforts to forge what he described as “people to people” diplomacy have been undertaken by various government agencies, as far as he knew the prime minister’s office was not behind this specific video.

Israel’s Haaretz added:

Haaretz sent the prime minister’s office a series of questions inquiring whether the office was involved in the production of the video in any way. The premier’s office in response did not deny that that the government was involved in the video’s production, and admitted that government bodies had distributed the link.

“Various bodies dealing with international media campaigns continuously monitor and distribute internet content when they recognize content that can serve Israel’s campaigns,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement.

Omer Gershon

No one has been able to get in touch with Omer Gershon, the star of the video, although Mackey noted an interesting but perhaps coincidental detail:

Dina Kraft, a freelance journalist who has contributed to The Times, writes from Israel to point out that she has interviewed Omer Gershon in the past and tried to call him on Tuesday, but was unable to reach him. Ms. Kraft interviewed Mr. Gershon in September, 2009, as part of her research for this Times article about Tel Aviv. At the time, he was helping to run a popular nightclub in the city called Zippy Trippo.

In that article, Ms. Kraft pointed to Zippy Trippo as an example of “Tel Aviv’s ability to reinvent itself.” The underground club, she explained, had been just one year earlier, “a listening post for the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, dubbed by its workers as the Facility.”

What about Guy Seemann

A lot of attention has been given to Guy Seemann, the 25 year old staffer at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, who was among the first to tweet the video, and whom The Electronic Intifada spoke to over the weekend. Again, from Mackey of The New York Times:

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister told The Lede: “Mr. Seemann is a 25-year-old who is interning in our office. His tweet was a mistake on his part. It was done without authorization and without approval. His mistake has been pointed out to him.” Mr. Seemann, who denied that he had had any role in the production of the video and said that it had been sent to him by “a friend,” has deleted his entire Twitter feed. He declined to put The Lede in touch with the friend who informed him about the video.

Thinking about Seemann’s role is important because it may help us understand the strategies Israel is trying to use to disseminate its messages. My working theory is that Seemann almost certainly had nothing to do with the production of the video. I also find it plausible that Seemann disseminated the video unwittingly – that he responded to a request to disseminate the video “from a friend” without being aware that it was part of a hasbara – propaganda – strategy.

Such an attempt to use viral marketing would serve two purposes. First it would allow Israeli government agencies like the Government Press Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reshare it through various social media as if they were merely passing along interesting content that they had found from ordinary Internet users.

This would fit with what the Israel prime minister’s office explained to Mackey: “Various bodies dealing with international media campaigns continuously monitor and distribute internet content when they recognize content that can serve Israel’s campaigns.”

Secondly, using a strategy that relies on unwitting disseminators would protect whoever is responsible for these propaganda efforts from being exposed.

While the dissemination strategy failed, it remains a mystery who was behind what Haaretz called in Hebrew a “fabricated propaganda video” and what else they might have in store.

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