Sunday, July 30, 2006

Israel Declares War on the Internet

Electronic information war may be history's first

Remember the late 80s/early 90s? Good times.

Most people remember them well. The Internet was still in its infancy, and every other movie in theatres, or perhaps even on video (Betamax, even?) had some sort of computer genius who could do absolutely anything with a computer. They're magic, you see.

So then it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that there was a time when people believed that future wars would be fought by computers, with computers, against computers. Computerishly.

But those days may be closer than we think. In a way.

In the midst of its current conflict in Lebanon, Israel's Foreign Ministry has made the future now. Concerned that the information superhighway (or cyberspace, if you will) is becoming plugged up with anti-Israel propaganda, Israeli diplomats have begun tracking message boards and websites featuring anti-Israel messages via a "megaphone" program, that has been distributed by download to supporters.

Just this past week, nearly 5,000 members of the World Union of Jewish Students have downloaded this program, and have taken Israel's war to some of the places where it's most unpopular.

Simply put, this megaphone software allows members of the WUJS to troll on unsympathetic websites, posting supportive opinions and participating in the debate.

This puts Israel at the head of the pack when it comes to using the internet to fight what may well be history's first organized "electronic information war". Certainly, other countries have used the internet to their advantage -- mostly to either disseminate outright propaganda, or have censored the internet to keep information out of their citizens' hands.

Perhaps Israel is the only state to fully recognize the Internet's potential as an organizing/mobilizing tool. " The Internet's become a leading tool for news, shaping the world view of millions," says Amir Gissin, the public relations officer of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. " Our problem is the foreign media shows Lebanese suffering, but not Israeli. We're bypassing that filter by distributing pictures showing how northern Israelis suffer from Katyusha rocket attacks."

Certainly, the topic of the rocket attacks is contentious on many internet message boards. Reports of them are often dismissed as "propaganda", or "false flag operations" concocted to justify what many see as an Israeli war of aggression.
This is part of the problem with much of the "debate" that is taking place on this issue. When confronted with information that does not support their opinions (perhaps if you're an Israeli supporter being told about the civilian casualties being caused by Israeli airstrikes, or a Lebanese supporter being told that Hezbollah are hiding amongst civilians), it is simply dismissed as "propaganda", and is ultimately discarded. What quickly develops is a debate that is rhetorically charged, and fuelled by disinformation (disinformation in the sense that new on either side consent to being fully informed).

Israel's internet campaign may change all that. Often, these debates are being waged between people who may be entirely too embroiled in a conflict that they are ultimately detached from. But Israel's megaphone software allows those who are in the middle of the conflict -- Israeli citizens under fire from rocket attacks, perhaps -- to share their experiences directly with some people who otherwise would not have had the benefit. That could make all the difference in the world.

Certainly, some will object to the presence of Israeli supporters on their sites. Some will object simply because they cannot stand to defend their opinions against people who do not agree with them. Some will object because of the online etiquette considerations of Israel's actions (and this is actually quite fair).

But in the end, Israel is only doing what smart nations do: they are adapting to the world's new realities -- in this case, the effectiveness of the internet -- and using them to thrive. And, god willing, the debate over the war in Lebanon will only benefit from the influx of new participants, regardless of whether or not they are pro-Israel.

If Israel has any amount of success waging this electronic information war, it can be expected that other states -- such as the United States -- will seek to emulate it.

The future is now. Internet warfare is probably here to stay.

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