Barriers and Bridges: Visiting the West Bank

Some days it feels like I have the best job in the world. This week I had one of those days. For the past several days I’ve been working with our Embassy in Tel Aviv and Consulate General in Jerusalem on their public diplomacy social media programs. This focuses mostly on sharing best practices from other missions, providing suggestions on enhancements, and helping to create a structured approach to their public engagement. This work has been great, fun, and very illuminating. I’m constantly amazed how much our missions are able to do with limited resources and even less time.

But that isn’t all that made the day so remarkable. What made the day so noteworthy was the opportunity to chat with Palestinian social media leaders. The Arabic Media Internet Network (AMIN) hosted an in-person session with bloggers and practitioners in the West Bank city of Ramallah and a second video conference with bloggers in Gaza.

Merely visiting Ramallah is worth noting on its own. This sounds strange to say, but it seems a very “normal” place. The perception you get of the West Bank is a desperate population riven and cut-off by strife. News images focus on thrown rocks and wire-topped walls. Instead there are bustling streets, car dealerships (including a gleaming Mercedes dealer), and new five-star hotels. The most incongruous feeling was the security detail we are required to have on official visits. It made me feel alien to the outside. I imagine the feeling is mutual when locals see our imposing truck hurtling by.

As an outsider, this normality hides the precariousness of the current situation. I was told stories of humiliations at checkpoints, the daily hassles of stateless-citizens, and families and friends separated by ever-shifting lines. Jerusalem itself is a city of walls. They separate the old from the new, east from west, and a troubled past from an uncertain future.

Yet there are uplifting stories as well, of tireless videographers showing the real lives of Palestinian women, bloggers working to build bridges between separated people, businessmen creating new opportunities, journalists dedicated to openness and transparency, and photographers sharing the beauty of the landscape and her people. They are using new media to tell their stories, as only they can. While the sessions were billed as a chance to learn from the work we’re doing in the State Department, we have much to learn from them.

With luck I will be back in the near future. Until then, there’s always social media to keep us connected!

A Twitter Press Conference That Worked (and the Famous One That Didn’t)

This is the first of a planned series on the use of social media in the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict, largely derived from the examples and articles I’ve collected over the past few weeks.

The Israeli Consulate in New York recently held the first Twitter-based press conference. While it was an interesting experiment, the technology was poorly suited for this sort of activity (read two good critiques from COMOPS and Columbia Journalism Review). As Rachel Maddow pointed out, they were trying to explain a conflict in 140 characters that authors have struggled to decipher in books. Many critiques have been written on this, so I will highlight a counter-example where Twitter proved an excellent medium for delivering press-type engagement.

Sean McCormack, the State Department’s spokesman, twittered (and photographed) his way through the recent negotiations and vote on the UN Security Council’s Gaza cease-fire resolution. His tweets noted the negotiation process all through to the final vote, which passed with the U.S. the lone country abstaining. His updates were interesting on their own, conveying a sense of insider information and a direct connection with the process.

What I found more interesting though, was immediately after the vote, several people asked McCormack, via Twitter, why the U.S. chose to abstain. At this point, the mainstream media had only just reported on the vote and provided little additional context (and none had explained the U.S. abstention). He fired off a few quick responses, including:

“@kmcurry support ceasefire but wanted more progress Mubarak initiative before a vote. That said, wanted to get to ceasefire.” – link

While he didn’t get into details, expectations were low (unlike the consulate event) and because this was so impromptu and immediate, a handful of sentences were all that was needed. More detailed explanation could come later. His quick replies really gave a real sense of openness, engagement and immediacy. Naturally, scale helped a lot here, this was informal and he probably only received a dozen questions (if that), most on the decision to abstain.

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