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.

Social media as a multiplier

As I’ve said before, social media serves best as a multiplier in public diplomacy. Ideally, the foundation of any engagement should be face-to-face discussions (or other more “high fidelity” engagement, preferably in person). Twitter and other social media tools are useful as a support to this on-the-ground engagement, creating what some have called “ambient intimacy” between site visits.

For all the talk of coordinated outreach, the Israeli Consulate didn’t initially seem to tie their Twitter use to their other outreach efforts. Nonetheless, while the actual press conference failed, choosing to hold it was a publicity coup. Most of the criticism thus far has been focused on the use of the tool, not on the message being delivered, and anything that brings people back to the Israeli content channels, is a net positive for them. They (and everyone else) will learn from this, and the next try will be better, though less notable.

Indeed, it is obvious they recognized the shortcomings. If you look at their archive of the press conference, their replies are not the original stilted 140 character responses but paragraph long explanations of Israel’s side of the conflict.

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