How Israel is winning the social media war in China

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine has captivated and polarised international opinion. While Israeli fighter jets were pulverising buildings with "precision weapons" and Hamas was firing rockets at Israel, they were also waging another all out information war on social media.

Pro-Palestinian left-wing journalists and American evangelical Christians are exchanging verbal slingshots with hash tags such as #israelunderfire or #prayforgaza. Gilad Lotan, the chief scientist at Betaworks, created a fascinating coloured network graph of Twitter traffic after the Israeli bombing of a UN school in Beit Hanoun.

The graph shows “pro-Palestinian” tweets clustering around the BBC and former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald. On the other end, blue lines representing “pro-Israeli” social media posts crowd together around pro-Israeli media as well as American Tea Party supporters.

Though there has been considerable discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian social media war in English-language dominated social media, there has been little discussion of another information war being waged on Chinese social media.

Considering China’s increasingly important international stature and its close connection to the Middle East, it is not surprising that Israelis are pouring resources into winning the war of opinion in the Middle Kingdom.

Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese blogger looks at this intriguing issue in his latest column in Caixin, a respected business magazine.  He observes that Taiwanese social media users are generally supportive of the Palestinian cause while many mainland Chinese are rooting for the State of Israel. It is an interesting reversal of their countries’ official positions, Taipei is generally considered to be pro-Israel and Beijing pro-Palestine.

A Taiwanese student Zhang Gengwei thinks his countrymen are sympathetic to Palestinians because of their equally hopeless situation; both “states” are diplomatically isolated and facing a strong adversary at their doorstep. In China, the rising popular backlash against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism is helping Israelis  win hearts and minds.

China has suffered a string of deadly terrorist attacks recently and many of them are connected with Jihadist inspired separatist groups in Xinjiang. This puts China at a diplomatically awkward position as the country has traditionally supported Arab national liberation movements including the late Yassar Arafat's Palestinian group. 

Like the ground war in the Middle East, Israelis have been engaging in a large scale asymmetrical information war in Chinese social network against Palestinians. The Israeli embassy in Beijing maintains one of the most popular social media accounts among diplomatic missions in China, with close to 850,000 followers. By comparison, the US embassy has 890,000 followers.

Israeli president Shimon Peres is also one of the few Western leaders who maintain a social media presence in China and he has more than 450,000 followers. Official Israeli posts are attracting a lot of sympathetic comments, for example, a recent Israeli embassy post which compares Hamas to the notorious IS terrorist organisation is drawing many sympathetic comments.

The latest comment on the post says “Israel, you must control the population in Gaza, otherwise it is impossible for you to win. You should ditch your humanitarian principles and the only hope for you is to fight evil with evil.” Though there are comments condemning Israeli killing civilians, the majority of comments support Israelis attack on Hamas.

There are also many popular pro-Israeli tales doing their rounds on Chinese social media such as one that says Israel has been secretly transferring military technology to China as a gesture of gratitude for China sheltering Jewish refugees during the World War II.  Some suspect it is the work of an Israeli public diplomacy effort.

Michael Anti argues that social media is playing an increasingly important role in shaping public opinion -- especially at a time when a lot of Chinese citizens are relying on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat to get their information.  

For example, Beijing’s hardline foreign policy towards Japan is also partly driven by the rising tide of nationalism on social media. Denny Roy, an American foreign policy expert explains that authoritarian governments such as Beijing are not immune to adverse public opinion. In some circumstances China’s leadership faces pressures comparable to democratic national leaders who seek re-election.  

Israel’s successful effort in winning the social media war in China against its bitter foe is an important lesson for Australia. Maintaining a robust relationship with Australia’s largest trading partner is more than sustaining official links, Canberra should consider investing more resources in bolstering its social media presence in China.

As my colleague Fergus Ryan argued late last year when foreign minister Julie Bishop was engulfed in a bitter row with her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi over China’s establishment of an air identification zone, “Julie Bishop needs to understand the full array of diplomatic tools available to her. Getting on Chinese social media should be a priority for her now”.