Saturday, 17 November 2012

Weaponized Marketing - A Glimmer of Hope

The Israel-Hamas conflict has taken on a new turn. I'll give some commentary in the form of Q&A.

Q: Is this good or bad?
A: People getting killed isn't good. But what's happening is different in some subtle ways, and that difference could be a good thing.
I have never been as optimistic about the conflict moving off to new ground.
Possibly new ground that would no longer be able to sustain the ghastly status-quo for decades on-end, change the rules of the game, and lead everyone to re-think what's in their best interests.

Q: How has this played out in the past? (because the next question will be "what's changed?"
[a] Hamas gets paid the bulk of its sustaining revenue by Iran, in exchange for teaching its kids to hate and fight an attrition proxy war of harassment against Israel.

In the present environment, this is done by throwing rockets (artillery), randomly, into Israeli cities. Not disputed territories. Not military targets. Not Strategic objectives that happen to be near a school or a hospital.

[b] Like any sane nation having its cities - schools, offices, hospitals, residences - bombarded, Israel's government is tasked with making it stop.
That's not a good situation to be in, but the response is predictable and understandable. It's to defend themselves. I don't buy into arguments against one's right to self-defence. They're hypocrisy. Guess what happens when someone threatens those who argue it.

Israel's approach to date has been to find a (typically rare) opportunity when they know the whereabouts of, say, the Hamas military wing chief executive, and have a gunship pop an anti-tank missile in his face.

What they argue happens as a result of this approach:
a - An analogue of Osama Bin-Laden gets vaporised (they should have stressed this comparison further as there is already widespread global acceptance sentiment towards putting an end to Bin-Laden)
b - The next guy to follow in his shoes is allegedly sent a very clear message on who he's messing with.
c - The next guy might be less Osama-Bin-Laden-Crazy than the current one.

In reality, only 'a' happens. Again and again we see how the theory that predicts 'b' and 'c' is wrong.
Israel has done this many, many times, and each 'the next chief executive' (or whoever) of the Hamas military has neither been trending towards sanity, nor heeding any particular message of who he's messing with.
It's a nice theory, but it just doesn't work. Evidence-based practice and all.

The cons of this approach don't stop with it not doing what it says on the box. It also creates wholesale collateral. It kills innocent people too.

It's bad because Israel's government is signing the death-warrants of innocents, bystanders, children. I am not against getting rid of the Osama Bin Ladens of the world. But I do think how we go about it sets us apart from them, and I do believe there is more than one way to skin a cat.
It's not the -consequences- of killing children, but the actual killing thereof. If your anti-tank weaponry ends up shredding a 9-year-old, I'm sorry, but you're bloody doing it wrong.

That said, it absolutely is bad because of the consequences of this collateral. It gives the Hamas a moral leg to stand on, or rather, cuts off Israel's moral legs so it's left legless on the floor, right next to that eliminated chief executive who lobbed rockets into Israeli schools.
And while any Israeli can successfully argue the difference, insofar as the rest of the world is concerned, it doesn't fly half the time.

Q: So what's changed?
Well, the IDF just grew up a notch (I'd argue that so did the Hamas, except the Hamas has made this particular step 20 years ago).

They finally (yes, in 2012, in a nation with an unprecedented technological literacy rate) realized this is a war that will be won with communication, public opinion, political pressure and the subsequent flow of big dollars, not just with bullets. If bullets could have won this, they would have long ago.
This time around, Israel has mounted an unprecedented PR offensive, that seems to be handled by professionals whose job is to convince large groups of people. Marketers.
The Hamas has been fighting this war in the BBC and CNN for years now, where the traditional media repeatedly falls for "Palywood" - an industry of staged newsbytes, produced to help victimize the Palestinians in the international psyche and level the moral playing field between the Hamas and Israel.

In the eyes of the Hamas, as in the eyes of all  dictatorial regimes, propaganda, lies, staged content and self-serving half-truths are totally fair game, as they are required to keep any dictator in power.

 They've spent the last decades perfecting an industry that time and time again successfully manipulates western media into misrepresenting the situation on the ground. By far not always, there's no cabal of Palestinian Illuminati controlling the world from a secret room in Venice (or of Jewish ones for that matter) but this nevertheless happens far too often. I've brought two documented examples here from the past week alone.

This time though, Israel's campaign didn't bother with the CNN and BBC. Instead, they went straight for the jugular - the social media.

Q: They have both been on Facebook and Twitter for a while. How is now different all of a sudden?
A. Being on social media is one thing. Changing what you say to increase the likelihood of getting your message out is another.
But to do that, you don't just call the Facebook office and ask them for exposure. You need social traction. You need a compelling message many people will care to like.
To that end, their campaign no longer says "We are victims" as loudly. It says "We are like you. We are sane.".
And that's very important, because on Facebook and Twitter, you live or die on how many times you get shared. In my personal experience as an Israeli expat, many of those who live abroad and intuitively understand that no matter how hard we say we're victims, nobody buys into this, would welcome a message with better capacity to convince.
Given such a message, they would go to the effort of sharing it with their non-Israeli friends, who in turn are more likely to bite and re-share. And it's these non-Israelis who are the target market of the campaign, as the Israelis expats themselves need no convincing.

Q: Big deal. How will a few more likes change anything on the ground? How will it change the attitude of the leaders of either side?
A: It already has, and it will go further.

Let's look back for a moment longer. The one set of ground rules Hamas did strongly heed are the rules of what it takes to get your message out.

They used to bomb restaurants with suicide bombers. The goal was not to get themselves reviled by the world. The goal was attrition on the Israeli populace, making Israelis live in their own borders never knowing where death would strike next. Terror, quite literally.
The Hamas then figured out they can achieve this same goal using artillery (rockets) too, and it would create far less of a PR mess for them than exploding Israeli restaurants do.
When was the last time you saw Hillary Clinton vigorously demonize them on CNN?
Mainstream media treats rocket fire with a 'meh'.
A marketing imperative drove a change in their strategy. And we're about to witness this again, further, only this time on both sides.

Q: How is Israel changing?
A: After the colossal failure of Israel's PR machine in the Gaza Flotilla incident, Israel has now very visibly laid out its intention to prioritise communication to the world's audience in its war effort, using our favorite social mediums. These have some physics governing them too, and both parties are already forced to bow to these to get traction.

One such rule - for the message to be popular beyond the in-crowd, they need to appeal to a globally shared set of morals.
Israel realised it needs to get back onto the moral high ground where their target audience sees itself to be. They need to sell a stronger moral position. They chose "We are as sane and well-meaning as you are" - a good start.

After a certain amount of singing this tune on a global stage, the cost of saying sane things but continuing disputed practices (e.g. Collateral-rich assassinations) will be:
a. a successful gunship pilot
b. a failed marketer
c. minimal or no vital message spread versus a strong anti-Israel message spread by Hamas on the backs of the innocents caught in the crossfire
d. An Israeli leader who gets ridiculed and pushed by global policies. And Israel is no autarky (too many people there say "we'll do whatever the hell we like as a nation" by day and complain about cost of imported goods by night.
No friends, expensive trade. Israel  needs trade, both in and out, to afford food, fuel and US dollars to buy steel to make guns.

Denial will eventually dissipate and the marketer's efforts will eventually get priority.

Q: How is the Hamas changing?
A: A different version of the same thing. Facebook and Twitter are not BBC. They're a two-way medium where criticism cannot be squelched, where 30 seconds are not it, and where lies and misinformation are perhaps easy to start but harder to sustain, because people with more access to real facts and no gun pointed to their head get to vote. Not four million Palestinian people, but over a billion Muslims, quite a fair few of which are sane and online. They vote with their like and share buttons, and THEY decide how mass-promoted and viral a claim gets. And guess what. A lot of them used to live under someone very much like the Hamas, and sacrificed friends, relatives, livelihoods and limbs to get rid of that shit. They'll have a thing or two to ask the Hamas before 'liking' and 'sharing' their song.
If you read Arab blogs, that long-overdue housecleaning process is already in full swing.

For the Hamas message to continue being appealing and viral to a post-Arab-spring Muslim world that is increasingly technologically literate and wants an India/China outcome for itself more than a Pakistan one, the Hamas will need to align with answer with those who control the outcome of their struggle - Qataris, Turks, Egyptians. They need to appeal to these people, because they need them to click on 'like' and 'share'. Like their move from restaurants to rockets, they'll need to move their core message a notch closer to sanity, and one notch further from victim and towards merit and earned prosperity.

Q: How is the environment around them changing?
A: The geopolitical backdrop has never been better - a shattered Iranian economy where what Iran can afford to give the Hamas diminishes by the day, the (inevitable, in my opinion) demise of Assad's Syrian regime, and Iran's brand of Islam losing major ground to Turkey's (and Egypt's, tho the jury is still out) newer, more liberal brands means less and less of the old world that the Hamas can go back to. This is a one-way road to eventual sanity, a shared moral ground and a shared realization everyone is better off with new untried ideas than with an old horrible yet morbidly tolerable status-quo.

Here's to optimism.