Hasbara and the Control of Narrative as an Element of Strategy

Remarks to the Jubilee Conference of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy

Many topics have been proposed for discussion in this session.  In the brief time available to me as a panelist, I would like to put forward some thoughts about the control of narrative and the manipulation of information as an essential element of modern warfare.  The Israelis call this “hasbara.”  Since they are without doubt the most skilled contemporary practitioners of the art, it seems appropriate to use the Hebrew word for it.  And, since Israel’s most recent war (against the Palestinians in Gaza) sputtered to an end just ten days ago, I’ll cite a few examples from that war to illustrate my main points.

Before I get to specifics, let me provide a general description of hasbara and its purposes.  Hasbara is usually translated as “explanation.”  That does not do the concept justice.  Hasbara links information warfare to the strategic efforts of the state to bolster the unity of the home front; ensure the support of allies; disrupt efforts to organize hostile coalitions; determine the way issues are defined by the media, the intelligentsia, and social networks; establish the parameters of politically correct discourse; delegitimize both critics and their arguments; and shape the common understanding and interpretation of the results of international negotiations.  Hasbara is multifaceted and well-adapted to the digital age.  It embodies a public-private partnership in which the state leads and committed volunteers follow in implementing an information strategy.  In its comprehensiveness and complexity, it bears the same relationship to unidimensional public diplomacy as grand strategy does to campaign plans.

Hasbara has its roots in earlier concepts of propaganda, agitprop, and censorship.  Like them, it is communication calculated to influence cognition and behavior by manipulating perceptions of a cause or position with one-sided arguments, prejudicial substance, and emotional appeals.  Unlike its progenitors, however, hasbara does not seek merely to burnish or tarnish national images of concern to it or to supply information favorable to its theses.  It also seeks actively to inculcate canons of political correctness in domestic and foreign media and audiences that will promote self-censorship by them.  It strives thereby to decrease the willingness of audiences to consider information linked to politically unacceptable viewpoints, individuals, and groups and to inhibit the circulation of adverse information in social networks.

Past efforts by states to shape domestic and foreign opinion depended on the production of persuasive information and efforts to deprive audiences of access to contradictory information by interrupting its supply through censorship, jamming, and other techniques directed at reducing its flow.  By contrast, hasbara assumes the free flow of information within an open marketplace of opinion.  In that context, it seeks to promote selective listening.  The purpose is to constrict the demand for information, not its flow.  Although hasbara includes efforts to impede access to information through a wide variety of techniques adapted to new information technologies, it focuses on limiting the receptivity of audiences to information.

In this context, hasbara recognizes the control of narrative as a potent weapon.  Narrative is an element of rhetoric.  It defines context.  When successfully imposed, it provides a cognitive filter.  Narratives offer a comprehensive framework for connecting and interpreting events.  They substantiate “group think,” establishing baselines for conformity and hence for ostracism.

In politics, perception is reality. Narratives legitimize some perceptions and delegitimize others.  Narratives can be drawn upon to reinforce stereotypes by imposing favorable or pejorative labels on information and its sources.  Such labels predispose recipients of information to accept some things as credible, to disbelieve others, and to regard still others as so tainted or implausible that they can and should be ruled out of order and ignored.   (Not incidentally, adherence to narratives is the usual cause of intelligence failure – the inability to accept or even consider evidence that something outside the established frame of reference is in the process of occurring.)

As the recent fighting in Gaza illustrates, the modern state has at its disposal a wide variety of means of creating and sustaining narratives.  Israel announced the war on Twitter.  Israeli-controlled or guided sources then saturated American media outlets with talking points that went unchallenged by previously conditioned anchors and journalists.  In addition to traditional techniques of agitprop, disinformation, and propaganda in conventional media, the Israeli hasbara apparatus made heavy use of more focused channels of communication like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  It inundated audiences with information favorable to its cause and squeezed out information that contradicted its theses.  This reflected careful contingency planning and preparation.

Public opinion is increasingly shaped by social media.  The state of Israel has organized civilian government and military units to exploit this, including creating websites, social media accounts, and messages attributed to false identities. It has learned how to manipulate browser functions, search engine algorithms, and other automated mechanisms that control what information is presented to Internet users.  Such manipulation can ensure that certain commentary and information will or will not appear in response to searches.  It can assign greater prominence to old material critical of sources or analyses than to new entries favorable to them.  It can arrange for searches to find only positive or negative commentary and information on a topic.

In some countries, like the United States, Israel can rely upon a “fifth column” of activist sympathizers to amplify its messages, to rebut and discredit statements that contradict its arguments, facts, and fabrications, and to impugn the moral standing of those who make such statements.  Israel makes intelligent use of the possibilities this creates for public-private partnership in propaganda.  As one pertinent example, the Jewish Agency for Israel has sponsored an online “Hasbara Handbook” for students around the world to use as advocates of Israel and its policies.1

The “Hasbara Handbook” explains many standard techniques of propaganda and deceptive rhetoric.  It rehearses specific arguments and counter-arguments and outlines a program of training for advocacy and rebuttal.  It also stresses the importance of labeling or “name-calling” – the linking of a person or idea to a negative symbol.  The handbook places itself in a larger context.  It commends the work of “CAMERA” – the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America – an organization notorious for the viciousness of its efforts to blacken the reputations of those who criticize Israel or advance accounts of events that deviate from the official Israeli narrative by branding them as “anti-Semitic” or “self-hating Jews.”  It notes that CAMERA provides a free monthly magazine full of timely hasbara materials for Jewish students in the United States.  A myriad of Israel-oriented think tanks provide similar guidance online, as do numerous websites in Israel itself.

In addition, many American rabbis see it as their duty to rally their congregations to Israel’s defense.  One typical example was a rabbi who, as the Gaza fighting began, stressed to his New York congregants that “making yourself well informed and able to articulate Israel’s case clearly and compellingly is …  important…  No slanted print media article or editorial or electronic report that is … unbalanced and unfair can be allowed to go unchallenged. … Those media organs that are habitually anti-Israel should be flooded with letters and e-mails when their stories and pictures paint a … portrait of what we know to be other.  Conversations at the water cooler, in health clubs, and particularly at holiday parties and gatherings so common at this time of year… all of these are our challenge.  Get informed, stay informed, and let your voice be heard.“2

Other countries lack Israel’s unique foreign network of religious leaders and study sessions dedicated to indoctrinating advocates with its positions and to organizing swarms of them to smother opponents.  Still, convenient as it may be, a committed religious community abroad is not necessary to generate “flash mob” attacks to silence those with whom a state disagrees.  There are now a wide variety of telecommunication and social media techniques for organizing such campaigns from halfway around the world.

During the Gaza fighting, Israel sought as always to portray itself as the innocent victim of irrationally hate-filled Arab attacks.  At least in the United States, it was quite successful in this effort.  Despite the fact that Israel initiated the escalation that produced the war, dropped one thousand times as many tons of munitions on Gaza as Gazans fired at Israel, faced a foe with no air defenses with one of the world’s most advanced air forces while demonstrating a sophisticated defense against homemade missiles fired at it from Gaza, and killed 32 times as many Gazans as Gazans killed Israelis, most Americans continued to cast the issue in terms of Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attack.   Almost no one mentioned the fact that Gaza had been under siege by Israel for eight years before this latest outbreak of fighting.3

As soon as Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi arranged a truce between Israel and the Hamas authorities in Gaza, Israeli “hasbaristas” moved to recast the Gaza war in terms of previously unmentioned (and entirely fictitious) connections to Iran, which hasbara had previously demonized.  Aware that the implementation of peace agreements constitutes the war after the war, they also began a quiet campaign to ensure that the multiple ambiguities in the truce will be resolved to Israel’s advantage.

Israel is a small country, surrounded by enemies and dependent on continuing subsidies and military support from the United States.  However one evaluates the wisdom of Israel’s policies or the lack of it, it is hardly surprising in this context that Israel has led the way in understanding the importance of information warfare and developing new concepts of how to conduct it.  Where Israel has led, others can be expected to follow.

Aeschylus said that “in war, truth is the first casualty.”  But, what if truth is both malleable and, as resculpted and digitized, a full participant in war?  In modern warfare, command of the information environment can be as important as control of the battlefield.  The Israeli concept of hasbara presents a model of how this can be done in the digital age.  It is worth further study.


1 http://www.middle-east-info.org/take/wujshasbara.pdf.

2 Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik, Forest Hills Jewish Center, Queens, New York, 20 November 2012, http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/rabbis-world/ayin-ltzion-tzofia-feeling-israels-pain.

3 An extreme example of hasbara narrative reinforcing these points was provided by Washington Post editorial writer, Charles Krauthammer a few days after the fighting ended. See “Why Was There War in Gaza?” November 23, 2012,  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-why-was-there-war-in-gaza/2012/11/22/c77582e8-3412-11e2-bfd5-e202b6d7b501_story.html?hpid=z2.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Moscow, Russia

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