Israel and BuzzFeed: When Government PR Goes Viral

User-generated content isn't just for everyday people anymore.
The Israeli Embassy's first post on BuzzFeed (screenshot)

Two weeks ago, Israel expanded its robust "public diplomacy" efforts, which include an active Twitter presence and a popular military Instagram, with a post written by its American embassy (@IsraelinUSA) on the redoubtable viral news and entertainment juggernaut BuzzFeed

Instead of something in line with the light fare normally found on the community section of the website, which is home to such items as "15 Ways That Cats Are Trying To Take Over Our Lives," "18 Inappropriate Places to Twerk," and other ephemera created by readers, the Israeli embassy's debut tackled a more solemn subject. Headlined, "Threats Facing Israel, Explained In One (Sort of Terrifying) Map," the post outlined and detailed the menacing perils on the country's borders. 

"Looking at the virality and success of the current post, we’ll be back," the Israeli embassy wrote. "Who knows, maybe with lists, cats or something related to Miley."

The image attempts to offer a point-by-point explanation of why the actions of neighboring Middle East countries and terrorist groups pose an imminent threat to Israel's territory. If you were to take the infographic at face value, you'd think Iran and Israel's Arab neighbors were on the brink of pummeling the U.S.-allied nation with a torrent of rockets and nukes.

Even the PR operatives who created the piece foresaw the criticism—that the map blurs the line between real dangers and a far-fetched, apocalyptic scenario—and hedged with the phrase "sort of terrifying." It seems to anticipate negative reactions, saying: "Some may say the map is alarmist, but it is our geopolitical reality."

The threat map that the Israeli embassy posted on BuzzFeed (Embassy of Israel)

The Israeli embassy told The Atlantic that its decision to join the BuzzFeed community was motivated by the site's extreme popularity and, much like the other users on the site, a desire to receive maximum exposure. "We want to be where the people are," Noam Katz, the Embassy of Israel's minister of public diplomacy, wrote in an emailed statement. "Buzzfeed, as a website, offers a platform friendly to virality, and we wanted to see where it could take us. So, we opened a community page and created a post. If the public goes to a new platform, or a new website, we will explore opportunities to engage with them there."

With the crisis in Syria unfolding, the embassy saw a perfect opportunity to insert "Israel's perspective" into the news conversation with the late-August post. "It may not be light, but it’s important," Katz wrote. "We hope people see our goal for the post: It’s because of these threats Israel is ever more committed to maintaining our existing peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, and reaching an historic peace agreement with the Palestinians."

The government-issued, and BuzzFeed hosted, propaganda has received more than 3,000 likes on Facebook, more than 400 shares on Twitter, and has been viewed more than 23,000 times. If the content had just been posted to the embassy's own website instead, the results would have been nowhere near as dramatic. Israel said it will continue to create content on the network, and suggested that it may even offer something a bit more frivolous. "Looking at the virality and success of the current post, we’ll be back," Katz wrote. "Who knows, maybe with lists, cats or something related to Miley."

***

Israel is not the only foreign government posting to the site; the embassy of the United Kingdom began writing there in mid-August. Its pop-culture dispatches, including "11 Stats That Prove British Music Rules," seem less at-odds with the objective reporting of BuzzFeed's formidable foreign-news team, which is led by Miriam Elder, a former correspondent for The Guardian in Moscow.

Presented by

Ryan Jacobs is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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