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.

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.

As users continue to join the "community" section of the site at a rapid pace, the site has faced questions over its hosting of advocacy content under the same banner as posts generated by everyday users. A week before Israel's post ran on the site, the news site was criticized after a leading anti-abortion group, Personhood USA, penned a listicle that claimed to itemize all the "offensive, appalling, and illegal things" Planned Parenthood has done.

When user-generated items appear on the front page of the site, they aren't explicitly labeled -- as, for example, is sponsored marketing content (a widespread practice in online publishing, including at The Atlantic). If a reader clicks on a link created by a third-party user, the link opens the story within the community section, and a small disclaimer at the bottom reads, "This post was written by a member of the BuzzFeed Community, where anyone can post awesome lists and creations." But the causal reader might not notice that and conclude these posts are written by staff rather than government publicists—especially if the reader followed a link through social media.

In comments on both the Personhood USA and Israel stories, it appears that some readers were confused:

"Since when does Buzzfeed act as a propaganda outlet for Israel?" one reader commented.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith didn't respond directly to questions about whether government-created content would be deemed appropriate for promotion to the front page of the site, or whether posts created by governments would be labelled differently than ones created by users going forward. But he seemed confident in his readers' ability to distinguish between the staff-created and government-created content. "Our community has been growing at a crazy rate for the last couple of months, and we are always working to make it both technically better and easier to use, to consume and to share," he wrote in an email. "And we are really excited about the new, growing platform. But we also trust our readers and increasingly sophisticated consumers generally to understand the different kinds of content on the web."

Others might be less sanguine. The former assistant secretary of state Richard W. Murphy thinks the Israeli government's BuzzFeed map depicts exaggerated threats from neighboring Arab countries and Iran, even by the standards of political PR.

"Government publicists often make comments about the threats in their neighborhood, though I don't recall so sweeping and cartoonish a presentation in official versions of the dangers as depicted in the map," Murphy wrote in an email to The Atlantic. Will readers process bias in the way Smith expects them to? "I may be wrong," Murphy wrote to The Atlantic, "but I think most readers will view the map/article as reflecting reality and not worry whether the author is a journalist or a government publicist."

There are, meanwhile, no checks in place to prevent the U.K. Embassy, for example, from publishing a list of 12 good reasons why government secrecy is important. Even the Palestinian Authority could opt to make a BuzzFeed account and begin publishing articles with an anti-Israel bent.

But the Israeli embassy, for its part, hopes that type of content would be curtailed. "As we look around the web, we see opponents of Israel posting hate speech," Katz wrote. "We hope the Buzzfeed community editors will maintain their terms of use and that a culture of conflict, vitriol, and incitement is avoided."