Avoiding “Friendly Fire”

Today, when we speak up for Israel in the battle for hearts and minds, chances are that much of our activism is set to take place online. The prevalence of online interactions presents amazing opportunities, but also untold pitfalls. Let’s discuss one pitfall that occurs much too often and yet is relatively easy to address. I refer to this phenomenon as "friendly fire."

What is friendly fire? Well, think of the countless online comment threads where you see people argue the same position and yet manage to talk past each other. Think of all the instances where agreement appears just a keystroke away, but a major point is missed and an opportunity is squandered as commenters delve into personal attacks. The reality is that exchanging ideas online magnifies some of the same difficulties that exist in personal communication. As we do not see the other party and cannot sense their intent, it is far easier to miscommunicate. Additionally, people allow themselves to be more combative online than they do in person, as online debates on Facebook or in the comments sections of publications frequently take place between strangers.

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Now, let’s establish awareness around some fundamental aspects of engagement. When we are dealing with a sensitive topic, we may observe a decrease in the acceptable margin of disagreement. What this means is that the more emotionally charged the topic, the more magnified even small deviations from our own position appear. As such, while in a relaxed conversation we may overlook minor differences from our view or embrace them as adding to the discussion, when we are dealing with a topic related to Israel, we may argue even the finest points.

In a normal discussion, we may find a spectrum of views that fall anywhere from full agreement with our opinion to complete opposite. And yet, as we are not emotionally vested in the topic, we are able to identify the relative positioning of others in comparison to our own viewpoint. Out of this knowledge, we are able to form tactical alliances to better get our point across. However, when we discuss an emotionally charged topic, and as the acceptable margin of disagreement rapidly decreases, our ability to tolerate descent evaporates. What happens then is that we are no longer able to recognize the spectrum of opinions and that some people are supporting the same major theme as we are. Instead, we treat everyone as an adversary.

As an example, I recently witnessed a thread following an Israeli newspaper’s article in which a young man from Jordan made two statements about Israel – one positive and the other neutral. He also made an affirmative statement about Jordan. Several commenters overlooked the wonderful opportunity at hand, and instead began to aggressively berate the Jordanian for the glowing (and somewhat inaccurate) comment about his home country. So, instead of reinforcing the young man’s benevolent view of Israel, the hyper advocates attacked him personally and tried to convince him that his home country is inadequate. The young man’s initial enthusiasm quickly gave way to bitter defensiveness.

In another instance, a non-Jewish Spanish-speaker expressed a pro-Israel sentiment under a post in a Zionist group; however, his limited command of English left the comment somewhat ambiguous. Three overzealous advocates immediately attacked the commenter assuming the worst intent on his part. Again, such a response proved counterproductive. By all accounts, these were ready-made victories that were turned into missed opportunities.

People are far more receptive to our message if they like us, or at least if we don’t attack them. Thus, before you engage, re-read what the other person wrote and consider the possibility of them being sarcastic, using unintentionally ambiguous phrasing or not having adequate command of the English language. Feel free to ask a follow up question to confirm what the individual meant to say. Be considerate of the other person’s background and appreciate what is realistic and what isn’t. To leverage a prior example, one should realize that for all the sympathy that a Jordanian may feel toward Israel, it would be unreasonable to expect him to hold the same views as an ardent Zionist.

Online, where attention spans are especially limited, people get triggered particularly easily and are more likely to engage in personal attacks. While we all may be guilty of this at one time or another, it would serve us best to minimize such occurrences. Pause for a few seconds to rethink if you are considering writing something that you would not say in person. And even if you do fall into the trap and later realize that you made a mistake, apologize and make amends. It is worth the effort as long as our objective is to help people understand the truth about Israel and encourage them to become ambassadors of good will in their own communities.

People may not remember what we say, but they will remember how we made them feel. So, let’s make the most of our online engagements and avoid the easily preventable pitfall of "friendly fire."

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