February 4, 2008 6:00 pm

The web will struggle to massage a country’s image

The unfortunate affair of the British Council, during which the Russians attempted to close offices on their territory, brought to my mind the effort countries make to persuade foreigners to think more fondly towards them. Could the web play a role, I wondered, and rang up Simon Anholt, creator of the Nation Brand Index. He uses regular large scale polls to monitor attitudes to 38 countries. No, he said, you can’t massage the image of a country, you have to change the reality. And the web, as with any other communication medium, cannot help much there.

I decided to look at two countries that are doing rather poorly in Mr Anholt’s Index, China and Israel, and concluded that he is right. He is doubly right as the explosion in sites such as YouTube means that any government thinking it can coral opinion onto its own online turf is living in cloud cuckoo land. The web is a dangerous place.

The Israelis have long used their Ministry of Foreign Affairs site as an important mouthpiece. I have written about it a few times in this column, usually commenting that its articles go our of their way to appear balanced. Perhaps the subtle approach did not work, perhaps new people are in charge, but the site now has a less restrained flavour.

The main story this week is about the rocket attacks from Gaza, emphasising that Israel has not cut the power supply. I read it, but did not stay long here or indeed on the site. Instead I clicked a link labelled ‘Video: “Everyone deserves to live in peace”’ and found myself transported to the video-sharing site YouTube. Here I watched a well-made slide show documenting the suffering in Sderot, a city being attacked. It was posted by ‘israeligirl67’, who says she is ‘one of the founders of giyus.org, a pro-Israeli public diplomacy group.’ Clicking around, I found another video she had posted. This was taken by a television team in Israel as it came under fire and is far more exciting than anything the MFA could produce itself.

Using YouTube in this way has a big advantage – it allows the government to direct people to powerful content it could not easily put on its own site. But it is also taking a risk by letting visitors into territory it does not control. Viewers of israeligirl’s videos are a solidly pro-Israel lot, judging by the comments they left, but when I put ‘israel’ into YouTube’s search engine, the balance of viewpoint tipped the other way. A CBC clip headed ‘Video Israel doesn’t want you to see’ is definitely not the sort of thing the MFA would like us to see. With 769,917 views, it is not getting its way – I would guess there must be discussions within the MFA about whether it should be linking to YouTube at all.

China.org.cn, ‘China’s official gateway to news and information’, is part of the country’s effort to be better understood in the run-up to the Olympics. It is well-funded, judging by the fact it is available in nine languages including Esperanto (there’s another column in that, but I won’t be diverted now). And it take a much more softly-softly approach.

The feel is of an online newspaper with sections covering the usual areas: business, government, sport and so on. The home page this week leads on an economic story (‘Consumption becomes the No.1 engine of economic growth’) but most space is given to the snow that has been paralysing the country. In other words, it is being edited with the same sort of news judgment as any western paper or news bulletin. Speeches by officials – which I tend to associate with Beijing-generated news – are tucked away in the Government section, even there being relegated to side panels.

The site does not steer away from negative stories. Many are of the micro kind (‘Asian elephants attack American tourist’) though some have a political edge. The Environment carries a feature headed ‘People vs chemical plant’, about a fight to stop a factory being built by the city of Xiamen. If you look at the air quality table in the environment section, you will see that Urumqi in the north-west is classified as ‘hazardous’, with ‘particulate matter’ the main pollutant. Strange, and perhaps encouraging, that the Chinese government is happy to wave this sort of warning flag, when it could so easily be omitted.

But if you start to dig away at the issues where Beijing is most sensitive, you will find subtle propaganda being laid. I typed ‘human rights’ into the site’s search engine, and found a story headed ‘British minister: China’s progress in human rights should be applauded’. Reading the text it’s clear Lord Malloch-Brown was actually talking about living standards and a quick search on Google brought me to a quote by him that “there is still very significant progress … to be made on the human rights side.” You probably wouldn’t find that on Google China, which is censored, but this site is aimed at outsiders.

I searched for ‘Falun Gong’ on the site, and found it described as an ‘evil cult’. I searched for ‘tibet’ and found only one reference to the Dalai Lama ‘whom China viewed as a separatist and political exile engaging in activities aimed at splitting the motherland and sabotaging national unity’.

China.org.cn does not link to YouTube. Not surprising really: put ‘tibet’ or ‘falun gong’ into YouTube’s search engine and you will struggle to find any good news for Beijing among the mass of hostile videos. ‘Chinese government torture the Falun Gong’, ‘Tibet – the story of a tragedy’. Etcetera.

Although there are parallels between Israel and China, there are also differences that make the web less effective for one than the other. The Israeli site is (now) largely a propaganda site that will reinforce the views of its supporters, be treated sceptically by neutrals, and be ignored by its critics. The China site may have an underlying propagandistic drive, but it is sufficiently interesting, and China is sufficiently ill-known, to be interesting in its own right. As long as it doesn’t start linking to YouTube, it must be doing more good than harm.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co. dbowen@bowencraggs.com.

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