The BDS movement and the US media battle

The BDS movement and the US media battle
Comment: The movement to boycott Israeli goods must fight against a mainstream media set to demonise its activists, writes Tamara Kharroub.
4 min read
10 Aug, 2016
Human rights groups continue to mobilise for BDS despite the media backlash [Getty]

Inspired by the global boycott movement against apartheid South Africa, the Palestinian-led BDS movement calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel to comply with international law.

Grounded in international law and human rights, the movement has made great achievements internationally - with several companies, churches, academic associations, and public figures declaring their boycott of and divestment from entities that are complicit in the Israeli occupation and violations of Palestinian rights.

However, with major successes comes harsher pushback. In the US in particular, anti-BDS rhetoric and actions have increased dramatically in the past few months with anti-BDS legislation, and demonisation of the campaign in the media.

While the economic impact of BDS on Israel is not likely to be significant in the near future and the anti-BDS legal campaign is growing mostly in the US, the primary success of the BDS movement thus far has been on the international public relations front. Therefore, a well-planned comprehensive media strategy is a necessary next step for the BDS movement.

Israel has a very sophisticated, advanced, and well-financed PR machine, whose narratives have dominated the mainstream discourse

In the court of law, Israel has no evidence or case, but in the absence of a framework for justice and in the absence of justice itself, what remains is international public opinion.

To that end, Israel has a very sophisticated, advanced, and well-financed PR machine, whose narratives have dominated the mainstream discourse in the US for decades. In this regard, the BDS movement must review and refine its media strategy to counter the increasingly aggressive propaganda against BDS disseminated by the Israeli hasbara.

Read more on the BDS campaign
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- 'Ramadan Tov' campaign boycotts Israeli products during holy month
- Jordan BDS activists rally against 'pro-Israel' parliament  
- Israel prevents prominent BDS campaigner from travel
- Comment: All for BDS, once and for all

A study of the US mainstream media's coverage of the BDS movement that we are conducting at Arab Center Washington DC shows four (unsurprising) patterns. First, sources consulted for comment on the campaign are primarily Israeli sources, which are cited three times more frequently that Palestinian sources.

Also, when referencing Palestinian sources, the information is more often presented as "claims", whereas Israeli perspectives are presented as fact.

The second trait is decontextualisation, where there is little mention of the underlying conditions that led to BDS and the purpose of the movement, with hardly any references to international law, human rights or discussion of BDS in relation to other global social justice movements - especially the boycott of Apartheid South Africa.

The third element to the pattern is the mischaracterisation of the movement and framing it as a unilateral measure, as an obstacle to peace, and as anti-Semitic.

Finally, our findings also show a temporal trend, where early media reporting was more dismissive of BDS, but more recently has become more aggressive and even attacking the characters of public figures who support BDS, in classic propaganda techniques.

Studies of contemporary protest movements have shown the power of social media in mobilising activism

Overall, with the exception of a few op-eds here and there, the majority of articles covering the campaign presented a clear pro-Israel slant and a negative framing of BDS.

Despite the limited coverage and the demonisation within that which is offered in mainstream media, a growing online momentum has evolved. Studies of contemporary protest movements have shown the power of social media in mobilising activism, organising demonstrations, and attracting supporters.

One of the most notable BDS social media campaigns, the SodaStream #NoScarJo campaign, made effective utilisation of social media tools. There was a specific tangible request from a specific entity; a targeted campaign asking Oxfam to drop Scarlet Johansson as their global ambassador because of her role as "brand ambassador" for SodaStream - whose operations appeared to conflict with Oxfam's humanitarian principles and values.

The campaign also provided specific actions that activists and supporters could take, such as posting information on Facebook, sending emails, tweeting, signing petitions, calling Oxfam, etc. When such an online success went viral, the mainstream media had no choice but to pick up the story - and so the New York Times, LA Times, CNN, ABC News and others finally covered the story.

However, social media tools have their shortcomings, from the risks faced by organisations and activists from digital attacks and surveillance, to McCarthyist blacklists and legal action, which are starting to come into effect in the United States.

The second shortcoming is the fact that social media tools cannot replace mainstream media in changing public opinion. "The US government will support [the occupation] as long as the US population tolerates it," said Noam Chomsky - and the only way to change American public opinion is through a slow and gradual process and a strategic plan to address the specifics and the environment of the US media industry.

It is high time for Palestinian rights movements to counter the strong pro-Israel influence in the US media through well-planned and informed media strategies. 

Dr Tamara Kharroub is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.