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Can Facebook page help Israel, Iran toward peace?

By Ethan Zuckerman, Special to CNN
March 22, 2012 -- Updated 2258 GMT (0658 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ethan Zuckerman: Israelis' Facebook page reaching out to Iran drew big response
  • He says it's tempting to dismiss impact, but social media efforts produce unexpected outcomes
  • He says one effect is replacing faces of leaders in conflict with faces of ordinary human beings
  • Zuckerman: Social media lets citizens bypass leaders, speak for themselves

Editor's note: Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He is co-founder of international citizen media community Global Voices with Rebecca MacKinnon.

(CNN) -- In a picture posted on Facebook, a man in a white shirt holds his daughter in his arms. She holds an Israeli flag. The caption reads: "Iranians we will never bomb your country. We ♥ you."

A response on the same page: An Iranian tells the story of being forced to walk over an Israeli flag every day when entering his school. Years of being taught to hate the Israeli flag had an effect, he says. But "after seeing your daughter holding the flag, I do not feel that way anymore, and I am so happy. Now: I love that blue, I love that star, I love that flag."

The man in the white shirt is Israeli graphic designer Ronny Edry. With his wife, Michal Tamir, and their students at a small graphic design school, they've started an Internet meme. And slowly, but steadily, Israelis are expressing their hopes for peace, and Iranians are responding in kind.

Ethan Zuckerman
Ethan Zuckerman

While it's surprising and moving to see these unfamiliar images, it's also tempting to dismiss Edry's project as the latest example of "slacktivism," activism that's as simple as a mouse click, with little or no effect in the real world.

After all, it's probably unrealistic to believe that Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" online campaign, viewed by more than one hundred million people on YouTube, will bring a Ugandan warlord to justice. So it's at least as unrealistic to believe that Israeli and Iranian leaders, both playing to their political bases with threats of war, will be swayed by these images.

Israel and Iran social media love
'Israel loves Iran' campaign gains fans

That casual dismissal may be too simple and too cynical.

One of the more unexpected outcomes of Invisible Children's campaign to bring Joseph Kony to justice was the response of Ugandans via social media. Upset that the Kony 2012 video misrepresented the situation in her country, Ugandan blogger and journalist Rosabell Kagumire posted her own video to YouTube. And 500,000 views later, she found herself appearing on CNN, explaining the importance of focusing on the path toward stability in northern Uganda and not on arresting a single warlord.

Kagumire felt that Invisible Children didn't represent her voice and used social media to make herself heard. Edry, and the participants in Israel ♥ Iran, are making the point that their governments don't speak on their behalf when they threaten war. Through social media, they can challenge an official narrative and make clear that neither Israel nor Iran is a monolith.

It's worth noting that while most of the Israeli images feature photos of people looking into the camera, few Iranian images do. One features a black and white photo of an Iranian diplomat who rescued 4,000 French Jews from the Holocaust. Another showcases a Jewish shrine in Iran. Iranians know that expressing solidarity with Israelis online could lead to harassment or arrest and are finding ways to reach out -- often making clear that their sympathies are with "the Israeli people" instead of the state of Israel -- without putting themselves at undue risk.

Will an effort like Israel ♥ Iran force either the Netanyahu or Ahmedinejad government to listen to the voices of dissenting citizens? No. Will it complicate the dialogue occurring in each country? Perhaps.

It offers evidence that not all Israeli citizens see Iran as an implacable enemy, and it replaces the faces of leaders with the faces of ordinary people. A path toward war for Israel involves seeing Ahmedinejad as a madman; a path toward peace starts with seeing Israelis and Iranians as real people.

What do movements such as Israel ♥ Iran mean for governments and their diplomats? It's harder to speak for a nation when citizens of that nation can demand publicly to speak for themselves.

Corporations struggle to respond to customers who complain about poor service on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Nonprofit organizations such as Invisible Children find themselves confronting online criticism from the people they claim to represent. Diplomats may find themselves one voice of many, complemented and contradicted by the voices of citizen diplomats such as Edry and Tamir.

Expecting a series of images on the Internet to change the path of the Israeli-Iranian relationship is too much weight to put onto a simple gesture. But it's a worthy hope, and Israel ♥ Iran is a sign of things to come.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ethan Zuckerman.

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