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Style not substance: Kushner redeploys Cambridge Analytica strategies to sell his Middle East peace plan Open in fullscreen

Muhammad Shehada

Style not substance: Kushner redeploys Cambridge Analytica strategies to sell his Middle East peace plan

Kushner's plan has been flatly rejected by Palestinian officials [AFP]

Date of publication: 1 August, 2019

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Comment: Jared Kushner is shamelessly redeploying the same controversial Cambridge Analytica tricks he used to win Trump the 2016 election. This time it's in the Middle East, writes Muhammad Shehada.

Last Tuesday, the US-based news outlet McClatchy DC Bureau uncovered some chilling revelations about Jared Kusner's Middle East peace plan. 

According to the report, Kushner commissioned a big data operation in August 2018, in an effort to sway the Arab street to buy into his plan.

The operation included an analysis of 50 regional media organisations for "their influence and attitudes toward US policy in the Middle East" in order to officially rank them over their coverage of Kushner's plan.

The projects also aimed to analyse the Arab targeted audience that Kushner is trying to sway through looking into their public consumption of news and the most influential news sources they subscribe to. This analysis included "a breakdown by age, internet usage, and the percentage of people getting information on mobile devices, newspapers, or television".

It's fairly terrifying to see Kushner - who takes great pride in his instrumental role of having manipulated the American public to elect Trump in 2016 through a $400 million big data operation - shamelessly redeploying the same controversial Cambridge Analytica tricks in the Middle East.

However, this quest to "connect better" with people in the region through such big data operation is fundamentally wrong, on so many different levels.

Data-ization of the conflict

The declared goal of this data operation, according to three senior administration officials, is "to better understand what's driving the street across the Arab world".

However, what's most striking about the means by which Kushner aspires to develop such better understanding is essentially the frivolity and emptiness of his dehumanising data-ization of the conflict; whereby everything is being confined to mere reports, statistics and graphs.

It's fairly terrifying to see Kushner shamelessly redeploying the same controversial Cambridge Analytica tricks in the Middle East

The grievances and lived experiences of people in the region are essentially alienated and persistently dismissed.

Ironically, when Kushner and his team arrogantly discredit veteran experts and relevant authorities on the Israeli/Palestinian topic, they usually conjure up the card that what makes their efforts different and unique is that they mainly rely on conversations with "ordinary" people on the ground.

The quest of making peace is crucially a participatory process, in which convictions are co-created along the process of persuasion.

Kushner's unilateral, systematic and deliberate operation fits a textbook propaganda category in which he's not interested in learning about or caring for the subjects his plan would impact, as much as he's keen to spoon-feed tailored packaged conclusions to different groups while concealing their lack of substantiated reasoning through infiltrating news sources that people trust.

Although Kushner may think he perfected the communication strategies to indoctrinate people in the region, this apparatus essentially remains worthless, ineffective and self-defeating, and will continue that way as long as the substance of his message - his controversial plan - remains incompetent.

Furthermore, the ill reputation that the Trump administration has earned itself across the Middle East hinders the message's trustworthiness, and renders the content unacceptable, no matter how nicely it's packaged.

US information war

Kushner's team prides itself on the fact that this propaganda apparatus is the first of such systematic effort by a US government, but in truth, it is merely adding to a pile of long-established modus operandi of American information wars, something Kushner might want to learn about.

There's a particularly relevant precedent that immediately comes to mind from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, where similar unethical efforts were exerted to sway the Arab public to adopt a more favourable perception of the war on Iraq as a campaign to "bring democracy".

Back then, the US used several communication channels in the region and contrived their own state-funded ones like Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa, to systematically broadcast American propaganda in Arabic to also sway the Arab public.

This was complemented by other efforts such as hosting Arab journalists at training seminars in Washington DC, sending a female undersecretary of state to talk to Muslim women around the world, and instructing Arab dictators to suppress pro-Iraqi sentiment.

For instance, in Mubarak's Egypt, well-known poet Tamim al-Barghouti was attacked in his house at 4am by Egyptian security forces as soon as he protested the US invasion of Iraq. They blindfolded him, threatened him with Kalashnikovs, and instructed him to leave Egypt immediately.

Despite the enormous efforts that the Bush administration poured into this information war, the US message never kicked off because the substance didn't live up to the communication strategy, and because Arabs always recalled Bush's "crusade campaign" remarks, which in the Middle East reeked of Medieval European Christianity's Crusades against Islam.

The grievances and lived experiences of people in the region are essentially alienated and persistently dismissed

Trump is similarly known for his "they have nothing but cash" reference about Gulf countries, and his well-established Islamophobic rhetoric, which renders him and his team widely-detested and distrusted across the region.

Targeting an Arab - not Palestinian - audience

Finally, it's particularly odd and telling that in his quest to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Kushner is generally keen to perfect his outreach to the Arab - rather than Palestinian - audience, "with greater precision".

The continued unilateral US assault on the main pillars of the peace process, vis-a-vis Jerusalem, the question of refugees and Palestinian statehood, led to a Palestinian boycott of Kushner's plan on popular and official levels.

The desperate pursuit to convince an Arab audience to see the "potentials" of Kushner's peace plan - instead of actually working on a plan that works for both sides - can only be understood as an attempt to portray Palestinians as rejectionists, who are holding the future of Middle East prosperity back by wasting "a golden opportunity" on themselves and everyone else in the region. 

Kushner's unilateral, systematic and deliberate operation fits a textbook propaganda category

By all accounts, Jared's plan remains an utter disaster and a spectacular failure. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it "unexecutable"; Netanyahu's government immediately rejected the only meaningful part of the announced "economic chapter" - building a safe corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, and no Palestinian in their right mind would would buy that Kushner's Miracle Healing Elixir will solve any conflicts.

"In some ways it misses the point," concluded veteran Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, "because if the substance of what they're representing is completely unacceptable, it doesn't matter how they target media." 

Perhaps it's time for Kushner and his team to work harder to make an actual peace proposal rather than wasting time marketing a futile plan to a resentful audience.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab. 

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