Inside Israel's Twitter War Room

History of a Social Media Arsenal

by Rebecca L. Stein | published November 24, 2012

For background, see Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, “Another War Zone: Social Media in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Middle East Report Online (September 2010).

Within hours of the onset of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s latest military campaign in the Gaza Strip, global news outlets had already turned their spotlight on social media. A raft of stories led with the Israel Defense Forces’ use of the popular networking platforms to advance their public relations message, pointing to their use of Twitter to announce the army’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Ja‘bari and their slickly produced Facebook posts justifying the ongoing aerial bombardment.

By the end of the second day, the notion of a “Twitter battlefield” had become a journalistic truism. Numerous pundits mulled over the meaning of this vanguard shift in military and political strategy. Was Israel charting new worlds of warcraft? Would future war plans be molded in Israel’s likeness, employing a toolbox comprised of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr? Evident in much of the voluminous commentary was a tone of something like wonderment -- as if once again, and even under rocket fire, Israeli technology cum modernity had triumphed.

What was lost in all this coverage was the history of the Israeli army’s social media investment, which long precedes 2012. Rather, over the course of the last few years, IDF institutions (along with other state organs) have gradually and carefully built up their presence on social media platforms and established these platforms as key weapons in the state’s public relations arsenal. The chief aim: to make them deployable in times of war.

The Digital Imperative

The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 (code-named Operation Cast Lead). Then, the IDF launched its own YouTube channel to showcase footage of the Israeli assault and video blogs by army spokespersons -- content designed to fill the void left by Israeli state-imposed restrictions on journalists’ access to the Gaza war zone. Despite widespread international condemnation of Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, the military claimed a decisive public relations victory in the arena of social media, trumpeting the popularity of its YouTube initiative (some videos were viewed more than 2 million times). In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations and in scope, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

In the IDF’s assessment, Operation Cast Lead had proven the need -- indeed, the imperative -- for the military to become a skilled and fluent operator within the digital domain. The office of the army spokesperson, where social media work was initially housed, deemed these tools particularly essential during episodes of military confrontation. A senior member of the military’s new media team outlined the operational blueprint succinctly: We gather Twitter followers in times of peace, so that they are ready to disseminate our message when we are at war. [1]

For the IDF’s social media developers, Facebook was the paramount challenge, the site of both the biggest risks and the biggest opportunities. The standard Facebook template was initially seen as infeasible on several grounds. First was the populist character of the platform: “Facebook has a tabloid-y look to it,” an IDF official remarked in March 2011, “and we are, after all, a serious organization.” [2] But perhaps most crucially, Facebook’s signature interactivity, with a “wall” open for public commentary, was regarded as a nearly insurmountable obstacle to the IDF’s aims, due to the anticipated fusillade of criticism. The army learned this lesson during the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion, when its YouTube channel was initially left open to commenters, many of whom turned out to be detractors. The comment function was disabled one day after launch.

On August 14, 2011 -- following months of development work -- the first official IDF page was launched in English and within one day boasted 90,000 followers (an Arabic-language page, with far fewer followers, appeared shortly thereafter). Engagement with Facebook, the IDF developers decided, required creative manipulation of platform protocols so that they might serve military priorities. The IDF’s retooling of the “like” button was a case in point: “Click ‘Like’ if you support the IDF’s right to defend the state of Israel from those who attempt to harm Israelis,” in the words of an early post (this clunky formulation has since been abandoned, with the IDF now encouraging Facebook users to “share” the army’s content as a way to affirm solidarity with the military’s position). Military personnel articulated the retooling challenge this way: “This is a problem that I face every day. And I have to be creative. I cannot say: ‘Like’ Israel under attack. So, it’s really complicated, but what I try to do is to create a new language, to interpret the language of the army on Facebook.” [3] That fall, army officials lauded plans to administer the Facebook wall around the clock, noting the need for “specific night shifts” on this platform alone -- a change enabled by newly appointed staff.

The state’s approach to the Facebook wall would change considerably over time. At first, members of the IDF social media team were anxious to remove what they deemed “derogatory” posts -- namely, comments critical of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. In subsequent months, the IDF would spell out a looser policy of permitting criticism to remain online and visible to users. In the language of the IDF, this shift in policy was articulated through the metaphor of graffiti, by which the Facebook wall was conceived as a physical edifice, available for public defacement:

We’re not responsible [for the Facebook wall], and I think that people understand that.… Like, if somebody sprays graffiti on the front door of the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, with graffiti that says “Zionist pigs,” nobody would assume that we painted that, but we’re sure not gonna leave it. I think it’s the same general principle. People understand, but if you leave it, it’s kind of tacit approval. As a policy it’s good to get rid of it, but it’s still not immediately important that you do. No one is assuming that it reflects your policies. [4]

Twitter has presented its own problems and possibilities. As of the fall of 2011, the IDF had assigned four officials to tweet in the army’s name (and the number has surely grown since). At this juncture, increasingly aware of the time-sensitive nature of social media content, the new media team was beginning to prepare Twitter messaging ahead of time -- drafting boilerplate that might become army communiqués during military actions in the Occupied Territories. To this end, the team assembled statistics highlighting the IDF’s humanitarian interventions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- this narrative being a central pillar of Israel’s public relations efforts where the military occupation is concerned. They argued that such preparations would enable the military’s social media team to deliver real-time responses to detractors in times of crisis, thus effectively deflating political critique. [5] The pace of the initial Facebook output during Pillar of Defense, coupled with aesthetics borrowed from the Hollywood playbook, suggests that advance content preparation has also been pursued by the IDF’s Facebook team (an effort which, given the volume of media coverage it received, was surely counted as a success by military personnel).

Order vs. Informality

Perhaps the army’s chief social media challenge has been its negotiation of the informal tenor of communication on these popular platforms. And the challenge has been considerable, requiring the highly regimented world of the military to engage laterally with civilian social media users who often post and tweet in a casual, even intimate idiom. A senior representative of the IDF spokesperson’s office described this problem to me as follows:

They [social media] are contradictory to the military institution. Any army is a closed organization, and usually it keeps its secrets and operational details inside. And new media works on the opposite [sic]; also the language is different. The military language is very strict. There’s a lot of abbreviations; it has very specific intonations. And the new media is exactly the opposite -- a lot of emotions, a lot of questions…informality. So it’s a bit difficult to teach the military how new media is really an asset, but we’ve been doing it for the past two years. [6]

This army officer touted the potential of new media as a means of spreading information, mainly its ability to reach audiences that traditional media could not. But she conceded that it has been hard persuading the upper echelons to embrace the shift, given its radical departure from conventional military protocols and modes of IDF self-presentation. Over the course of the last two years, the army has endeavored to redress internal reluctance through education, chiefly training courses for officers. [7] But considerable skepticism and ignorance has remained, particularly among the top brass.

At times, the ignorance has led to embarrassing missteps. In the spring of 2011, senior IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu spoke of the military’s intention to enlist “little hackers who were born and raised online,” young people whom the IDF would “screen with special care and train...to serve the state.” His comments were picked up by the Israeli online media and were broadcast on the military’s dedicated YouTube channel. [8] An IDF spokesman later clarified the nature of the misstatement to me by e-mail, explaining that Benayahu had intended to refer to “an army of bloggers,” rather than “hackers” -- the latter term disturbing many IDF officials with its unflattering invocation of covert online malfeasance, a notion out of keeping with the self-portrait that the military’s social media team sought to paint. When I looked for Benayahu’s remarks on YouTube at a later date, they were gone -- scrubbed, presumably, in the interest of the IDF’s image of professionalism.

The Digital Vernacular

It is clear, in fact, from interviews with IDF officials that the social media project is nascent and sometimes improvisational. Interestingly, the startup nature of the army’s efforts runs counter to the advanced state of the Israeli high-tech sector, with its highly publicized, military-fed innovation, and also to the high levels of social media literacy in the Israeli population at large. In part, officials emphasize, there is simply a “disconnect” between the conventions of social media and the traditional practices of the state. As they are the first to admit, social media platforms, with their relaxed, person-to-person modes of communication, are grossly at odds with the highly regulated ways in which armies operate.

Even as the IDF labors to speak in a language that will be intelligible to the general public, largely abandoning traditional forms of military jargon, its Facebook and Twitter practices remain committed to the foremost military mission -- that of asserting control over social media’s highly interactive field. The challenge is made greater by inadequate staffing, the officials say. Errors frequently ensue, and sometimes -- as with Benayahu’s confusion of bloggers with hackers -- the results are comic.

What is at work in all these instances is what might be termed “digital vernacularization” -- a strategic state endeavor to open new channels of public relations in the informal tone that social media demands. At times, the adoption of the digital vernacular has yielded manifestly positive results, or so the state has claimed, pointing to the massive viewership of the IDF’s YouTube clips during the 2008-2009 Gaza war. Yet, arguably, this project also carries a set of risks for the army’s message, particularly given that the digital field is heavily populated by anti-occupation activists who are much more digitally proficient than the IDF, save its younger recruits. Thus, while the army can generate social media content in prodigious amounts, the outcome of this work is far from certain.

The Facebook Everyman

The IDF embrace of social networking has called into question the so-called digital democracy narrative that was marshaled so enthusiastically in early 2011 to explain the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. That storyline not only attributed the toppling of tyrants to social media -- a conclusion now justly deemed naïve -- but often went further to propose that these technologies were naturally suited to liberatory politics from below, particularly when led by youth. This variant of the digital democracy theorem depended on a companion narrative that posed Middle Eastern states as strictly repressive actors in the digital domain, namely, as institutions committed to monitoring, infiltrating and/or suppressing social media in order to maintain authoritarian control. The chief example, cited frequently by the media, was the Mubarak regime’s shutdown of the Internet amidst turmoil in the streets and the popular occupation of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.

The case of the Israeli army muddies this narrative at both ends -- troubling its presumptions both about the organic grassroots and about the autocratic state where social media are concerned. Rather, the IDF case points to the highly variable political functions that social media can serve, bolstering the corrective to digital utopianism most famously associated with Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion. Certainly, the Israeli state continues to employ social media as a means of classic counterinsurgency, engaging in digital surveillance and the like. But, as Operation Pillar of Defense has made clear, the Israeli army is also striving to position itself as a lateral social media user in its own right -- a Facebook everyman of sorts. As such, the army employs the quotidian language and norms of networking platforms, always striving to fine-tune its sense of the social media vernacular, while adapting these tools in pursuit of wartime public relations objectives. This model of digital militarism invites a wholesale rethinking of lingering faith in the progressive political promise of social media.

As the Israeli barrage escalated and ground troops mobilized, as fatalities mounted (Palestinian deaths far outstripping Israeli ones), and as images of the Gaza devastation circulated, media outlets by and large left the social media angle behind. It took the satirists at The Onion, however, to point out the multiple ironies of the first two days’ viral social media story: “Palestinian Family Trapped Under Rubble Thrilled to Hear ‘Gaza’ Trending on Twitter.” As The Onion headline pithily put it, the initial focus on social media functioned largely to obfuscate the backdrop to the violence on the ground. Even now, with the social media luster fading and a ceasefire in place, the obfuscation is still present, albeit in different forms. Chief among them is that most familiar of storylines: the near exclusive framing of Operation Pillar of Defense as a war between two parties on an equal footing, the language of “conflict” replacing that of “military occupation.” One thing is clear: As far as the Israeli army is concerned, the social media battlefield is here to stay.

Endnotes

[1] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Jerusalem, June 2012.
[2] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, March 2011.
[3] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
[4] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
[5] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
[6] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, March 2011.
[7] Interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
[8] YNet, February 8, 2011.

Filed under: