The IDF in 140 Characters: social media and the online battlefield
At the end of January 2015 it was announced the British Army is setting up a special social media force ‘to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.' The move is believed to be influenced by the success enjoyed by the Israeli Defense Forces, (IDF), on social media who are active across a range of platforms including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. The IDF are viewed as pioneering the military use of social media.
This blog will look how the IDF’s have used social media paying particular attention to the communication strategy employed by their Twitter account. In doing so the question of whether the Israeli model is successful and can be followed by the British Army shall be addressed.
Learning the ropes
There are arguably two key events which lead to the IDF realising the necessity of engaging with new media and having a clear strategy in place. The first came as early as 2006 during the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. Hezbollah Secretary-General, Hassan Nashrallah used their satellite station Al-Manar to provide live footage of a strike on an Israeli naval ship. The footage was then quickly spread on YouTube and acted as a huge boost for many Hezbollah supporters, aiding the perception that they were winning the war. On the other hand the IDF’s response to the spread of the footage was slow and Hezbollah’s version of events was allowed to spread unhindered. After the war an internal Israeli investigation concluded that the failure to prepare and coordinate the media effort was the war’s biggest deficiency. Shortly after this report was released Israel established the National Information Directorate which was responsible for synchronising ‘the content and tone of Israel’s message’.
The second event occurred in May 2010, by which point the IDF was already active on social media. The Gaza freedom flotilla tried to breach the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza. The vessel was aggressively seized by the Israeli navy, but the ongoing events were broadcast across social media by those on board the flotilla. The IDF’s social media team were slow to respond and again were unable to prevent the harmful content being disseminated online. The flotilla episode led Israeli journalist Amir Mizroch to claim ‘we may be a startup nation, but we are bricks-and-mortar communicators.'
These events perhaps illustrate that Israel should not be seen as pioneering the military use of social media; instead they had to learn quickly through their own initial failings.The impact of social media at first meant that Israel, who had throughout history been the stronger party in the Arab-Israeli conflict and was ‘accustomed to writing the dominant draft of history’, was no longer able to dominate the narrative in the same way. However following the flotilla episode in 2010, the Israeli foreign ministry invested more than $15 million into understanding the best ways to bolster Israel’s image online. It is from this moment on that Israel developed the slick, successful social media strategy which is in evidence today. It has helped the IDF regain an element of influence over the narrative as the information war rages online.
What is the strategy of the IDF on Twitter? To understand their strategy, I analysed 378 tweets from a two month period and found that every tweet could be put into at least one of four identifiable categories. These categories were entitled Threat, Diversity, New Jew, and Invisible Palestine.
There are two separate aspects which make up the ‘New Jew’ identity referred to. The best analogy for this identity comes from the term ‘Sabra’, which is used to describe Israeli-born Jews. The word derives from a cactus which is tough and can sting on the outside, but is soft and sweet on the inside. This is the identity the IDF twitter account is trying to give to their soldiers: tough and able to defend themselves on the outside but with a soft caring and moral inside centred on values.
The greatest number of tweets could be placed in this ‘New Jew’category and the Threat category. This illustrated that there was a clear intention to demonstrate the ‘Sabra’ identity of the Israeli soldier, but at the same time portray themselves as victims under attack from their enemies, responding solely out of defense.
A surprisingly large proportion of the tweets were placed in the Diversity category, in particular these tweets tended to refer to the gender or ethnicity of the IDF’s troops. Many of these tweets include images of good looking female troops in action, often in front of a ‘romantic’ background, such as a sunset. These tweets are very shareable across social media platforms and intend to create a brand image of the IDF removed from the reality of the regular violence of the conflict, as well as attempting to portray the IDF as liberal and progressive.
As expected very few tweets mentioned Palestinians and those few that did often put words of violence such as terrorist in the same tweet. Palestine itself was never mentioned showing the erasure of Palestine on the ground is paralleled in the IDF’s online communications, leading to a one sided narrative of the conflict.
By identifying the key themes in the IDF’s communications, the overall strategy of the account becomes clearer. There is a clear strategy to create shareable content which will help gain followers and supporters during times of peace so that at times of war Israel will be supported, and will have users who disseminate pro-Israeli content online. Central to this strategy is hiding aspects of the IDF the audience may find negative; attention is therefore removed from the IDF’s military actions and occupation of Palestine. This helps create a ‘romanticised’, decontextualised, and depolitisised brand image of the IDF which users feel happy to share online in the same way they may share the content of a high street brand.
To put it simply the IDF Twitter account’s strategy is a form of ‘washing’, by which I mean, covering up something less pleasant, and resetting the agenda onto something more desirable.Through this process the IDF has successfully created a brand image far removed from the reality of their actions. While armies engaging with social media may be thought to bring about greater transparency, in the case of the IDF the opposite is true as we see a heavily filtered picture painted over the reality of occupation.
Can the British Army learn from the IDF?
The British Army can learn from aspects of IDF’s social media efforts however on the whole the issues faced by the two armies differ. The IDF is part of a highly militarized society where national service is compulsory, and conflict takes place on Israel’s borders, where as the British Army remains more separated from society in the UK. The IDF is part of day to day life in Israel and is also often the focus of international attention. For these reasons the IDF wants to spread the message it has ‘the most moral Army in the world’, where as the British Army faces different issues. A recent YouGov survey placed soldier as fourth from bottom on a list of the most desired jobs in Britain. Recruitment is therefore a central issue for the British Army and it is likely it will use its social media accounts to engage with potential new recruits.
The British Army can however learn a couple of pointers from the IDF’s use of social media. The IDF’s strategy of engaging audiences through their content; in particular blogs, pictures, videos and infographics gives a clear template for successful audience engagement. Secondly the IDF’s experience pre 2010 illustrates the importance of engaging with social media before it is too late. Not engaging can simply lead to a vacuum where the enemies’ version of events can quickly become the reality. With the Chilcot inquiry nearing publication it is important for the British Army this vacuum is filled.
The IDF’s efforts also demonstrate some of the principal problems with military engagement on social media. Social media is an open form of communication, unlike other forms of communications such as a press release. Clicking on any IDF tweet often reveals a string of messages many of which are negative and aggressive. Like graffiti on a wall, new messages can be scrawled underneath questioning the original statement. This means it is near impossible to control the narrative on social media, a claim backed up by New Media Professor Clay Shirky; ‘you do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means that you no longer understand what’s going on.' The second major issue is that there is an innate tension between social media and military organizations. Military organizations by nature are ‘closed books’ who collect information often secretively. Social media is the opposite, and by joining social media armies maybe expected to divulge more information than they wish.
It remains to be seen how the British Army will use its new brigade of ‘Facebook warriors’, but even if they learn from the IDF’s efforts, there are still many obstacles to avoid on the online battlefield.