The Fight for Public Opinion and Warfare on the Web

Both sides have taken the fight to the virtual streets during Operation Pillar of Defense, battling for public sympathy through Facebook posts and fiery tweets. Meanwhile, Israelis flock to web-based news, and government sites become targets for cyber warfare.

The fighting during Operation Pillar of Defense isn't just on the ground, but on the social networks as well.

The video showing Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari has had more than three million views so far. Israelis are reporting rocket alerts on Facebook and Twitter before the media announces them. And they're sharing their experiences, which then become part of Israeli public relations effort.

Official Israeli sources such as the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the IDF Spokesperson are trying to lead the discourse through the social networks. The "Israel Under Fire" Facebook page has become a weapon on the virtual front, spreading posts in English, German and other languages that show simulated effects of rocket fire upon major cities across the world. So far, over 11,000 people have joined the page since it was launched three days ago.

The IDF Spokesperson's Facebook page in English has gathered around 27,700 fans and discussions on the page have tripled since the operation began. The IDF Spokesperson's Twitter account gained around 60,000 followers over the weekend (it currently has about 166,000 followers).

Hamas and other terrorist organizations, for their part, are publicizing photographs of victims. As happened during Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara flotilla, Israelis have spotted erroneous photos distributed by Hamas who claim they are from the current conflict but are actually recycled from other conflicts, like the one in Syria. Israelis, and they're supporters, are reposting and spreading the photos with corrected captions. The IDF Spokesperson also uploaded a video to YouTube that refutes Hamas' allegations.

"There is a high level of cooperation and people throughout the military understand that social media is where the fighting is," says a source at the IDF Spokesperson's Unit.  "It's a comprehensive military effort."

Hamas is also trying to send a message directly to Israelis: In a recent propaganda video, in Hebrew, mock images of a direct hit on a Tel Aviv skyscraper are paired with a warning to the "Israeli settlers."

Meanwhile, the Israeli PR machine is benefiting from the fact that foreign journalist have difficulties entering Gaza. On the other hand, international coverage of the conflict frequently refers to reports from the social networks of Hamas or other sources, some of which are false or misleading. The IDF Spokesperson is also distributing messages in Arabic on Facebook, which aim to address the residents of Gaza and the Arab world.

Digital attack from the inside

While the public relations battle rages, Israeli websites have become targets for cyber warfare. "Anonymous," a hacker organization, announced on Thursday their intent to attack Israeli governmental sites in response to the disruption of Internet service in Gaza, by Israel.

The organization declared on Twitter that it was planning to carry out DDoS attacks (Distributed Denial of Service attacks, where external communication requests are sent to a website, causing a server overload and making the page temporarily unavailable), on the IDF Spokesperson website, the prime ministers' website and other official Israeli sites as well.

On Thursday, the organization distributed a list of hundreds of relatively unimportant Israeli sites that had already been hacked. But over the weekend they stepped up their game and managed to corrupt the Kadima party website, planting photos of Hamas flags and Anonymous symbols. They also hacked the Bank of Jerusalem page, which was restored after a few hours.

On Saturday, Anonymous claimed that it crashed the IDF Spokesperson's site and, indeed, the blog became unavailable at around 6 P.M. The IDF said that it collapsed due to heavy network traffic.

In addition, the al-Quds Brigades website – the military wing of the Islamic Jihad – claimed that messages were sent to the cellphones of 1,000 officers in the IDF, stating, "We will turn Gaza into a cemetery for your soldiers and make Tel Aviv into a flame." The site published the names of 5,000 IDF officers who had apparently been called up for reserve duty following the operation.

Flocking to the web

More than ever before, news websites have adopted the role of state television and are working around the clock. Social networks may play a central role in shaping mood and attitudes, as well as breaking minute-by-minute news, but the detailed reports and analysis are found on Israeli news websites, which serve as primary sources for the international press since extensive foreign coverage of Gaza is lacking.  

Several of the websites have faced financial troubles recently, included extensive cuts that have left them short of staff. Providing comprehensive coverage with limited human resources has proved its own set of challenges.

Major news websites like Walla!, Ynet and Mako are investing larger budgets than ever before in their competition for visitors. In comparison to Operation Cast Lead, or the Mavi Marmara affair, this time around, Internet video has emerged as the medium of choice in Operation Pillar of Defense, serving for many as an alternative to television.

Walla! began live broadcasts from the rooftop of their office by Yinon Magal, a former TV presenter who joined the site in August.  At Ynet, they've stepped up the live broadcasts they launched in the run up to the U.S. elections, airing two live editions on Friday, presented by Attila Somfalvi, the site's political correspondent. At Mako, Operation Pillar of Defense is proving to be a baptism by fire for their new set-up of current affairs broadcasts from the field, led by Yaakov Eilon, who was appointed two weeks ago as the director of the news and current affairs section of the site. As usual, the site is continuing to broadcast news content from Channel 2.

The sites are noticing a sharp rise in viewers, but the round-the-clock coverage is also stretching their resources to the limit.

"We've seen an increase of 40-50 percent in traffic to the site since the operation began," says Mako CEO Yuval Nathan.

According to Nathan, Thursday saw record entries to the site, with 1.12 million unique visitors, the highest recorded number of visitors, breaking the previous record held by Gilad Shalit's release.

"Of course it takes a heavy financial toll," Nathan says. "We're used to broadcasting video, but this extent of coverage has serious economic implications. We all know the state of the advertising market and since the war began the market has entered a catatonic state. But in cases like these the media doesn't look at the bottom line – it reports."

Smartphones have emerged as the device of choice in this conflict. "We've seen an increase of 100 percent – 300,000 people are using our applications each day, and hundreds of thousands are using the smartphone-compatible website," says Nathan. He also reports that there is a 100-percent increase in overseas traffic. "During conflicts like this, the Israeli audience abroad immediately wants to connect to the source. These days, 20 percent of our visitors are from abroad."

"In addition to the new site, we're filming dozens of videos a day, with reporters and expert analysts," says Gadi Lahav, the editor of Walla! "We've added an additional layer of live broadcasts that give people the latest updates. We're spread out to everywhere we need to be in the field."

According to Lahav, the traffic to the site is very high, indicating that websites are providing a viable alternative to television. But can these high ratings be translated into revenues that will return at least some of the enormous investment?

"Obviously it costs money, but it isn’t something we can't accommodate," says Lahav.

Ynet, which has just opened a new TV studio, is trying to capitalize on the increased traffic, offering a TV broadcast for three to four hours a day. "This is an evolutionary leap forward for the site," says a senior executive at the news site, also noting that this leap has "heavy economic implications."

The site's ratings have skyrocketed during the conflict, he says, with 7-11 percent of visitors coming from the United States.  

"It's stretching our resources to the limit," he says. "It's not easy."

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