Israel's Online PR Offensive Sees Blowback

Israel is aggressively using the Internet to defend its military actions. Some say it's going too far.

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Israel used to be painfully behind the curve in its Internet-based efforts to influence world opinion. It took an image-battering during both the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead for the government to realize that the era of controlling public information in wartime was dead and gone.

For too long, the Israel Defense Forces and government censors tried, in vain, to keep information to a minimum and released it at carefully timed press conferences. The result: Israel got clobbered by the other side, which dominated the media during Jerusalem's long silences. Those of us who pioneered English-language blogging from Israel in those early days found ourselves sending our small bits of Israeli perspective into a sea of sympathy for the Lebanese and Gazans whose international supporters wisely tapped this new tool to shape the narrative of the conflict.

Later on, turf wars between the various government bodies - the Government Press Office, the IDF spokespeople, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry - led to a less-than-unified message. The various missteps sparked sharp criticism by supporters, of Israel's efforts to make its case, illustrated by the poor handling of the Turkish flotilla incident in May 2010.

Tweeting too hard?

To its credit, Israel has learned from past mistakes and in this conflict use is being made of every platform. The country's communication apparatus has been doing battle in an aggressive and coordinated fashion, utilizing its army of eager volunteers to plead, post and Tweet its case internationally via prose, pictures, and video.

Jess Nowlin, an enterprising young high-tech guy, set up a social media team inside the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, complete with a "situation room" full of volunteers tweeting and Facebooking in various languages - with others pitching in from their homes - all under the slogan of "Israel Under Fire."

Some of the viral campaigns have been very successful, such as the Facebook graphic "What Would You Do?" created by the IDF, showing the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Opera House with missiles raining down on them, accompanied by the message "Share this if you think Israel has the right to self-defense." The picture has been shared more than 51,000 times.

Now that Israel has become more adept at using the social media, it has become the object of new criticism: Israel is making its case too aggressively, too tastelessly, and with too much glee and macho swagger.

Wired Magazine referred to it as Israel's "hyper-pugnacious social media push," while Michael Koplow grimly warned in the magazine Foreign Policy: "Crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF's Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward."

Koplow's criticism was picked up and amplified by the unofficial voice of centrist-liberal American Jewry, Atlantic writer and blogger Jeffrey Goldberg in a post titled "The Hamasization of Israel's Public Relations Campaign."

"It used to be that Israel would keep silent about its military activities, or at most it would issue terse statements confirming, with as few adjectives as possible, an action that had already taken place. Groups like Hamas, on the other hand, were the ones that would brag constantly about their bloody triumphs (real and imagined )."

In another post, Goldberg chided the government PR machine again: "Israel's media campaign - Gamify? -- is disgraceful. David Rothkopf just pointed out to me that people are most influenced by their enemies. In this case, the braggadocio of the IDF is beginning to resemble the braying of various Palestinian terror outfits over the years. All death is tragic, even the deaths of your enemies."

In the "Gamify" reference, Goldberg linked his criticism to an article in Readwrite.com charging that the IDF had turned real war into an online game: "The IDF Blog now has atrocious gamification badges with points and rewards for sharing the content to social media. For example, if you visit the site 10 times, you get the 'Consistent' badge. If you search the blog multiple times, you're promoted to 'Research Officer.' Yes, Israel has gamified war. This is absolutely horrendous... I just can't imagine a justification for it. Gamification is offensive when coupon companies do it. This is a WAR. Israel is trying to enlist the people of the world in its campaign with military ranks, badges and points. Innocent people are dying on all sides, and the IDF wants to reward people for tweeting about it."

War games

In another post, entitled "Propaganda 2.0" that appeared on the website, The Verge, Joseph L. Flatley frowned on the fact that the war was first announced on Twitter with a tweet saying that the IDF had "begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets.

"I think for most of us, reaction to the announcement was visceral: One liveblogs award shows or CES keynotes, not armed conflict," wrote Flatley. "And if you're going to begin a military operation, a relatively austere press conference - hastily assembled by IDF brass, probably in a hallway somewhere - seems much more appropriate than a tweet. It's hard to express the proper gravitas when you're adapting your message to the micro-blogging platform: replacing words with numbers, using ampersands instead of spelling "and;" and of course hashtags are never anything but undignified."

His theory - that Israel is bombarding social media as a deliberate strategy to both control and trivialize discussion of what is happening in Gaza.

"Just as easily as a grassroots activist group anywhere in the world might use Twitter to communicate the news, @IDFspokesperson is using Twitter to neutralize the news... When I say that the IDF has turned a military operation into a #hashtag, I'm not being cute. I'm saying that it's transformed an act of war into a social media event."

So if before, Israel was criticized for being too militaristically hush-hush about its operations, now it is charged with bragging, strutting and trivializing war with slick videos, graphics, bombardment of social media platforms, and use of technology to spread its message.

War is a game of calculated risks. In any campaign, mistakes and miscalculations are made. Some of Israel's volunteer soldiers will invariably cross the lines of good taste in their blogs and tweets, but the social media is a crucial battlefield. Israel simply can't afford to let it go unmanned. When lives are at stake, being called tacky is a risk Jerusalem is surely willing to take.

The IDF’s “What would you do?” graphic.Credit: IDF

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