“If you’re a YouTuber, an online star, someone who lives and breathes social media, with influence on those platforms, who's articulate and extremely creative, someone that's in front of a camera all day long and knows how to write the cleverest copy and create the most viral video clip – this is the place for you!”
This is not an appeal that's part of some ad agency campaign, but an announcement posted on the official website of none other than the Israel Defense Forces. The notice boasts a revolutionary step: establishment of a "committee of online influencers" that will select a new team of army presenters. People accepted into the program will “serve in the office of the IDF Spokesman, realizing their potential and implementing their skills using the army’s official platforms.”
The term “online influencer” is usually attributed in Israel to prominent figures such as models, actresses and TV hosts including Eden Fines, Anna Zak and Yael Goldman, whose lives are reflected in all their enviable glory on their social media accounts. This is why it’s surprising, or perhaps alarming, to discover that one of the country’s most successful influencers is actually the IDF, of all things. The social media accounts administered by the army are, among other objectives, giving a good fight to win the hearts of young men and women who are about to be drafted. In this war, the battlefield is digital and the ammunition is viral.
In January 2012, when many people were still in the dark about Instagram, the IDF posted an item on the photo-sharing platform, showing four women who had just completed a pilots training course. A scroll through the official Hebrew account of the army, idfonline, which currently has 240,000 followers (the scale of a macro influencer), shows that it knows very well what it’s doing. The account is full of all that Instagram has to offer, complete with all the slang, the tendency to sentimentalize and the plethora of emojis.
For example, there is a humorous clip of soldiers from different units preparing for Yom Kippur, wishing the people of Israel an easy fast – while reminding them who is protecting them. Another post shows soldiers donning tefillin (phylacteries) in the field, and there's also one of a soldier staring bravely into a rifle sight, with a text describing his story as a new immigrant who'd experienced “a lot of anti-Semitism” in England, but who now "feels a stronger sense of belonging than ever before."
One can also find some “inspirational” stories, as the posts describe them, of male and female soldiers who have won the prestigious President's Award for Excellence. Among these are a female staff sergeant who identified a smuggling attempt along the Egyptian border, dressed in full battle gear with a desert landscape behind her; a female operator of an Iron Dome aerial defense system, whose family lives in the outlying locale of Sderot; a soldier with Down syndrome; and a newly promoted captain who always dreamed of joining the navy – proof that “when you have a dream, you just have to follow it.”
Adorning the posts are emojis of a muscular arm, a blue heart and stars. There are also video clips and stills of test launches of sea-to-sea missiles, and “special peeks” at missions of elite units operating in the West Bank, with close-ups of the camouflaged eyes of a combat soldier, and of a team on a stretcher exercise in a dusty desert or enjoying an orange in an orchard, a glorious sunset behind them.
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The IDF actually has three official Instagram accounts in Hebrew: the main one mentioned above, the Israel Air Force, with 194,000 followers, and the Israel Navy’s site, with 129,000. Moreover, the army operates an English-language account, which has 516,000 followers, a French one (43,700), a Spanish one (70,100) and an Arabic one (61,000).
According to army regulations, any brigade or battalion can open their own account, subject to security considerations, of course, and several have done so. The Home Front Command account has some 16,200 followers; the Golani Brigade has 21,500; the Nahal Infantry Brigade, 14,000; the Givati Brigade, 13,900; the Paratroopers, 12,000; the Kfir Brigade about 7,500; and so on.
Catering to Americans
The IDF’s foreign-language Instagram accounts target young Jewish men and women overseas, mainly in the United States. Indeed, the feed on the English one is very different than its Hebrew counterpart: twice as large, with more than half-a-million followers. The texts are shorter, replete with hashtags. It welcomes followers to "the official page of the IDF" (emoji of the Israeli flag), with the slogan: "No makeup, only camouflage" (emoji of a muscular arm).
The posts are full of glorious images of male and female soldiers, with local scenery in the background. There are short texts full of cliché slogans, like “big smiles, wonderful friends,” and photos of soldiers, smiling and laughing, and parachuting, along with questions like “what is your super-power?” And of female soldiers jumping in the air, and quotes by soldiers who talk about how, during difficult missions, a short pat on the back or smile from a buddy gave them the strength to go on.
There are also “Shabbat shalom” posts with kippah-clad soldiers reading the weekly Torah portion in the field, images of soldiers in fields of flowers and even a (recycled) post featuring a female soldier doing yoga on International Yoga Day. As in the Hebrew Instagram account, animals are a big feature here, including a post about how a sea turtle was saved by soldiers.
In addition to all these images and emojis and texts, which make military service seem colorful and lots of fun – like summer camp but with uniforms – there are also items posted in the service of traditional hasbara (public relations): clips of citizens hurt by missiles along the Gaza Strip border; of Palestinian children throwing stones and holding weapons; of Hezbollah tunnels directed at northern Israel; and so on.
Twitter and Telegram, too
We're not only talking about Instagram here. For years, the IDF has maintained accounts on all the big social media, knowing how to adapt content wisely to the relevant platform. First came Facebook (with 719,000 followers), Twitter (180,000) and YouTube (51,000), featuring such things as virtual visits to army bases. The IDF also administers a Telegram Messenger account with 10,000 followers, which serves mainly to disseminate information to the press. The last platform to be "drafted" was TikTok; its account now has 35,000 followers, less than a year later.
Why on earth does an army need the social media?
“It may seem strange to many people, but when I’m in this system, it’s a must for me,” said one IDF social media coordinator, speaking to Israel's Channel 13 News. “The soldiers use Instagram, it’s part of their routine. We want to be part of that routine. That’s how we do it.”
Army YouTuber Roee Yadin adds: “We need to tell the IDF story, showing young people about to be drafted what’s happening in the army.”
Notes Lt. Col. Merav Stoler, head of media and productions at the IDF Spokesman’s Office: “A few years ago we realized that if we want to be part of the current world of communication, we have to join social media. People who are interested in what’s happening in the army are on social media. This is how they consume their daily news. If we’re not there, we’re talking to the wind.”
According to another army source, the IDF's Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, TikTok and Facebook accounts fulfill two goals: to reach young Israelis just before they get their first draft notice, providing them with correct, updated and verified information relating to their military service – and to inform the public in real time about operations or other significant incidents that are taking place.
For example, soldiers related on Channel 13 News how, before the assassination of the head of the Islamic Jihad’s military wing in Gaza, Baha Abu al-Ata, they were told about the plan and prepared information in three languages, to be posted on social media as soon as the news could be released, in order to be out first with the desired narrative. The same source stresses that the stories feature of Instagram is particularly helpful, enabling the rapid and effective dissemination of information to hundreds of thousands of followers, following an incident involving the IDF.
According to army sources, Instagram used to be the province of young people, but users today are often between 18 and 42 years of age, which is why this social media platform has become one of the most significant tools linking the army to the people serving in it. By contrast, TikTok typically appeals to a different crowd, ages 16 or 17, before enlistment. The content posted there is thus less serious and adapted to those ages and to the platform itself.
The IDF stresses that even though its use of social media demands an enormous amount of content, they try to adhere to values. Soldiers always appear there dressed meticulously, according to regulations, using respectful language. Every post and video must receive approval via a number of channels before being uploaded.
Another challenge the army's digital experts have to contend with is Israel-haters, bots and trolls, which often "invade" posts with vilification and threats, images of Iranian flags, etc. The IDF tries to block such content, but a quick look shows that many hate messages remain.
No kitchen duty
Many armies around the world also have Instagram accounts, of course. The U.S. Army, for example, has 2.3 million followers. The British army has 473,000; the Indian army has 6.1 million; Germany's has 372, 000; Australia's has 75,000; and the army of Singapore has 39,100. Countries that don’t have compulsory military service, as Israel does, tend to focus on encouraging people to enlist via social media.
The IDF seems to be doing a great social media job, presenting itself as contemporary, having a sense of humor, and as inclusive and photogenic. In contrast to the famed Israeli hasbara efforts of the past, virtual public relations is not conducted in a heavy-handed manner, but skillfully and with the nonchalance of people who talk the talk. But therein lies the risk.
The glorious documentation of Israeli militarism reminds one of the words of German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, who warned back in the 1930s against the “aestheticization of politics,” arguing that striving for a spectacle that will draw the masses at the expense of the truth and realization of one's rights is one of the characteristics of a fascist regime.
Thus, for example, you’ll never find the more unpleasant side of military service in the IDF's official social media accounts. There are no grueling stints in the kitchen or Sisyphean guard duty. Moreover, as we all know, there are other communities, not to say occupied peoples, that Israel's army comes into contact with. With the flurry of hashtags, emojis, emotional texts and beautiful images – the less glorious sights are omitted. These include administrative detention, shooting at demonstrators, the killing of civilians and the profound emotional scars that accompany all of those.