Opinion |

Israel’s Most Effective Political Lobby: Right-wing Nationalists on Social Media

Elor Azaria’s case shows how online pressure by extremist voices can swiftly go viral in the Israeli mainstream, forcing politicians to choose: Play catch up or resist, but at great personal cost.

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Sgt. Elor Azaria waits with his parents for the verdict inside the military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, Janary 4, 2017.
Sgt. Elor Azaria waits with his parents for the verdict inside the military court in Tel Aviv, Israel, Janary 4, 2017.Credit: Heidi Levine/AP

It’s Thursday morning. News that a young, economically disadvantaged soldier from Ramle had opened fire on an incapacitated terrorist while on patrol in Hebron hits the media. Immediately, government and security officials paint him as an extreme right-wing racist, a soldier who shoots in cold blood and who should never have been given a gun or sent on a tour of duty in Hebron. Most of these officials express themselves in English via social media.

It’s Sunday. That same soldier, Elor Azaria – whose name is now cleared for publication – is transforming into an ordinary child, the pride of any parent, another Gilad Shalit. Political as well as traditional media sentiment is shifting. And, in a show of support, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even calls Azaria’s father.

What happened over the weekend that caused the media to dramatically revise its version of events, and politicians to “modify” their views?

Over the course of two days, Azaria rapidly generated widespread support across social networks, mainly due to postings by right-wing public figures, Azaria’s sister and ‘The Shadow,’ a popular and ultra-nationalist Israeli rapper. By Sunday morning it was clear where public opinion stood.

What caused this pro-Azaria sentiment to take hold across the Internet?

There are several theories.

Public outrage over the perception that politicians had tried to frame the story the week prior in a way that would find favor with – or at least appease - the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the expense of a junior soldier. Support for Azaria was part of a much wider war in the public domain against such civil rights organizations such as Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem; according to the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index, 70% of Israelis believe these human rights organizations cause damage to the State. Public anger at the "biased," left-leaning media that like to exaggerate such stories. Or the possibility that social networks are uniquely amenable to exploitation by passionate activists and groups.

Whatever it was, what became abundantly clear is that pressure generated on social networks became a powerful force for affecting the mainstream media's coverage and politicians' reactions to what became known as "the Hebron shooter affair." Savvy politicians tuned into the sentiments being generated, with many going so far as to preempt the verdict by calling for clemency should Azaria be convicted.

Of course, we have seen this kind of pressure on social networks before, such as to reveal the name of sexual predators or raise other issues for public discourse. But this is not the way – and certainly not in the case of Azaria.

As sentiment shifted, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon began feeling the pressure: public opinion had turned against the IDF, saying the military had sacrificed the well-being of a soldier from a disadvantaged background.

Taking the moral high road, he reacted on Twitter. If we compare Ya’alon’s tweets from Thursday, the day the video surfaced, with those from Sunday, we see that they tell a very different story.
The tweets from Thursday were intended for followers living outside of Israel. He wanted to appeal to global public opinion and to possible intervention by the international judicial system: “We should not allow, even while our blood is boiling, loss of temper or control. This incident [Azaria] will be handled with the utmost severity,” Ya’alon tweeted.

Sunday's tweets were in Hebrew and intended for his Israeli followers; they were angry reactions to the lack of confidence in the military authorities. He called upon the "voices of reason" to unite and act against those who wished to harm the IDF: “Instead of national responsibility, they demonstrate lawlessness and political cynicism – even at the cost of harming the IDF, its soldiers and our national resistance,” Ya’alon tweeted.

Data produced by Buzzilla, which monitors conversations on social media, tells an interesting story. Despite the gag order placed on the soldier's name, 14 percent of conversations on the Internet discussing the shooting affair mentioned Azaria by name. Some of these mentions were even posted on the Facebook pages of leading media outlets, not by journalists, but in the comments section.

In most other instances, breaking a gag order and revealing a suspect's identity is done for the sake of "shaming." This case is different – the soldier's full identity was revealed in order to increase support for him. The posts that included Azaria’s name were largely in support of – and not in opposition to – his actions.

Consequently, we can surmise that the focus of Ya'alon's tweets changed because over the course of the weekend public sentiment about the Hebron shooter changed. In contrast to the politicians who adapted their language to meet public opinion, Ya’alon pushed back against it.

Of course, we know that what we see in our Facebook feed is not an objective survey of news and views, but is instead, based on algorithms set by Facebook, biased to our own preferences. This creates echo chambers centered on views with which we mostly agree. As such, it is possible that Azaria supporters and opponents thought the entire world was with them in their struggles and this propelled them even further in voicing their positions.

It should also be noted that usually viral posts are not those calling for quiet or serenity. Rather, the most extreme voices are those that make waves. Therefore, even if part of the moderate right, including politicians, agreed on principal that Azaria was slighted, those who were heard on social media networks were La Familia and The Shadow, and politicians had no choice but to be part of the echo of the most extreme voices.

Either way, today, the public has an outlet with no gatekeeper to voice its opinion – social media. People used their keyboards to accuse politicians (and the mainstream media) of passing judgment against the Hebron shooter even before he stood trial. Social media has now officially become a medium that directly influences politicians’ viewpoints.

Bottom line, the evolving nature of the politicians’ reaction to the Hebron shooter is indicative of a profound change in the balance between the public and politicians. Social media strongly influenced the way certain points of emphasis became the basis for one version of the story being told.

Coverage of the Elor Azaria affair will thus be remembered as reflecting the new rules of engagement between the Israeli people, politicians and their social networks.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is Director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Media Reform Program. Follow her on Twitter: @tehillaaltshul1

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