< The IDF's Twitter Offensive


Friday, November 16, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  Israel launched an air assault on Gaza this week in retaliation, it said, for months of rocket attacks from the territory into southern Israel. The Israel Defense Forces, the IDF, dubbed the offensive “Pillar of Defense”. The opening salvo of the operation was a missile attack that killed Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari. But the IDF wasn't content merely to do its thing. In a move unprecedented in military or media history, the IDF announced its attack on Twitter, and tracked the fighting all day long through a live blog, posting maps, posters and even a video of the missile strike.

To help put this in perspective, we've invited Noah Shachtman, editor of Wired Magazines’s Danger Room blog, which covers the intersection of technology and national security. Noah, welcome to OTM.

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  We know about social gaming, we know about social viewing. Social warring is a new one, huh?

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  Militaries have been using social media for several years now, but the aggressiveness in this social media campaign, I’ve never seen anything like it.

BOB GARFIELD:  Tell me about how social media has popped up in previous conflict in the region and where Israel fit into all of that.

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  So Israel sort of got into this social media warfare by accident. In 2009, during Operation Cast Lead, which was the last major incursion into Gaza, Israel embedded camera crews with its infantry teams because it was worried that those  infantry teams would be accused of war crimes, and it wanted  evidence that this was not the case. And so, a young group of American Israelis in the IDF Public Affairs Unit decided to take those videos and upload them to YouTube, kind of without anybody else in the IDF noticing.

Unexpectedly, they became YouTube smashes and racked up several million views apiece. And so, the IDF then set up a New Media Unit. It didn't always exactly shape the narrative the way Israel liked. During 2010, when a series of ships bound for Gaza were attacked by Israel and several people died, the world didn't exactly embrace the IDF after that. But it was the seeds of what we see today.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, it’s one thing to inoculate yourself against subsequent charges of war atrocities and so forth and another to use social media so aggressively to the point of actually taunting the enemy, which actually went back and forth in this Twitter battle between the IDF and some of the more militant Gazans.

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  Yeah, that’s right. So the IDF, after it took out this guy Jabari, tweeted that basically all members of Hamas better keep their heads down, if they want to live. And the al-Qassam Brigades, which is the militant wing of Hamas, basically said we’re gonna go get you and we’re gonna open up the gates of hell for you, or something to that effect.

What’s behind all of this? On the Israeli side, I think there’s two things. Number one, there’s an election season coming up and, as we know here in America, politicians tend to talk rather tough in the days leading up to an election.

Number two is that there’s a desire on the Israeli part to come away with kind of a clean win.  In 2006 when they followed Hezbollah and in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, there wasn’t a sense that there was a singular victory, an equivalent of the Osama bin Laden raid. And so, I think they’re really being aggressive in touting this attack on Jabari, because he’s really seen in Israel as one of the main villains in the Hamas rogue’s gallery.

BOB GARFIELD:  Tell me about the Palestinian side. Are they keeping up with Israel?

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  The al-Qassam Brigades, for a Islamic militant group, is pretty sophisticated, just like the IDF is. And they’re accomplishing some of the similar tasks. Number one, they’re highlighting their own casualties to sort of show to the world that the other side is monstrous. And they’re also highlighting their own capabilities. Hamas has a new series of rockets that can reach the Tel Aviv region, which is something that Hamas has not been able to do previously.

BOB GARFIELD:  And, as we speak Thursday afternoon, apparently one of those rockets landed in the vicinity of central Tel Aviv.

I want to ask you about the language in the Twitter battles. The Israelis are using perfect colloquial American English, the Palestinians are also tweeting in English but in this extremely florid over-the-top metaphor, like “opening the gates of hell.” Are they well served by their prose?

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  On the Gazan side, I think these are local social media guys, whereas on the IDF side their social media team started in America. It can seem at times like the Hamas media campaign is being run by Borat [LAUGHS].


And that may not be a good thing for them. On the other hand, I do think it lends a veneer of authenticity, and so that may balance out some of the slick perfectly colloquial American  English of the IDF’s campaign.

BOB GARFIELD:  The image of Jabari's sedan just disintegrating under the impact of the missile, it's pretty shocking. Is that  transparency or is it scalp brandishing?

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  Honestly, probably a little bit of both. But I think no matter what you think of it, it’s something we’re gonna see more of in the future.

Twitter and YouTube ostensibly ban videos or tweets of violence and threats, but they haven't taken these down. And I think the reason is because if you start taking these down, you start to take down all sorts of images of war, some which are incredibly useful to the world public to see. For example, the Syrian rebels have been incredibly aggressive about how they use YouTube and other forms of social media, as they fight the Assad regime, and with so few reporters able to get into Syria, this is really one of the only ways we’re able to see what's happening there.

Look, I’m not sure this is gonna happen everywhere. In remote corners of Africa, I don't see this kind of social media warfare making much of a difference. But in a place like Israel and Gaza, where the world has an intense interest, I think this is just another step in what has always been a media-saturated conflict.

BOB GARFIELD:  All right, Noah, many thanks.

NOAH SHACHTMAN:  Yeah, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  Noah Shachtman is contributing editor at Wired Magazine and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Whatever you may think of Twitter, it's a powerful platform. But I’m guessing some of you are thinking, really, I’ve got to pay attention to this too? Hey, I wouldn't presume to advise. Just know that On the Media offers a shortcut. We tweet stories all week on a range of media issues and then every Sunday our producers select their favorites and post them in “Our Week in Tweets” on our blog. This week there’s a story from the Tribune about Chicago's City Hall illicitly recording reporters. And there’s a piece from Kataku about Petraeus’ appearance in the latest Call of Duty videogame. You’ll find those and a lot more in the latest “Week in Tweets” at onthemedia.org. Just click on Blog at the top of the page.


Noah Shachtman

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