Failure in Israel’s “Twitter war” exposed

Among various propaganda efforts, the Israeli military’s use of social media — certain embarrassments aside — is a source of pride for pro-Israel advocates.

Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in November, the so-called Operation Pillar of Defense, was seen as a “first” for the way in which the Israeli military and Zionist lobby groups used infographics, Facebook and Twitter to defend the eight-day bombardment of Palestinians.

But this week, the Israeli military has unwittingly demonstrated how its claims to propaganda “success” are delusional.

Speaking at an Israel Internet Society conference on social media, the military’s Director of New Media, Sacha Dratwa, boasted of a public relations “victory” during Operation Pillar of Defense. But on what grounds is Dratwa claiming that the use of social media was so “successful”?

The evidence is thin on the ground. Indeed, The Times of Israel is so keen to help the military’s empty boasting that the article features the optimistic claim: “social media experts say official Israel effectively conveyed its narrative to unprecedented numbers.” The “experts” cited happen to be the same officials who ran the hasbara operation (the Hebrew term hasbara is usually translated as “public diplomacy” or “explaining”).

Desperate times

To substantiate his claims of victory, Dratwa asserted that “this was the first time the foreign media asked more questions about our Twitter activity than about our bombings in Gaza.” He also pointed to “57 million views for our pages on Facebook” and “10 million views” on YouTube channels.

Amusingly, however, these big numbers are undermined in the article itself by Yoram Morad, head of the “digital diplomacy” department at Israel’s foreign ministry, who notes that:

We have three kinds of followers on our Facebook pages in Arabic and Persian. Some follow us just to curse us; some follow us, listen to what we have to say, and then curse us; and some actually listen without cursing.

Desperate times for the hasbara brigade when you’re happy simply not to get cursed.

In contrast to Dratwa’s paucity of evidence or data, the results of an Israeli academic’s study revealed last month showed that “the social networking activity of Hamas during Operation Pillar of Defense was more effective than that of the Israel Defense Forces.”

Tomer Simon, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, carried out “a comprehensive analysis of the hashtags used by each side” and “determined that Israel was under harsher attack by international web surfers.” Citing a number of errors made by the Israeli military, Simon found that the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack reached a peak of 170,000 mentions in a single day, “compared to only 25,000 mentions of #IsraelUnderFire.” Simon’s conclusion was simple: “the perception dominating the online discourse was that the IDF had embarked on an unjustified attack.”

Simon’s research was also covered by technology magazine Wired, in a piece that noted how the Israeli military’s “attempts at using social networking to support foreign policy appear to be failing.” Problems during Operation Pillar of Defense included basics such as “hashtag fails” but also a failure to persuade public opinion. Wired observed that “as the death toll rose and images of yet more Palestinian civilian casualties were published on Twitter” the hasbara “campaign appeared futile.”

Simon’s research supports criticisms made at the time, with reports during the attack that “Israel’s aggressive online advocacy” was facing a “backlash.” As one blogger at The Washington Post put it:

Gaza’s cause is sounding louder, and further, than the IDF’s – a strong indication of the grassroots movement behind it.

By making unsubstantiated claims of success – in stark contrast to the research that shows the hasbara failings during the Gaza attack — Sasha Dratwa has shown that it’s not just on Facebook where his judgement seems to be lacking.

An Israeli military “operational security awareness ad.” The slogan reads: “Social media can be a weapon. Don’t aim it against us.” [Source]

Tomer Simon Israel Defense Forces


Ben White

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Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. His articles have been widely published in the likes of The Guardian‘s Comment is free, Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, New Statesman, and many others. He is the author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ (2009, Pluto Press) and ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination & Democracy’ (2012, Pluto Press). Ben is a researcher/writer for the Journal of Palestine Studies.