Back in the old days it used to be that military commanders kept their mouths shut about their objectives in war.
American Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and his staff, for example, went to great lengths to keep Germany guessing about the D-Day Normandy invasion. It worked out pretty well for the Allies, not to mention every living soul in Europe.
But Twitter and Facebook bring out the 14-year-old kid in all of us who have a tendency to brag, with a dose of snark, about our achievements great and small. Now, Israel Defense Forces’ inner adolescent has reared its head with a relentless series of tweets about its military offensive in Gaza. IDF continues to update its tweets on its military successes with braggadocio. It trivializes war with its eye toward garnering as many “likes” and “shares” as possible.
Twitter has only been around since 2006, but imagine if it was available when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. We would see announcements like these: “Chased Saddam out of Baghdad, now on with the search for WMDs #IraqiFreedom” or “100,000 civilians dead and counting. #SupportDemocracy.”
Waging a propaganda war alongside the guns, tanks and rockets is standard fare among nations. But unlike distributing leaflets by air or using radio, social media cheapens just about everything it touches. And it’s even more apparent when it comes to wartime boasting.
The IDF has been reeling for years from bad publicity. From its custom T-shirts displaying Palestinians in the crosshairs to its callousness over the disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks, the IDF is courting public opinion in an attempt to remake its image and gain support.
The IDF urges Twitter users to support its cause with retweets. For example, the @IDFSpokesman Twitter account wrote, “More than 12,000 rockets hit Israel in the past 12 years. RT if you think #Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Nearly 6,000 people retweeted the message. On its Facebook page, the IDF posted an image of slain Hamas military commander Ahmed Al-Jabari with the word “Eliminated” stamped in all capital letters underneath. Accompanying the post was the IDF’s statement, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The post earned more than 16,000 “likes.”
It should come as no surprise that Israel has adopted the same propaganda tactics employed by Hamas, which often publicized its victories with gusto whether they were real or not. But Hamas is not the IDF, which is a highly trained army that should not be taking a page from the war playbook of its less-than-disciplined opponent.
The reason is obvious. Israel has lost considerable credibility in Europe in the past decade with its aggressive campaign against the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Rather than presenting itself as a country defending its borders, its military — with a reputation for being indifferent to civilian collateral damage in its airstrikes and assassinating suspected terrorists without due process — comes off as bragging about its bloody triumphs.
In the short term, Israel gets thousands of “likes” for its military prowess but loses with the international community that more than ever views Israel simply as an aggressor.
The tweets have drawn strong responses from both Israelis and Palestinians. According to the Washington Post, Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow with the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington D.C. wrote on Twitter that the IDF’s tweets were “extremely damning: IDF cheerily live-tweets infanticide” in an apparent reference to a child killed in an airstrike.
Israelis have adopted the IDF’s hashtag #PillarOfDefense to retweet posts while people sympathetic to Palestinians have initiated the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.
The IDF’s social media campaign is an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the international community. But it’s a slippery slope that any military organization should think twice about engaging. Twitter is ripe for abuse and has an unforgiving memory. Sloppy tweeting during the heat of battle could result at worse a military disaster and at best a publicity nightmare.
It’s unlikely, though, that a Twitter and Facebook campaign will have any real impact on public opinion of whether Israel is taking the right path to attack Gaza. In the end there is no upside for Israel to engage in such a publicity campaign. It simply reinforces the public perception, especially in the Arab world, that Israel does not have peace on its agenda.