(My Piece on the Social media angle of 'Pillar of Defense', as published in the Jewish Voice) -- “We are operating on four fronts: the military front, the home front, the diplomatic front and the public diplomacy front,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told volunteers - who are working to assist in the national public diplomacy effort – in a google+ hangout video conference on Monday.
“What you are doing greatly strengthens us on the public diplomacy front. We must fight for the truth, for the facts, and your help is worth more than gold. The fact that you are focusing on refuting the industry of lies and that you are reaching so many sectors is a significant addition for the State of Israel,” the Prime Minister added, according to a press release.
The IDF hasn’t left the digital media front for volunteers only, but has also itself engaged for the first time in Israel’s history - debating Hamas’ talking points and repudiating their lies and misinformation - by showing an extensive presence on Twitter and social media sites. The Israel Defense Forces' English Twitter account has been quite active over the past week, has doubled its followers to over 190,000 in the last count, and got through the message to millions across the world with thousands of re-tweets and replies.
Tablet Magazine, BuzzFeed, and FastCompany have gained access to the IDF social media team, learning cues from its daily experience live blogging the war.
The IDF's experiment with social media began in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead with 25-year-old Aliza Landes, a member of the IDF's PR team for North American reporters. Originally, she had used YouTube as a way to transfer video files to foreign journalists, who were prevented by the Israeli military from entering Gaza during Cast Lead and were in many instances forced to rely on IDF footage, according to Tablet Magazine.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, the Israel Defense Forces Spokeswoman to the international press, who besides handling the official IDF twitter account has her own twitter handle, told BuzzFeed FWD that she is "very proud" of what the IDF has accomplished on social media. "We still have a lot more to learn," she said, "and maybe other platforms to join, but I think in a relatively short time it's very progressive.”
“The goal," said Leibovich," is to reach as many audiences as possible, and second, to convey our message, without the touch of an editor." "When rockets are falling on our heads, and I'm referring to 500 rockets in the last 72 hours, if you can even imagine the extent," she said, "then when you have a certain time that you want to convey a message of deterrence to an audience, that's a good tool to do it."
Staffed with around 30 soldiers trained in writing and graphic design skills, spokeswoman Lt. Col. Leibovitch is also the head of a two-month-old “Interactive Media” branch of the IDF. Leibovitch told the AP she’ll be leaving her current spokeswoman’s post in February to focus solely on running the interactive branch.
“I’m sort of addicted to Twitter, you can say. It’s a great tool to release information without the touch of editors’ hands,” she told the AP. “Militaries are usually closed operations, but we’re doing the opposite.”
It was just a matter of time before the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas would have its own waged war on Twitter. Shortly after Israel launched the Gaza offensive last Wednesday by killing Hamas’ top military commander Ahmed Jabari, the IDF’s media office announced a “widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip” on its Twitter account. A tweet from @idfspokesperson, which actually was a direct quote by IDF’s Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Yoav “Polly” Mordechai, said: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” Hamas, under its @AlQassamBrigade English-language account, which is largely considered to be the official Twitter account for its military wing, fired back: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”
While it’s not clear who’s running the Qassam Brigade’s Twitter feed, the IDF’s social media operation is run by a 26-year-old immigrant from Belgium named Sacha Dratwa, according to Tablet Magazine. “We want to explain to people what happens in Israel, simply,” Dratwa told Tablet. “We believe people understand the language of Facebook, the language of Twitter.”
“We've been very pleased with the results of what we've been doing with new media--both as a catalyst for traditional media and for reaching out to different audiences,” Captain Eytan Buchman of the IDF Spokesperson's Unit and main representative to the North America press told Fast Company.
“It's the battle for information. It's a battle that I think, at this point, we are winning,” Buchman concluded, at least as of now.