Weapons of mass media

Yoram Peri’s new book is a wake-up call to Israel and other liberal democracies fighting wars

Yoram Peri’s new book in Hebrew (photo credit: INSS)
Yoram Peri’s new book in Hebrew
(photo credit: INSS)
Towards the end of Operation Protective Edge, I and 12 of my soldiers were stuck for nine days in a small house in Gaza. We had heard media reports of an imminent ceasefire and yearned for home. A new soldier brought us supplies and, thinking it would boost our morale, shared a recent poll from a news website that 80% of Israelis favored continuing the war against Hamas. But there was a disconnect between the mood of the public and us soldiers on the ground. The spirit of soldiers can have a direct influence on the capability of an army to fight.
This is just one personal example of how 21st century media have the capacity to impact the way we perceive and conduct wars. Yoram Peri’s new book, “Mediatizing Wars: Power, Paradox and Israel's Strategic Dilemma,” which is currently available only in Hebrew, examines the strategic challenges that Israel and other liberal democracies face as a result of what he calls the “mediatization” of war zones. “Mediatization” is a term used in communication theory to describe the process in which society is shaped by the media.
Peri, a senior researcher at INSS, presents a fascinating historical analysis of a subject he has thoroughly researched and analyzed. He differentiates between two kinds of media. One is classic journalism that reports facts and offers analysis. The other is "mediatizing," which perceives the press as an active player in the political and strategic decision-making process.
In the past, media played the role of updating the public about what was happening on the battlefield. They were there to report, interpret and analyze a government's goals. Now the equation has changed. Today, according to Peri, government actions are directly influenced by the messages, state of mind, and perspective conveyed by the media. The 24/7 news broadcasts and the competition between television, radio and Internet news sites, are not in sync with the slower pace of war.
It is a well-known phenomenon that pictures and videos of the battlefield can shape the way wars are remembered. They are the tools that governments use to define and sharpen their message to the public. The raising of the flag at Iojima or the Ink Flag in Eilat during Israel’s War of Independence are just two examples of a government declaring victory and the media reporting it. Today, however, the photograph often stands on its own, becoming the goal itself. The creates a situation in which the media’s point of view or portrayal of the battle can have a significant influence how the war is actually conducted. The “picture” that captures the situation becomes the mission, which can determine the outcome of the war itself.
The 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, known as the Second Lebanon War, is where the author pinpoints the change between "media" and "mediazation" in this region. Israel was unprepared for its soldiers being equipped with cellphones and cameras. These soldiers sent uncensored, and often gruesome, pictures from the battlefield, harming public morale, while Hezbollah carefully controlled its messages to its own audience as well as to the international community, presenting pictures of Lebanese citizens being bombed by Israel’s mighty military on social media.  This had a direct negative effect on the war itself.
One of the most disturbing examples Peri cites is an incident that occurred in the deadliest confrontation of the Second Lebanon War, now known as the Battle of Bint Jbeil.  A direct order was given by the IDF for its troops to capture a house, raise an Israeli flag on top of it and photograph it for PR purposes. Rather than the picture becoming the outcome of the conquest, it became the goal of the mission itself.  This set a precedent in which soldiers' lives were risked in an operation whose purpose is to advance a media need as opposed to a strategic need.
The book serves as a wake-up call to readers, especially in Israel. It shows how our mediatized world (including both conventional and social media) can give an unprecedented advantage to those perceived to be the underdog or the occupied. Israel's enemies then have a head start in selling their narrative to the world, and thereby influence the war’s status by the smart use of media. They understand that Israel’s Achilles’ Heel is the complexity of the situation, which cannot always be presented in a 20-second video clip or soundbite.
We do not have to go as far back as 2006 to realize that Israel’s great military power has also become one of its biggest weaknesses. This is what Peri calls Israel's “power paradox” – the relationship between a powerful country and its adversary presenting itself as the underdog. This book, together with the recent video of the Tamimi girls taunting IDF soldiers in the West Bank and the constant anti-Israel media blitzes by the Jewish state’s enemies, such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, should trigger a rethinking process about what must be done to counter “mediatized wars” that pose a strategic dilemma not just to the IDF and Israel, but to all liberal democracies under attack.
Matan Dansker, a former IDF officer, is a student at Jerusalem’s Shalem College