Between the freedom and security of information

The Spokesperson’s Unit and Military Censor have completely collapsed.

IDF forces on the Gaza border, November 13, 2018 (photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
IDF forces on the Gaza border, November 13, 2018
(photo credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
It is very possible that a watershed moment occurred this week: The social media networks defeated the military censor. In other words, the freedom of information gained the upper hand over the security of information.
In principle, this is an encouraging development. In the Israeli case, it is both encouraging and troubling.
There was a storm of activity on social networks late Sunday and early Monday morning. A flare-up in the South cloaked in secrecy, together with a lack of official information, engendered waves of rumors and fragments of information. The information front was completely breached. Actual details about the incident that occurred near the town of Khan Yunis only began to gradually and cautiously emerge at daybreak, and another few hours passed before the picture began to come into focus. Meanwhile, there was an outburst of incorrect and distorted information.
One might ask why this is noteworthy. After all, false information routinely streams across the social networks; we have become accustomed to it and know how to respond to it or ignore it accordingly. But when it comes to security matters and, most critically, to human life, we still expect some caution and responsibility. But these are futile expectations: It’s impossible to change the “culture” that prevails all year long just because a secret security incident occurred. The same rules also apply to this incident. There is no special treatment.
Israel is a small state and its people are close to one another. This is both a source of strength and weakness. The Israeli “word of mouth” industry, which we know from previous wars and incidents, received an additional boost from the connectivity provided by the Internet and social media networks. Consequently, information that traveled slowly in the past is now disseminated rapidly and widely. This is a global phenomenon, but in Israel’s case it is extreme. We are heavy users of the Internet, are connected to countless networks and groups, and love to share and receive information. There is nothing more pleasing to the ear and flattering to our ego than “classified” security information.
In the distant past, it was possible to manage the information. During my tenure as IDF spokesperson, including during the Gulf War, the security establishment was able to manage an information regime through the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. It controlled when, how and how much the public knew about security affairs. This did not necessarily entail an abuse of power. Rather, it was a way to ensure that the information the public received was reliable and verified. Thus, the public retained a relatively high level of trust in the army and the defense establishment. As studies have shown, the public knew that the information it received during the Gulf War came from an official and reliable source, and could be accepted “blindly.”
At that time, it was also possible to strictly guard military-security information via the IDF Military Censor. Despite the discomfort this entailed, the Israeli media accepted the censorship regime, which it believed was preferable to legislation.
These two systems – the Spokesperson’s Unit and Military Censor – have completely collapsed.
This week, the military censor, Brig.-Gen. Ariela Ben-Avraham, politely requested the public to treat the information it receives with sensitivity and caution. The chief censor realizes there is no way to enforce censorship in the social media networks. Furthermore, the mass media – radio, television and the print media – is placed in a ridiculous light by being prohibited from publishing information that is readily available on social media. “The horse is already out of the barn.”
In light of these conditions, and in order to adapt to the new reality, reforms should be instituted in both the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and Military Censor’s Unit, each in its own way. The old saying: “If you can’t beat them, join them,” is more apt than ever. If the IDF spokesperson wants to wait to collect all of the information, he will remain far behind. If the military censor prevents the media from publishing information that is available on social media networks, or tries to attack these networks, it will look anachronistic and outdated.
During the difficult days this week, a flood of information from the field reached the public long before the authorized officials could respond. After this round of fighting, and with the clear expectation of additional rounds in the future, these two media organizations, which both deal with information – one disseminating it and the other in keeping it under wraps – must reexamine themselves. They will very soon be put to a new test, and they should be ready for it.
The author is an MK from the Zionist Union, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and former IDF spokesperson.