Social media in war: The potential and limits

Some have questioned whether Israel as a sovereign state should stoop to trading barbs with a terrorist group.

Travellers using Facebook 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)
Travellers using Facebook 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares)
The IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza will go down in the history of the Arab- Israeli conflict as one of the unexpected victories in the information wars. At the outset, Pillar of Defense appeared little different from such past military operations as 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, in which the Palestinians have been cast as the underdog, and in which the instinctive sympathy of the Western media for the underdog wrote the media script as soon as the first shot was fired.
Yet the information campaign in Pillar of Defense proved successful. A CNN poll midway through the operation found that 57 percent of Americans justified the Israeli operation.
Preparing the ground over the years by exposing foreign correspondents to Sderot and the missile attacks paid off. Against the background of criticism by the State Comptroller’s Office over its handling of earlier events including the 2007 Lebanon War, Cast Lead and the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, the IDF Spokesman’s division had undergone various changes.
These included the creation within the IDF Spokesman’s office of of a war room for the receipt and release of operational footage military intelligence and the air force – giving the IDF the information edge as the first side in the war to give its record of events.
Unmanned drones used by the IDF to locate missile batteries and launchers were able to send back footage. Just four hours after Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas chief of staff, was killed, the surveillance video of his car speeding through Gaza streets and taking a direct hit was broadcast on YouTube. Other footage released showed the care the IDF had taken to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population in Gaza’s highly populated territory.
THE WAY the information was distributed – rather than waiting for a daily news conference as in earlier wars – was a tactical decision. While IDF military plans have long contained an appendix for information handling – a recognition that the information element has to be taken into account at the policy planning stage – it went further now with key heads of branches of government involved in hasbara (public diplomacy) sharing the secret of the plot to assassinate Jabari beforehand. And, had Israel launched a ground operation, combat soldiers accompanying the forces were equipped with cameras to film the invasion.
Interdepartmental coordination proved itself – not an easy feat with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry headed by politicians from three different parties. The Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs established its own situation room full of volunteers tweeting and facebooking in various languages.
Yet, as a State Comptroller’s recent report remarked, the IDF’s monopoly on operational military information, together with the media’s appetite for this information, has raised the question of how agencies like the Foreign Ministry can ensure that the broader diplomatic goals and messages get projected in public diplomacy.
IN STUDYING the lessons of Pillar of Defense, much attention will be paid to the application, for the first time, of social media. The role of social media in warfare raises as many questions as answers. The impact of public opinion and the mass media upon military events has long been debated by political scientists and strategic theorists. In the case of the social media, a distinction is required between active or interested public opinion, on the one hand, and the wider, passive public opinion on the other hand.
There is no evidence that the impact of social media has extended to the broader international public opinion, whose exposure to international news events is mostly due to such traditional media as television, the press, or mainsteam internet news websites. Unless public pressure becomes so strong it overlaps to embrace the wider public opinion in a country, it is difficult to attribute to public opinion importance as a factor in war.
The most noteworthy case was in Vietnam – “the first television war” – in which TV pictures of the bodies of returning American soldiers built a crescendo of public opinion against the continuation of the war and which decided President Nixon to withdraw.
In the 1982 Lebanon war wide international public criticism after the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and Shatilla stopped the war. And, a year later, widespread Israeli public criticism of 600 military casualties in Lebanon spurred the Begin government to withdraw from Lebanon.
Had civilian casualties in Gaza in Pillar of Defense been more widespread, or collective punishment applied, international public opinion could have rapidly turned against Israel.
In Pillar of Defense, as in so many other conflicts beforehand, geopolitical strategic national interests determined the outcome, and mass media and public opinion were, at best, secondary factors determining the environment in which policymakers functioned.
These national interests included Israel’s, with the Netanyahu government anxious to avoid the aerial battle expanding to become a ground operation in the pre-election run-up given the uncertainties and likelihood of Israeli casualties.
The US, and Egypt under heavy pressure from Washington, also sought to avoid an Israeli ground war. And Hamas, notwithstanding the destruction of its military infrastructure, looked to an easing of the border crossings as tantamount to easing the blockade on Gaza.
AT BEST, domestic factors like public opinion and mass media limit the options open to policymakers. More usually, they influence how policy is presented, including its timing.
But social media is new, untested ground in international relations.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter have played a role in connecting such interested audiences as Israeli and Palestinian activists. It has given Jews in the Diaspora a more direct role to play in wars involving Israel than they had in the pre-Internet era.
Jews outside of Israel are no longer dependent on information being filtered by the news media. They are able to receive undiluted information from Israeli official sources.
By the third day of the operation, the IDF Spokesman‘s Facebook page had 28,000 friends, and its English Twitter 97,500 followers (10 times more than followers of Hamas’ Twitter).
By the end of the operation, the number of followers of IDF’s Twitter had doubled.
Since the development of Internet in 1995, Jews outside of Israel have also been able to surf Israeli news media on-line. For example, the number of visits to the Haaretz English site quadrupled during Pillar of Defense. As a result, Jewish surfers of Israeli media have benefitted from generally more comprehensive and balanced coverage than offered by foreign media.
But the extent to which exposure to IDF-sponsored social media extends to the broader international public is more questionable. Public relations strategists have failed to crack the enigma of monitoring and responding to hundreds of thousands of websites on the world wide web. Even in the age of interactive media, research suggests that many surfers are satisfied with the use of news websites. If so, Israeli officials should be able to identify the key news websites.
RATHER, THE new dimension of social media is to enable, for the first time, the publics of two sides in a conflict to engage with one another.
Operation Pillar of Defense illustrated how Hamas and Israel traded blows via Twitter. After the IDF Twitter that “no Hamas operative should show their head above ground in the days ahead,” Hamas responded by twittering: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are. You opened hell gates in ourselves.”
Some have questioned whether Israel as a sovereign state should stoop to trading barbs with a terrorist group. But this dialogue also reflects the background of the new IDF Spokesman. An Arabist, Brigadier- General Yoav Mordechai was formally the IDF Coordinator for Activities in the Territories, and a commanding officer in the intelligence corps. He favoured a more combative social media posture to maintain Israel’s quality deterrence edge toward the Palestinians.
An awareness of the other’s goals does give domestic public opinion a new role in the age of social media in making its voice heard in government at home. This is particularly important given the strengthened role of public opinion in the Arab world since the Arab Spring.
But lost is social media’s original goal of encouraging dialogue – or “networking.”The writer, a Professor, lectures in School of Communication at Ariel University Center, Israel. His book, God, Jews & the Media: Religion and Israel’s media, was recently published by Routledge.