Is Israel losing the media war? In the last few days, as Israel continues its bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian death tolls continues to mount, this question has consumed the global media. And most have agreed: in the age of social media, with abundant mobile technologies in the hands of Gaza Palestinians and their global supporters, the Israeli state-sponsored media strategy has failed. On the one hand, we have the staccato of familiar @IDFSpokesman talking-points: “human shields” “we warned them with leaflets.” On the other, we have a deluge of viral images of Palestinian dead and wounded, minute-by-minute updates from the unfolding Gaza warfields. From the @IDFSpokesman, we get didactic infographics. From Palestinians in Gaza, viral jpegs from the ground. The Israeli military does not understand the nature of the social media playing field, pundits have implied, and their message is failing. There is something like a tone of surprise in such assessments. As if surely the “innovation nation” (thus Israel has branded itself) should reign supreme in the social media field.
Infographic: In Gaza, when is a house a home, and when does it become a legitimate military target? pic.twitter.com/HGZr6IAsVJ
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) July 15, 2014
What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion. Then, they launched their own YouTube channel to showcase footage of the Israeli assault – a very improvisational effort of young military recruits. Despite widespread international condemnation of Cast Lead, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, the military claimed a decisive public relations victory in the arena of social media, trumpeting the popularity of its YouTube initiative (some videos were viewed more than 2 million times). In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.
But the process was rife with challenges and missteps. For the military, Facebook presented the paramount challenge, deemed the biggest PR risk and the biggest PR opportunity. The standard Facebook template was initially seen as infeasible on several grounds. First was the populist character of the platform: “Facebook has a tabloid-y look to it,” an IDF official told me in March 2011, “and we are, after all, a serious organization.”  But perhaps most crucially, military developers regarded the Facebook “wall” as a nearly insurmountable obstacle due to the anticipated fusillade of criticism. The army had learned this lesson during the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion, when its YouTube channel was initially left open to commenters, many of whom turned out to be detractors. The comment function was disabled one day after launch.
On August 14, 2011 — following months of development work — the first official IDF Facebook page was launched in English and within one day boasted 90,000 followers (an Arabic-language page, with far fewer followers, appeared shortly thereafter). Military developers toyed with playful manipulation of platform protocols so that they might serve military priorities. Its retooling of the “like” button was considered a case in point: “Click ‘Like’ if you support the IDF’s right to defend the state of Israel from those who attempt to harm Israelis,” in the words of an early post. Military personnel articulated the retooling challenge this way: “This is a problem that I face every day. And I have to be creative. I cannot say: ‘Like’ Israel under attack. So, it’s really complicated, but what I try to do is to create a new language, to interpret the language of the army on Facebook.” 
The administration of Facebook was a particular challenge. Here, the military was hoping to avoid the mistakes made by the Israeli Foreign Ministry (FM), their online presence preceding that of the military. In 2011, I spent a morning with the administrator of the FM’s Arabic Twitter and Facebook accounts who confessed to being perennially overworked, her labor complicated by the lack of prior experience with digital technologies. Facebook moderation constituted the bulk of her job – this on a page with some 70,000 followers from the Arab Middle East. Then, posts from any day generate hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments, many of them hostile. But due to budgetary constraints, their ‘wall’ was only surveyed during working hours. In the morning, she would conduct the mop-up. Israeli army plans for Facebook page included “specific night shifts” on the wall alone, a lesson learned from FM mistakes.
The military’s approach to Facebook commentary would change considerably over time. At first, members of the military’s social media team were anxious to remove what they deemed “derogatory” posts — namely, comments critical of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. In subsequent months, it would adopt a looser policy of permitting criticism to remain online and visible to users. In the language of the military, this shift in policy was articulated through the metaphor of graffiti, by which the Facebook wall was conceived as a physical edifice, available for public defacement:
“We’re not responsible [for the Facebook wall], and I think that people understand that.… Like, if somebody sprays graffiti on the front door of the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, with graffiti that says “Zionist pigs,” nobody would assume that we painted that, but we’re sure not gonna leave it. I think it’s the same general principle. People understand, but if you leave it, it’s kind of tacit approval. As a policy it’s good to get rid of it, but it’s still not immediately important that you do. No one is assuming that it reflects your policies.” 
Twitter presented its own problems and possibilities. In the fall of 2011, the military had only four officials tweeting in its name. Increasingly aware of the time-sensitive nature of social media content, their new media team was beginning to prepare Twitter messaging ahead of time — drafting boilerplate that might become army communiqués during military actions in the Occupied Territories, cognizant of the ways that such preparations would enable the military’s social media team to deliver real-time responses to detractors in times of crisis.
Order vs. Informality
Perhaps the military’s chief challenge in those early days was the informal tenor of social media communications. In 2011, as the military was expanding its work with popular platforms, a senior representative of the IDF spokesperson’s office described this problem to me as follows:
They [social media] are contradictory to the military institution. Any army is a closed organization, and usually it keeps its secrets and operational details inside. And new media works on the opposite [sic]; also the language is different. The military language is very strict. There’s a lot of abbreviations; it has very specific intonations. And the new media is exactly the opposite — a lot of emotions, a lot of questions…informality. So it’s a bit difficult to teach the military how new media is really an asset, but we’ve been doing it for the past two years. 
This officer touted the potential of new media as a means of spreading information, mainly its ability to reach audiences that traditional media could not. But she conceded that it had been hard persuading the upper echelons to embrace the shift, given its radical departure from conventional military protocols and modes of IDF self-presentation. Over the course of subsequent two years, the army endeavored to redress internal reluctance through education, chiefly training courses for officers.
In those early years, the ignorance led to embarrassing missteps. In the spring of 2011, senior IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu spoke of the military’s intention to enlist “little hackers who were born and raised online,” young people whom the IDF would “screen with special care and train…to serve the state.” His comments were picked up by the Israeli online media and were broadcast on the military’s dedicated YouTube channel. An IDF spokesman later clarified the nature of the misstatement to me by e-mail, explaining that Benayahu had intended to refer to “an army of bloggers,” rather than “hackers” — the latter term disturbing many IDF officials with its unflattering invocation of covert online malfeasance, a notion out of keeping with the self-portrait that the military’s social media team sought to paint. When I looked for Benayahu’s remarks on YouTube at a later date, they were gone — scrubbed, presumably, in the interest of the IDF’s image of professionalism.
Today, Israelis are also concerned about losing the media war. But they tell the story differently. In their rendering, the Israeli media problem is a by-product of damning or doctored images (this was the spirit of Netanyahu’s infamous “telegenically dead” remarks), of Palestinian media manipulation, of global anti-Israeli cum anti-Semitic bias. The Israeli media manages these problems by removing most traces of Palestinian dead and wounded from national news broadcasts. As in Gaza campaigns of the past, many Israelis deem their mere mention tantamount to national slander; in the past few days, Israeli leftists have been physically and verbally attacked for no less. And for mainstream Israeli publics, who overwhelmingly back the current operation, @IDFSpokesman tweets will continue to resound convincingly: the only moral army, the existential threat, we had no choice, #IsraelUnderFire.
1. Stein interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, March 2011.
2. Stein interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
3. Stein interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, November 2011.
4. Stein interview with senior IDF spokesman, Tel Aviv, March 2011.