IDF admits psychological warfare attempt targeting Israeli citizens

Opening fake social media accounts and leveraging existing ones, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit sought to foster public positivity toward 2021 Gaza operation; IDF acknowledges ‘error’

Illustrative: A soldier from the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate works at a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative: A soldier from the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate works at a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF has admitted it engaged in “psychological warfare” during its 2021 military operation in Gaza by using fake social media accounts to try to increase public support for its operations in the Strip.

The IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit, which serves as the army’s media arm tasked with coordinating domestic and international media campaigns, was found to have opened and operated a range of fake social media accounts in the opening days of the IDF’s Guardian of the Walls operation, according to a expose published Wednesday in the Haaretz newspaper.

The fake accounts were reportedly designed to foster greater positivity among Israelis towards the IDF’s actions in the Gaza Strip in response to a perceived lack of public enthusiasm for the military’s operational achievements.

In one example, a fake account in the name of Moshe Vaknin was opened on May 12, 2021, two days after the operation began. The account, which tweeted 27 times in three hours, posted videos and images of Israeli strikes in the Strip, all of which featured the Hebrew hashtag #Gazaregrets.

Seeking to gain more views, the Vaknin account commented on existing posts from right-wing politicians such as a tweet from far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir calling “to turn the Gaza neighborhood of Hamas’s villas into a parking lot.”

On that post, which is still online, the soldier operating the account wrote, “Itamar, share this urgently so that all of Israel can see [that] #Gazaregrets,” alongside an image of a collapsed Gazan building.

Operation Guardian of the Walls was an 11-day military operation launched after the Hamas terror group fired missiles toward Jerusalem ahead of an ultra-nationalist flag march slated to parade through the Old City.

In all, 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel from the enclave, including toward Tel Aviv, killing 14 civilians; 256 Gazans were killed, most of whom were members of terrorist organizations.

The day the Vaknin account was opened on Twitter, a Facebook account under the name Dana Lock was opened, featuring a profile picture of a young girl, her back to the camera, draped in an Israeli flag.

On that account, soldiers posted eight videos showing Israeli airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled territory, with the caption “We will not remain silent! We are not suckers! #Gazaregrets! Share!!”

Videos were often posted into large Facebook groups, particularly those professing support for Benjamin Netanyahu.

In another tactic, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit approached existing popular social media accounts and asked them to share images and videos with their followers, Haaretz said.

On Instagram, soldiers reportedly asked the @pazam_gram page, which now has 206,000 followers, and the @idftweets page, which now has 264,000 followers, to share content provided by the IDF. In the opening days of the IDF operation in Gaza, both accounts shared content featuring the #Gazaregrets campaign.

Haaretz said it could not establish if the owners of those accounts were paid by the army for their services.

Mission accomplished?

The psychological warfare operation was ultimately unsuccessful, with almost all posts sent from fake accounts receiving little or no online attention. Only six authentic online accounts used the #Gazaregrets hashtag.

Despite its online campaign falling flat, the unit apparently received an internal award after the Guardian of the Walls operation for “best operational campaign,” granted by the head of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit’s media department.

The Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interceptor missiles toward rockets launched by terror groups from the Gaza Strip into Israel, over the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

Responding to the Haaretz report, the IDF admitted to “setting up a limited number of accounts in order to increase exposure.”

“In hindsight, the use of these accounts was an error, which was limited to a 24-hour period. It should be emphasized that this approach has not been deployed in the previous two years. The Spokesperson’s Unit is committed to the truth and is as careful as possible to utilize only reliable and precise information,” the statement said.

In the 2021 Gaza operation, the IDF came under heavy criticism for deliberately misleading the foreign press after it told reporters that soldiers were entering the Strip on foot.

The tactic was designed to force Hamas fighters into underground tunnels, which were subsequently bombarded by the Israeli Air Force.

Former IDF Spokesperson Brigadier General Hidai Zilberman speaks at a ceremony in which he took over for outgoing spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis on September 15, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

In the aftermath, then-IDF spokesman Maj. Gen. Hidai Zilberman wrote to the foreign journalists, saying: “I apologize for the error. The IDF spokesperson doesn’t engage in psychological warfare; its role is to report nothing but the truth to the public.”

Under Israeli law, the IDF is forbidden from using psychological warfare tactics against civilians, though it is permitted to use them against enemy targets abroad.

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