IDF claims victory in Pillar of Defense social-media war

Social-media experts say official Israel effectively conveyed its narrative to unprecedented numbers

Sascha Dratwa,  IDF director of new media (photo credit: Yoni Malka)
Sascha Dratwa, IDF director of new media (photo credit: Yoni Malka)

Last November’s Operation Pillar of Defense — in which Gaza terrorists fired some 1,500 rockets at Israel, and the Israeli air force flew a similar number of raids at terror targets — was notable for a number of reasons.

The eight-day conflict, which ended with an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire that has held for the three months since, saw six Israelis killed, about 170 Palestinians killed (120 of whom were engaged in terrorism, according to the IDF), Gaza rocket fire hitting as far north as Rishon Lezion, and the Iron Dome defense system intercepting 84% of the rockets at which it was fired. It also marked the first time Israel beat the Palestinians in hasbara — public diplomacy — said Sacha Dratwa, the IDF director of new media.

How does he know? “This was the first time the foreign media asked more questions about our Twitter activity than about our bombings in Gaza.”

Dratwa, along with other Israelis in government and thousands of volunteers, helped Israel marshal the power of social media to get Israel’s message out during Pillar of Defense. He and others discussed their efforts at a symposium last week sponsored by the Israel Internet Society, reviewing what went right and what changes needed to be made for future conflicts. “Gaza was easy to explain. We are preparing for the difficult challenges in hasbara we expect to face in the near future,” continued Dratwa, dropping a broad hint about how Israel would explain a truly major crisis — say, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (Dratwa, of course, did not confirm that this was what he was referring to).

Dratwa served his time in the IDF and moved on to civilian life — until he was re-drafted by the army last year to develop the IDF’s social-media presence. Under his guidance, the IDF used social media to its full extent, in what he said was a very successful manner. “Branding is a major part of social media; our efforts were aimed at branding this conflict, the first time this has been done on social media,” explained Dratwa. “We did some revolutionary things on Twitter, sending out 11 tweets an hour, keeping followers abreast of events in real time.”

The wartime pace taught the IDF social-media staff some lessons for the future as well. “Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the other platforms all have their own nature. Twitter updates have to be quick and as close to real-time as possible, whereas Facebook updates need to have a lot of easy-to-understand infographics.” In either case, Dratwa continued, “You have to know your message, and stay on that message.”

In the case of Operation Pillar of Defense, the message was that innocent Israelis were being pummeled by rockets being fired by terrorists, and the IDF was trying to defend Israelis by rooting out the terrorists operating from civilian areas — but without harming Gaza civilians, if at all possible. That message, said Dratwa, was consistent among all the organizations and groups presenting Israel’s case in social media, “with the consistency evident even in the terminology, pictures, and fonts of the text we used. That coordination was one reason for our success in the war.”

The IDF’s work was complemented and supplemented by the social-media efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the Digital Diplomacy Department, headed by Yoram Morad, has been working for the past year to expand the MFA’s reach in social media. “Between the groups and workers who are now social-media savvy, thanks to training we’ve provided, we can have 800-1,000 channels on various platforms, spreading our message.”

The MFA’s job on social media is also to “brand” Israel, but not just in terms of war and defense. “We use our channels to communicate about what Israel is like — the country, the policies, etc. We also discuss the Israeli cultural experience, and of course the innovations Israel is responsible for,” said Morad, who is especially proud of the Ministry’s outreach to Arabic and Persian speakers. “We have three kinds of followers on our Facebook pages in Arabic and Persian,” Morad continued: “Some follow us just to curse us; some follow us, listen to what we have to say, and then curse us; and some actually listen without cursing.”

That last group constitutes a significant minority of the estimated quarter-million people whom the MFA’s Arabic- and Persian-language pages attract — in and of itself a victory for Israel. “The main thing is to engage with viewers honestly and accurately,” Morad said. “We have a staff that does this full time, ensuring that our messages get out to those who need to hear them.”

A plethora of private and public groups and individuals helped out during the war, as well. Stand With Us — a student advocacy group active on college campuses around the world — reacted to the war almost immediately, using the skills of its many volunteers to reach the world with Israel’s messages. The members of the group are actually old hands at social media, claimed Amos Geva, the director of new media. “During the flotilla incident in 2010 (when Israeli troops intercepted the Mavi Marmara en route to Gaza, were attacked on deck, and killed nine Turkish civilians in the subsequent fighting), we set up a website explaining Israel’s side within 12 hours, and translated it into 16 languages, including Turkish.”

The “war room” at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center worked overtime to brand Israel during Pillar of Defense, said the IDC’s Alik Shor: its claim to fame was the #israelunderfire Twitter hashtag, which was adopted by almost all of those on Twitter who were advocating for Israel. And Internet maven Ben Lang described his efforts at helping out, setting up the Iron Dome Count Facebook page and Twitter feeds. “People really wanted to know about Iron Dome, and these pages helped them keep abreast of Israel’s Iron Dome successes,” Lang said.

Michal Schreiber of the Home Front Command explained how the organization used social media to keep Israelis in the south — and elsewhere — informed and safe during the war.

If social-media success means winning hearts and minds, then evaluating the success of the Israeli effort would be very difficult. But if success is measured by the number of people exposed to Israel’s messages, then the efforts of the various groups were indeed successful. “We got to 57 million views for our pages on Facebook, and our YouTube channels had over 10 million views,” claimed Dratwa.

The MFA, too, garnered many online “clients” who engaged with its sites and feeds, said Morad. CNN, he said, declared the Israeli social-media effort one of the most important technological developments of 2012.

“We changed the ways wars are conducted on social media,” said Dratwa. “Hopefully, this change will make it easier for the world to understand our side of the story. I really believe we prevented a repeat of the Goldstone Report (which accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians in the wake of 2008-9s Operation Cast Lead), because a lot more people understand us now.”

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