'You want to win the next war? Give everyone in Hezbollah a smartphone'

Israel’s army of Facebook addicts battles to keep its secrets

Israelis, soldiers included, are social media obsessives. That’s creating endless new problems for the IDF, which knows the enemy is watching emails, posts and tweets

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An image from the IDF Facebook page (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An image from the IDF Facebook page (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

The IDF and Facebook have a relationship that is, well, complicated. Ten years after the launch of the social media giant, and days after Facebook’s $19-billion acquisition of WhatsApp, there is, from the army’s perspective, the good, the bad, the secret, and the ambiguous.

Col. (res) Avi Becker, the former head of weaponry at the IDF Computer Services Directorate, put the overall ratio of good to bad at 35:65. He is probably more generous than most. But as the IDF drafts from the civilian pool of a nation that uses Facebook more than any other country in the world (according to 2011 figures), the army has attempted to address the dangers, grapple with the uncertainties and harness the opportunities inherent in social media.

The bad is often highlighted. The halls and bathrooms of the IDF, once the given over to posters featuring Syrian tanks and aircraft, are today lined with notices about the dangers of social media. One ubiquitous placard features a Facebook-like blue banner with mugshots of Bashar Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah. “You have three new friend requests,” it reads.

Beneath the photos, the IDF’s military intelligence writes, “You think everyone is your friend?! The enemy uses social media to collect information about the IDF!”

An IDF warning about the dangers of Facebook (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
An IDF warning about the dangers of Facebook (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

Over the past several years, the army, which today estimates that 95 percent of its enlisted soldiers and 70 percent of its officers’ corps has a Facebook account, has been forced to address an array of leaks. In 2010, a soldier in the artillery corps posted this status: “Cleaning up Katana and home on Thursday.” Katana is a village in the West Bank. The status revealed the time of the planned raid and the unit involved. The other soldiers in the unit, also apparently glued to their screens, saw the update and, feeling imperiled, let the authorities know. The soldier was dismissed, the raid canceled.

Later that year the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate sent out a bulletin to soldiers featuring photos of drones and other sensitive IDF equipment. The photos were from an official Hamas website, the bulletin said; all had been downloaded from IDF soldiers’ personal Facebook pages.

In October 2012, Walla News revealed that several generals in the IDF General Staff had joined a WhatsApp group in order to streamline unclassified communication and to gossip. Only once it was made clear to the generals that the application was relatively insecure and that their location and mood were easily attainable did they disband the group.

Earlier this month, 12 IAF pilots were found guilty of sharing classified materials such as maps and flight coordinates over their own WhatsApp groups.

‘There have been cases of good-looking women sending unusual, army-related friend requests to pilots’

These transgressions, along with dozens of others that likely go unreported, have led to some far-reaching changes. In June 2013 the head of operations in the IDF’s Operation’s Branch, Brig. Gen. Yossi Strick, issued a new order governing the use of Facebook and other social media. Soldiers serving in highly classified units may not maintain Facebook accounts. Pilots, Special Forces personnel, soldiers in the Military Intelligence Directorate (the IDF’s largest corps), and all officers over the rank of lieutenant colonel may have accounts but may not post pictures of themselves in uniform or identify themselves as soldiers. The remainder are barred from posting pictures or information that reveal classified material but may identify as soldiers online.

A newer IDF poster warning against the dangers of posting classified material on social media sites (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
A newer IDF poster warning against the dangers of posting classified material on social media sites (photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

The IDF military advocate general’s office and the military intelligence directorate’s department of information security told the army weekly magazine Bamahane that the orders were drafted “in order to avoid an infringement on the soldiers’ freedom of speech” and in order to avoid writing an order “that the soldiers would not be able to abide by.”

In addition the Military Intelligence Directorate’s department of information security acquired technology that searches Facebook and other social media sites in real time and locates security violations. This, along with a 25 percent increase in polygraph testing over the past year and the creation of a hotline that soldiers can call in order to report classified material online and, perhaps, honey traps – there have been cases of good-looking women sending unusual, army-related friend requests to pilots – has led to a 20 percent drop in violations over the past year.

Soldiers, too, report that Facebook warnings have become part of army culture. In Hebrew – not surprisingly – there is an evocative way to say nudge. Lahfor, to dig, is the verb, and a woman who recently completed her service on an air base in the south, in a sensitive intelligence-related position, said in an interview that “they would dig around in our heads every day about Facebook.”

She described weekly meetings about security that inevitably turned toward media. No pictures in uniform, no pictures on the base, no accepting friend requests from people you don’t know, she said. “Sometimes they fish for you online,” she added, “and that’s a jail sentence” if you are caught complying.

‘Trying to stop Facebook is like trying to stop the sea’

Her classified work, she said, was done without a phone, which had to be left outside the office. Being caught with a phone in one’s pocket, she said, was an automatic 21 days without leave.

Warnings also target posts relating to most soldiers’ favorite topic: leave. She said she never updated her status about when she might be departing the base because a cross check between her location and the time she might be leaving or the bus she might be taking could help a kidnapper plot an attack. Planning for the weekend, though, she said, “is something we did about 45 times a day.”

A lieutenant colonel who last served in a combat role as a deputy battalion commander in the Paratroops and today works with new recruits told The Times of Israel that an officer has to give his soldiers clear instructions about what is and is not permissible, but that one cannot bar soldiers entirely from their social media existence. “Trying to stop Facebook is like trying to stop the sea,” he said.

The good and the ambiguous

The way the army and Facebook intersect – aside from the clandestine interactions, which will be explored later – often blurs the distinctions between spokesperson and advocate; soldier and commander; private and public.

From an organizational perspective, it raises a host of significant and potentially damaging obstacles. “It changed the world,” said Tamir Leon, an applied anthropologist who works regularly with the IDF. Leon, referring not just to Facebook and WhatsApp but to the smartphone in general, said that as a rule, the phone, and the social media accessibility it affords, breaks down the wall between the private and public self. In a recent visit to the IDF’s field officer’s course, he said, he met a young officer to be from the Nahal Brigade, who told him, matter-of-factly, that “the ones you hate most are the ones from your own platoon.” The soldiers around him nodded knowingly.

This seemed absurd to Leon, who served as an infantry officer two decades ago. He knew what every infantryman knows, that you would stand up in the line of fire for your friends. After further reflection, he realized, he said, that the army works in groups. The entire institution is based on the cohesiveness of the squad, the platoon, the company and so on. Generally, this means soldiers are punished collectively. In the past, he said, the soldiers would then return to their tents and hash out their troubles together; today they plunge themselves into their phones, retreating to their own individual worlds. “Young people today have no idea how to live in a group,” he said.

Other soldiers said that the cohesiveness simply takes longer to attain and that, in many combat units, at least during Basic Training, the smartphones are locked in an ammo can at the start of the week and released for only one hour every night. After that, though, they acknowledged, accessibility goes up. One newly released armored corps soldier said that, on the whole, he reckoned he had access to his phone during 85 percent of his service.

Jacob Leibowitz, a soldier recently discharged from an elite infantry company in the Nahal Brigade, said his commanders “didn’t really know how to handle” the issue of social media and that the soldiers had their phones with them for most of their service, aside from Operation Pillar of Defense, when “we had to put them in a box.”

WhatsApp, he said, was used constantly by commanders to effortlessly hand out orders and instructions.

President Shimon Peres with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in March 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/ GPO/ Flash 90)
President Shimon Peres with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in March 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/ GPO/ Flash 90)

Social media also brings to the fore the matter of personal privacy, for soldier and commander alike. Soldiers in the Duvdevan anti-terror unit reported several years ago that their commander, a lieutenant colonel, called them into formation at the end of the week and began reciting infractions from each individual soldier’s Facebook account. Today, members of that unit would be barred from revealing that they were in the army at all, but the question of whether a commander should be friends with his soldiers on Facebook is one that the army still has not resolved.

“Some say that it is improper for a commander to be a soldier’s Facebook friend,” Maj. Reuven Malka, the author of a recent IDF report about online behavior, told the Bamahane weekly in 2013. “On the other hand, some say that it is the commander’s duty to be a presence online, because that is the living space of their soldiers.”

The commander of the paratroopers’ training base, Lt. Col. Guy Berger, told the weekly that he does not give his soldiers and commanders clear orders about friendship requests online. Instead, he said, he demands that his officers act at home online exactly as they would on the base. This is similar to the course charted by the Education Ministry, which in 2011 forbade teachers from befriending students online unless it was done through an account established solely for the purpose of student-teacher communication. The rationale was to maintain a border between the two, so that the student could not learn too much about the teacher’s private life and vice versa. Maj. Malka, though, doubted that any such divide was enforceable. “If the commander befriends one of his soldiers on Facebook, then something in his authority will be weakened,” he said. “The virtual sphere flattens hierarchy.”

‘There is tension between the desire to know as much as possible about the soldier and the desire to safeguard the privacy he deserves’

Leon, in exploring the effects of social media on today’s youth, said that privacy “is simply not a value anymore.” He recalled sitting with an officer from the General Staff when photos of female soldiers in lingerie and other forms of undress surfaced online and on the pages of international newspapers. The general, he said, was surprised, but Leon told him that it was just the tip of the iceberg and that he had seen naked soldiers, wearing army symbols, engaged in “hard pornography” online.

The army, for its part, monitors some soldiers and pre-draft candidates online, crossing a boundary that many employers do not. Girls who state that they are religious and therefore are exempted from military service – 36 percent of the female draft pool in 2013 – are subject to Facebook searches that probe whether their dressing style is in line with their testimony and whether, for example, they post photos from parties attended on Shabbat.

The same is true of the investigative wing of the Military Police. Having realized that today’s soldiers frequently leave suicide notes online and not on a piece of paper, the unit, if tipped off, monitors some Facebook accounts. “If a commander is prowling around Facebook it could help him find signs,” Lt. Col. Sasi Megiddo, the commander of the northern wing of the Military Police’s investigative unit, told Bamahane in May 2013. “There is tension between the desire to know as much as possible about the soldier and the desire to safeguard the privacy he deserves,” he added.

The practice, along with limited access to weapons for certain soldiers, played a role in reducing the suicide rate by 75 percent over the past four years, and 50 percent in the last year alone.

A member of a tank crew checking his phone during Operation Cast Lead, December 2008. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
A member of a tank crew checking his phone during Operation Cast Lead, December 2008. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The most visible intertwining of Facebook and the IDF has come through the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. In the winter of 2008-9, during Operation Cast Lead, an enlisted soldier in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, Aliza Landes, who had been sending videos to reporters as a means of disseminating information from within the closed-off Gaza Strip, urged superiors up the chain of command to allow her to post videos of favorable footage to YouTube. An officer who served in the unit at the time said that “the army was dragged kicking and screaming” into the realm of social media.

Only after the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, though, in which nine Turkish activists were killed amid a melee on board the deck of the Gaza-bound ship, did the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit fully embrace Facebook and other forms of social media. “It took two slaps in the face to really get going,” said Lt. Sacha Dratwa, the commander of the IDF’s New Media desk.

Today the IDF Facebook page in English is closing in on 400,000 likes. On Twitter, the IDF has 235,000 followers. “These days it is not the traditional media that creates buzz, but the buzz that draws the traditional media,” said Dratwa from his Tel Aviv office during a 2012 interview.

The Belgium-born officer described his role as a mix of “spokesmanship, psychology, creativity and technology.”

This attitude, a sort of no-holds-barred approach that led Dratwa to call his new media outfit the Naval Commandos of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, has not come without controversy. On the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense, November 14, 2012, the IDF tweeted this warning: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The tweet, which was re-tweeted over 4,500 times, not only drew criticism from traditional news sources but also from soldiers within the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. Over a year later, one of them shook his head at the notion of that tweet and said, “It never should have happened.”

Another former officer said he doesn’t appreciate the rah-rah, activist tone taken by the social media wing of the IDF, which often posts photos of female soldiers in the field wearing face paint and urges users to “like” the photo for support. “It’s preaching to the converted,” the officer said.

An IDF Facebook campagin (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An IDF Facebook campagin (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Dratwa rejected the criticism. A Times of Israel article which noted that a photo posted on Facebook by the spokesperson’s unit was staged – of two ostensibly gay male soldiers holding hands, only one was gay and both doctored their uniforms in order to disguise the fact that they served in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit – seemed ill-advised to Dratwa, whose soldiers had captioned the widely shared photo with “It’s Pride Month. Did you know that the IDF treats all of its soldiers equally? Let’s see how many shares you can get for this photo.” He said that the Times of Israel article had been misguided because it did not grasp the nature of new media, which granted greater leeway so long as the information was rooted in truth. “When I tell people I Facebook [for a living], they say, ‘What?’ But let’s see you try and write a status that gets 10,000 likes,” he said.

From the military’s perspective, though, the immediacy of attaining material from the field is a tremendous advantage in the constant message war. Combat documentarians, equipped with video cameras and the ability to send footage back to Tel Aviv, would likely have prevented the dominant, and false, media coverage that prevailed after the raid on the Mavi Marmara and amid the swirling rumors of massacre during the 2002 operation in Jenin.

Certainly, in the Philippines recently, during Typhoon Haiyan in November, the army, which refused to take reporters along on its rescue mission, tweeted and uploaded some of the most moving events, including news of surgeries, the growing number of patients treated (2,686) and the 36 babies delivered by Israeli staff. In fact, rather than try to peddle the material to an array of news agencies – a sometimes frustrating task – the IDF controlled the material and either distributed it or spotlighted its own footage.

In fact, a caption beneath IDF Facebook photos, which seems less common today, once implored readers to, “share this, because the mainstream media will not.”

Clandestine uses

In the Arab Middle East, 40.2 percent of the residents are hooked up to the Internet. Of those, 88 percent use social media, with Facebook by far the most popular. They converse in English and Arabic to a nearly equal degree, according to Col. (res) Avi Becker, who placed the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar in the top spots. [The West Bank and Gaza, were it a country, would be ranked in second place, with 36 percent penetration among the public, and Iran, for which there were no official numbers, was not listed in Becker’s presentation.]

For the open-source intelligence unit (Osint) in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate,this has been a boon. Once a sleepy corner of the almighty signal intelligence collection Unit 8200, Hatzav, as the unit is known, is far more central to the understanding of foreign countries. While in the past, the soldiers serving in Hatzav were asked to keep tabs on a limited number of recognized media sources, the several hundred soldiers in the unit today are often trained in something called social analysis. “The soldiers learn how to track information on social media, to identify opinion leaders, to pinpoint an event and to understand the volume of attention surrounding it,” Lt. Col. R, the commander of the unit, told the financial daily The Marker in 2013.

They also are asked to track certain Middle Eastern populations or groups online and to discern between reliable and untrustworthy sources of information. The amassed material, which includes central social media trends embedded on a map, is sent out daily as an online newsletter to relevant officers and bureaus. This dovetails with the commander of the military intelligence Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s understanding of the changing Middle East, where, he said last year, “The primary achievement of the turbulence in the Arab world today is the public’s right to be heard and to exert influence.”

Becker, though, who today is the director general of the Communications Ministry, suggested that social media ought to be utilized strategically, as a tool that can deter, warn and decide certain battles. He would not say what was currently in use, but suggested that many of the IDF’s principles of war could be applied to social media. “Can social media be used to deter?” he asked. “Well, it’s sensitive, it’s classified and I’m not sure, but say someone was able to insert a certain video that went viral in Iran, would that not count?”

He suggested that one could produce a video that questioned the necessity of Iran’s nuclear program, for instance, from a nationalist perspective, and made clear that the source would have to come from someone who has built his or her reliable reputation over a solid two years.

Ranging on to topics such as the exertion of psychological pressure on the enemy, and the recruiting of intelligence assets online, all done by soldiers sitting in front of a “table of pizza and Cokes,” he said, “I don’t know if they do this in the IDF but I have no doubt that they understand that this is an amazing operational tool that did not exist before.”

Leon, who thought Becker’s 35:65 ration of good to bad was hugely optimistic, countered with a different piece of parting advice. “If we want to win the next war,” he said, “the best thing to do is buy everyone in Hezbollah a smartphone.”

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