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The ‘Kids’ Behind IDF’s Media

Young Israeli soldiers have pushed older commanders into adopting a more aggressive social media strategy

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Former Sgt. Talia Wissner-Levy of the New Media desk. (Jonathan Ben David/IDF)

After the first night of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, now almost a week ago, a photograph began circulating around Twitter of a grinning 11-month-old who had been killed by an Israeli missile that landed on his house. Within hours, Avital Leibovich, an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman, posted a reply of sorts: a photograph of another infant, this one an Israeli girl, wounded by a Hamas rocket in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi. It wasn’t the first skirmish of the virtual war being waged across social media networks by both the Israeli government and Hamas—the real-world hostilities were announced Nov. 14 by the IDF in a tweet trumpeting the death of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari—but it was an early indication of how the awful life-and-death stakes of war have been reduced to Internet fodder.

The world is by now well aware of the power of social media to help foment and spread popular movements everywhere from Lower Manhattan to the streets of Cairo. But Operation Pillar of Defense may be the first war to feature direct trash-talking between enemies. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” came a tweet from the official @IDFspokesperson account last Wednesday. “@IDFspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves),” came the reply from @AlQassamBrigade.

It’s not clear who’s running the Qassam Brigade’s twitter feed, but in Israel, the IDF’s social media operation is run by a 26-year-old immigrant from Belgium named Sacha Dratwa. In the past two years, Dratwa has taken a small operation initially created during Operation Cast Lead to streamline the IDF’s YouTube and Facebook presence and turned it into the most globally visible arm of the Israeli military. In the past year, the new media desk has rapidly expanded into new terrain, from commissioning content designed for viral sharing to creating a Foursquare-style game for the IDF blog that rewards frequent visitors to the site with badges. The IDF is also posting video of its drone strikes, starting with the Jabari assassination, as well as of Israelis taking cover during air raids and of Iron Dome units successfully thwarting rockets launched from Gaza.

“The government still has to generate the talking points, what we want to achieve, and then we turn it over to the kids, and they translate it into this new language of social media,” said Daniel Seaman, deputy director general of the Ministry of Public Information and Diaspora Affairs, who ran the government press office during Operation Cast Lead. “I say it’s magic.”

“We want to explain to people what happens in Israel, simply,” Dratwa said in a brief telephone interview late last week. “We believe people understand the language of Facebook, the language of Twitter.”

For Israel, taking the war to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest is a natural outgrowth of the Israeli government’s public diplomacy initiatives, from helping organize seminars to train Israelis to advocate on the country’s behalf over social media networks to underwriting a campaign to improve the image of settlers among bloggers.

The goal, as Dratwa explained it, is twofold: to get Israel’s narrative out in real time, as people read about red alerts in Tel Aviv and rocket landings in Gaza on Twitter, and to cut out the middleman of “old media” in communicating with pro-Israel activists. “What we try to do is to be fast and get information out before the old media,” Dratwa told me. “We believe people are getting information from social media platforms and we don’t want them to get it from other sources—we are the ones on the scene, and the old media are not on the scene as are the IDF.”

It’s not immediately clear what concrete impact the IDF’s Twitter battles are having on the course of public opinion. Foreign journalists have been allowed to enter Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense—a change from Israeli policy during Operation Cast Lead, when foreign journalists were barred from Gaza—resulting in a steady stream of gripping footage and images from the territory. But the IDF boasts 185,150 Twitter followers viewing its stream of videos, photos, and updates, which includes information from the front and frequent reminders of Israel’s ongoing provision of food and medical services to Gazan civilians. “There’s an idea of playing to your base,” said Garth Jowett, a professor specializing in propaganda and media at the University of Houston. “But it’s very hard to change people’s minds with propaganda.”

The IDF’s new media presence was originally the brainchild of Aliza Landes (the American-born daughter of the historian Richard Landes), who was herself only 25 when, as an officer on the IDF’s North American press desk, she piloted the IDF’s first forays into virtual warfare during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. “In Israel, Facebook had only just opened up, and it was considered a toy for kids,” Landes said. “YouTube was the same. They didn’t think of it as a dissemination tool that could be effective—it was just a way for people to waste time in the office.”

Landes had already written position papers trying to excite her commanders in the spokesman’s office about the possibilities of a more aggressive social media strategy, but it wasn’t until videos she posted on YouTube began to tally up impressive views that they paid attention. Originally, she told me late last week, she had used YouTube as a way to transfer video files to foreign journalists, who were prevented by the Israeli military from entering Gaza during Cast Lead and were in many instances forced to rely on IDF footage. “It wasn’t for public consumption,” Landes said. She soon began posting routine information updates, like statistics on the number of rockets fired, to an IDF blog and, by the time Cast Lead concluded in January, had moved to commissioning original videos from the military film department. “It was sort of my pet project on top of everything else I was supposed to be doing,” Landes said.

In August 2009, Landes succeeded in convincing her superiors to give her a dedicated budget for a new media operation. The first big test came in January 2010, not for a war but after the massive earthquake in Haiti, when Israel dispatched emergency medical staff to the Caribbean island. “People were sending us requests for assistance based on Twitter,” Landes said. “So, it wasn’t just a PR tool, it became a practical rescue tool too.” That summer, Landes was responsible for sending out footage from the controversial Mavi Marmara commando raid and convinced her superiors to give her near real-time access to video.

By the time Landes left later that year, she had a staff of 10 people devoted to putting out polished material in concert with other government ministries–some of which, particularly videos from the widely scrutinized Mavi Marmara episode, wound up giving ammunition to Israel’s critics. “It’s important to be in the conversation,” Landes said. “If you just say, ‘I’m going to cut this out entirely,’ you’re not doing yourself any favors, and in fact you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

And while the IDF’s social media campaign has drawn criticism from those who feel it trivializes war and its consequences, it’s unlikely to be the last of its kind. “We’re at a moment where this stuff is not only the way a lot of these communications happen, but the audience is primed for it,” said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of social media at Columbia’s School of Journalism. “There’s no point saying they shouldn’t be doing it because no one is going to listen,” he said. “Both sides are going to do whatever is in their self-interest,” he added. “And social media is an example of that.”


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I am utterly impressed with this positive use of social media. I’ve never seen it used to this extent in war before.

Beth Lieberman says:

What an unbelievably huge service to Israel, what a shining accomplishment, Ms. Dratwa! Kol HaKavod!

What a huge service to Israel. And what a tremendous accomplishment, Ms. Landes and Ms. Dratwa!

A great and timely story. Better depth than the Washington Post’s piece on Israel in the Twitter-War theater. I think Sacha Dratwa is doing a good job coordinating the tech side of public diplomacy and public relations efforts, but I think future endeavors in social media need more input from seasoned flacks and strategists. I think the #hashtag #PillarofDefenCe sucked and was “push down” and an example of insular groupthink. It meant little to anyone who was not a wonk. The Gaza/Hamas hashtag was better, more to the point, informative, and more grassroots in nature.

Also, the pic of the Hamas leader with the words “eliminated” over his face was sophomoric and grotesque for a nation and army to promote. It should have been made and routed through another channel. I think @idfspokesmodel needs more seasoning and more (rapid) oversight

normbnm says:

Having been in combat I’m grateful to see the direct reports from each side on social media. Few people in the World have experienced in near real time the horrible consequences of conflict. That may seem like a falsehood with all the wars and crisis’ that have gone on recently but most people are not actually living there when it happens. Pictures, stories get filtered the way the story teller wants to present them. With photo shop it is very easy to distort what actually occurred but with both sides showing their evidence side by side on social networks it makes people aware that there are two sides to very coin. More importantly it makes us ask why are we so full of hate, why can’t we change and how could I make a difference. Seeing bombs dropped, cannons roar we don’t feel the results of the weapons landing and what horror they cause until we see both sides of the aftermath. Now, even if just a tiny bit in our hearts and if we can get past our self induced prejudices, we can see no benefit for Humankind around the world to continue this madness. Perhaps that will be enough to start more people to ask how can we change things and what can I do.

Thank you Ms.Dratwa!
I hope you don’t rest until every last drop of blood has spilled out of the Palestinian children of Gaza!
You are a true humanitarian!

Great article! Though I may point out to some of the commenters that Sascha Dratwa is a man :-)

waaminn says:

Wow that girl is cute, is she married?

War is terrible. Israel back down you are fortunate and have helped create a prison internment camp (Gaza.) Yes there are robotic sniper drones protecting the borders of gaza. Israel your are nothing more than the western arm of the USA/UK/AU and we wouldn’t support you if it wasn’t for all that oil over there. Your citizens need to realize war never gets a nations people anywhere, just it’s donors and elite. Higher walls will not save you, just as more money for the elite will not alleviate their guilt and inner inadequacies. Make friends with your neighbor, start a process of healing. Yes I agree mistakes have probably been made on both sides (I am probably pretty ignorant of the conflict.) But what I do know is as always it’s now being interpreted as a dichotomy of rich versus poor.

    Israel has no oil. We’re just about the only country in the middle east who has no oil.
    And Israel doesn’t want war. At all. We’d all be happy living a peaceful life and arguing about the high prices of our groceries and real-estate (which is what we were doing before our neighbors started throwing missiles at us).
    But we have a right to defend ourself. I guarantee – if the Palestinians were shooting rockets at YOUR home you wouldn’t be as sympathetic to their plight.
    We’ve repeatedly started peace processes. But you can’t make peace with someone who isn’t interested in making peace with you.
    Just because the Palestinians are poor doesn’t make them right. The reasons the Palestinians are so poor in because their government doesn’t care about the wellfare of it’s citizens. Their chief interest is getting rid of Israel. Not education. Not medicine. Not anything – all they are interested in is getting rid of us.
    And do you know who their chief benefactor is? Israel!
    We supply the Palestinians with electricity. We supply the Palestinians with food and medicine (because their government spends all it’s funds on ammunition to kill us). When Palestinians get seriously ill, they are sent to a hospital in Israel.
    As you wrote above – you are ignorant of the conflict. So maybe you should read up a little about it before you write about it,,,
    Here’s a nice video by a non-Israeli that sums it all up:

      you forgot to add from a non-israeli jew…

      Is this what Israelis truly believe? What a load of misinformed, criminally ignorant nonsense. No wonder Israel is such a war mongering nation – two generations of brainwashing, steeped in Zionist mythology with no desire to see the bigger picture.

      Israel, a nation born from vicious terrorism and now hypocritical beyond belief. Never has a nation been so delusional or detached from reality. Let’s face it, the Jewish state is finished as it has lost any moral authority. You’ve proved time and time again by your actions that you don’t want peace (at least until your settlers have taken as much land as they can). The rest of the world finds this unacceptable. Be assured that things will change.

      By the way, the IDF Twitter experiment was an absolute failure. I followed the feeds and saw the responses. The tweets were totally misjudged and deeply offensive, offering no regret for civilian deaths and seemingly gloating over every action. This in itself graphically illustrates the moral disconnect which seems to be prevalent in Israel if people actually think this is a good idea. It’s also now emerging that the IDF social media team used false graphics and video to back up their bogus and slanderous claims.

      maryann says:

      Well.. what is this war about? or is it the same old war just rearing its ugly head again. Then I would have to say it is a religious war and the extremist are getting out of hand again, everyone has the right to defend themselves, quality to life ect… War and greed only breeds more hate. When are we going to learn from history and previous wars? Who is benefiting from this war? it always leads to more questions.. Thank god for social media and the internet or I would not of even heard about the war, all the western media was focused on the U.S elections and kept alot of it hush hush

      maryann says:

      Well.. what is this war about? or is it the same old war just rearing its ugly head again. Then I would have to say it is a religious war and the extremist are getting out of hand again, everyone has the right to defend themselves, quality to life ect… War and greed only breeds more hate. When are we going to learn from history and previous wars? Who is benefiting from this war? it always leads to more questions.. Thank god for social media and the internet or I would not of even heard about the war, all the western media was focused on the U.S elections and kept alot of it hush hush

    Making peace with Hamas is like making peace with Freddy Cruger: in both cases, there is no one to talk to…

Well I think that this use of sm IS in fact demeaning and shameful for a national army. The tone of IDF’s tweets is shocking and they for sure make a very bad impression of Israel to the rest of the world. Shame on this policy!

Nice FAKE command center there… notice there are no Power or Monitor cables on those monitors!

I am very impressed by this new fashionable form of propaganda.

Israel = Propaganda which makes a lot of Polemic

Homemade bombs vs high technological weapons

not fair

Israel = Propaganda which makes a lot of Polemic

Homemade bombs vs high technological weapons

not fair

No amount of social media will fill a belly. The blockade of Gaza has been a failure of many dimensions, it should end. A tunnel economy based on smuggled foods, goods and it’s taxation by Hamas has facilitated the smuggling of weapons in the tunnels maintained by that economy.

bentar ferreira says:

beautifuls is ferocious….

bentar ferreira says:

You are a true humanitarian

Sacha is a male, btw.

The art of war, indeed.

The IDF give a whole new meaning to “Winning the Hearts and Mind” theory of war. They truly can capitalize on social media in wartime. Our US Military needs to seriously take a lesson from the IDF on how to wage a Social media war.

Go Israel, you can do it, we are 100% behind you….

CANADA says:

You are doing a great job. These videos play an important part in helping to the reveal the truth in this age of online media.
I would just like to add, that we can all help the soldiers by doing a mitzvah in their merit. Some ideas are: giving money to charity, putting on tefilin, lighting shabbat candles and reciting tehilim.
May we hear and share only good news!


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The ‘Kids’ Behind IDF’s Media

Young Israeli soldiers have pushed older commanders into adopting a more aggressive social media strategy

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