The Israeli Defense Forces' one-of-a-kind Internet strategy aims to bypass an international media known for unfriendly fire.
TEL AVIV - Avital Leibovich's business card contains all the usual information: name, rank (lieutenant colonel), position. She is head of the Israel Defense Forces' Interactive Media Branch, and in addition to listing her phone numbers and email address, the card also includes some less traditional data: her Twitter address and Facebook page.
Working out of a modest office building in Tel Aviv, Leibovich and her team of 30 soldiers are responsible not only for the social network presence of Israel’s armed forces — the IDF — but also for making sure that it makes a good impression.
"We are the only army in the world that puts this much effort into an Internet media offensive," she says with pride. Several hundred postings in six languages are made to nearly all social networks and a blog every month.
The endeavor began small during the Gaza War in late December 2008 when a conscript had the idea of making some filmed content available to the media on YouTube. It was a great success, and not just with journalists.
Today, everything from aerial shots of targeted killings to a short introduction in English to Krav Maga (a self-defense system developed in Israeli based on martial arts) can be found on YouTube. When an Israeli F-16 jet fighter with a technical defect crashed, it was only a matter of hours before video of the dramatic IDF rescue of the pilot and navigator was posted.
Viewer figures for some videos are out there for all to see. The short clip showing how militant Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari was killed in an Israeli air attack on his car was viewed nearly five million times. But even unspectacular videos, like one sending messages of goodwill to those in the Arab world observing Ramadan, can appeal to large numbers of viewers, says Leibovich.
So far, there are pages and channels in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic, she explains. And postings on each one are different. New immigrants to Israel are usually in charge of these not only because they speak the language of the target group but because of their intuitive understanding of their native culture and therefore the approach to take when presenting content.
Knowing your audience
In a large office space, three soldiers are discussing the best way to present a statement in Arabic from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah. Two of the women soldiers migrated to Israel from Egypt seven years ago, and now, in Arabic, they’re trying to give the Arab world another picture of the IDF.
One young female soldier in charge of the Russian Facebook page points out that in Russia the VK social network is at least as important as Facebook "so of course we’re present there too." In general, Russians like hardcore military information, she says, and weapons and explosions are not at all taboo. The titles on their Russian YouTube channel therefore depict a rocket being fired, though this wouldn’t be a good idea on the French channel, which instead shows two soldiers in camouflage clothing.
"We like to play up the human angle," a soldier named Anthony says — stories about new immigrants from France serving in the Israeli army, for example. Or showing a pretty girl in uniform with a caption reading, "The true face of the IDF."
But these postings don't come at the expense of news and political coverage. When rockets from Gaza hit the southern part of the country, the news was on Twitter in nearly real time. The number of relief trucks admitted to the Gaza strip every month is presented as an infographic, and just recently a new webpage with information about the history, ideology and terrorist activities of Hezbollah were posted.
Using the example of a village in southern Lebanon, they show how Hezbollah deliberately stockpiles weapons near schools and medical facilities. Programmers and layout designers spent over six months on the project.
The Israeli armed forces have often felt mistreated by the international media, and it has been a sore subject for a long time. So the online offensive is intended to reach people directly by bypassing traditional media as transmitters of information. How well it works is difficult to assess.
Comments that IDF postings receive on social networks are mostly from two groups: those who consider Israel’s forces to be treacherous murderers selling a pack of lies, and those who regard Israeli soldiers as heroic.
Lieutenant Colonel Leibovich and her soldiers firmly believe that their efforts haven't been in vain. Leibovich waxes enthusiastic about her subordinates’ creativity. "These are 19-year-olds! They’ve grown up with this technology and have integrated it — internalized it — completely." They believe that the Internet is the battlefield of the future.
Sometimes the verbal sparring does feel like a battlefield. During the most recent Gaza offensive in November 2012, the Israeli army tweeted a warning to all Hamas leaders not to "show their faces above ground in the days ahead."
They got a swift reply from @AlQassamBrigade, the militant wing of Hamas: "@IDFspokesperson — Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."