Facebook: A Double-Edged Sword for the IDF

December 6, 2010 by Raffe Gold
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Recently the IDF gained an extra thousand recruits. For a civilian army in which a majority of citizens are proud to support their country by completing  military service, this number is quite small considering the amount of people who go through boot camp every year. However this extra thousand is composed of  young men and women who tried to evade the draft by claiming a religious exemption. They pretended to be part of the ultra-religious movement which opposes Zionism and does not participate in modern-day Israel.

Raffe Gold

Over the last several years the IDF has been cracking down on draft dodgers by going through their Facebook pages and finding inconsistencies in their religious lifestyle. This latest use of web 2.0 technology is a perfect example of how Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are both a blessing, and a curse, for the Israeli army.

Earlier this year former IDF soldier Eden Abergil, like many Israelis that wear the uniform, posted pictures of her military service. Amongst the various photos Abergil poses with bound Palestinian prisoners under the album title ‘The army….best time of my life”. These photos spread throughout the web and in half a day mainstream media outlets were already hounding the army. In response to this the IDF Spokesperson’s Office released a video of an IDF captain saying that the photos were “repulsive” and “shameful” whilst outlining the code of ethics that all Israeli soldiers must adhere to and reminding viewers of the recent humanitarian mission to Haiti. The IDF was attacked by one social media website and counter-attacked with another social media website. This is the war that Israel’s spokespeople are fighting now and the victor is yet to be decided.

The IDF made its first significant foray into social media just prior to Operation Cast Lead in late 2008. Launching a YouTube channel (idfnadesk) the world was updated by their recently created ‘New Media Desk’ of the various battles being waged against the Hamas terrorists. In conjunction with the new YouTube channel they also launched a Twitter account, flickr channel and FaceBook page.  It is another front in Israel’s war against the growing movement of delegitimization.

Earlier this year when Naval commandos boarded the Gaza Flotilla no one believed that the elite unit could have been bested by a group of mere ‘peace activists’. The Flotilla organizers had already been tweeting furiously when the Israeli Navy transmitted their first warning and throughout the night when the commandos were being stabbed and beaten by the members of the IHH terror group in the lynching anyone on Twitter could read the latest tweets using the hashtag #FGM (Free Gaza Movement). The FGM story spread virally throughout the world and despite the best claims of the IDF Spokesperson to say that it was an act of self-defence no one believed them.

It was only when the YouTube videos were released showing IDF soldiers confronting a wild and bloodthirsty mob with paintball guns and the harrowing scream of “live fire below” did the world eventually start to believe the Israeli version of events. The videos were instrumental in reframing the message and were a great service to Israel advocates throughout the world.

Yet the Eden Abergil case shows that social media can also harm the image of the IDF. With more and more cases of soldiers posting pictures to Facebook, Twitter or other similar websites the army is finding that these sites may not only harm Israel’s PR image but also her national security. In August of this year a top secret army base was exposed not through Hezbollah terrorists or Iranian spies but by the soldiers themselves when they created a Facebook page for the base under the title “There are things hidden from us which we will never know or understand”.

Whilst the act of creating this Facebook page was an egregious breach of security, and incredibly stupid on the part of the soldiers, it reflects the almost natural instinct that many youth have today with sharing their lives with friends. In response to the many public exposures the IDF banned social networking sites in IDF bases and offices that contain classified material to “avoid giving gifts to Hamas”. The IDF also circulated a memo warning about the dangers of social networking sites and set up a new unit to monitor soldiers Facebook pages. Their hope is to avoid another calamity that could possibly endanger the lives of soldiers and the national security of the State of Israel.

The internet is an astounding tool for the IDF to get its message across to all of those with an internet connection. It has ensured that it can avoid a biased media and engage web citizens on a far more personal level. Rather than speak to a national agenda, the world can see the human faces of young Israelis through their normal day to day lives. This ‘humanization’ of the “other” is important as a weapon to counteract the hysterical use of abusive names used by Hamas and Hezbollah like ‘Nazis’ when referring to Israel’s young soldiers.

In the case of the Gaza Flotilla raid social websites allowed the IDF to prove its innocence in the face of resounding public skepticism. Yet the IDF must also stay one step ahead its own soldiers by teaching them the dangers of an online presence and the intelligence gleaned from a seemingly innocent photo on Facebook.

When Nazi Propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels first used radio as a means of spreading Hitler’s message and altering the mind-set of the German people, he unleashed a wave of PR devices which governments have taken up with great glee. But it is now reacting against them, as we have seen with the way in which the Australian Julian Assange has used Wikileaks to expose the secretive side of government. What this means is that governments have got to become much more canny about using the growing influence of social websites and the internet in driving forward their message. And they must not under-estimate the sheer inventiveness of young people to use these new media of communication as a way of getting behind and underneath government messages.

Regardless of how the web affects the IDF it is impressive to see how innovative the army can be under the pressure of calls for BDS, deligitimisation campaigns and the politicisation of universal jurisdiction laws. If the army continues down this path of embracing new media then hopefully we will see the tide turn for Israel.

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