Operation Pillar of Defense: the first social media war

is a BBC World Affairs producer. Twitter: @stuartdhughes

Israel Defense Force on Facebook

“There are only two powers in the world,” said Napoleon, “the sword and the mind.” And from the moment Israel struck targets in the Gaza Strip this week and Hamas returned fire into southern Israel, the twin pillars of military might and the battle for public opinion have been inseparable.

What has been unprecedented about the propaganda war in this military operation is the central role played by social media.

Rather than a news conference, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chose Twitter to alert the world to the start of its campaign.

As soon as the operation got underway, the official @idfspokesperson account announced that: “The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets.”

With customary efficiency and speed, Israeli spokespeople toured the TV studios of Jerusalem, and fanned out across southern towns within the range of rockets launched from Gaza, to explain the reasons for the military action.

But in the hours following the assassination of the Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari more than 20 tweets were also sent by @idfspokesperson using the hashtag #PillarofDefense.

The IDF posted regular updates on its Facebook page and Flickr stream. IDF spokeswoman @AvitalLeibovich also sent numerous tweets between TV and radio interviews.

Al-Qassam Brigades on Twitter

Meanwhile, Hamas’ military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, swiftly followed suit. Using its own hashtag - #gazaunderattack - it warned Israel on Twitter that: “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

The quote was immediately picked up and used by broadcasters and the wire services.

So far, what has been most noticeable about Operation Pillar of Defense is that social media has not been an afterthought in the propaganda war - it has led and driven it.

Israel Defense Force on YouTube

I was first alerted to the video of the strike which killed Ahmed Jabari by monitoring the IDF’s official Twitter feed on Wednesday evening. It was posted on YouTube just hours after the assassination had taken place.

Where other military forces might have kept the footage classified, Israel posted it for the world, and especially its enemies, to see - and for the international media to download and broadcast.

The IDF followed up with a warning on Twitter that: “No Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, (should) show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

It also published a series of attention-grabbing posters including one with a blood-red background which read “Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated.”

Israel Defense Force on Flickr

In defence circles, a debate is currently taking place over the possibility of "human out of the loop” warfare in the decades ahead: in which high-tech, fully autonomous weapons engage targets with no human input whatsoever.

Perhaps Operation Pillar of Defense can be seen as the first example of a “journalist out of the loop” military operation in which "sources go direct" to the public with their messages without the need for news organisations as intermediaries and information gatekeepers.

It is a media strategy that has already been labelled Propaganda 2.0.

Some commentators have questioned whether this social media offensive breaches the terms of service laid out by social networks. Twitter prohibits users from posting “direct, specific threats of violence against others”. Mike Isaac at Allthingsd.com has considered some of the legal considerations and concludes that social networks are in previously uncharted waters.  

Evidence that Facebook, Twitter and others are themselves grappling with the legal and ethical considerations can be seen in YouTube’s decision to take down the IDF’s assassination video - only to put it back up again hours later, admitting that “sometimes we make the wrong call”.

And, as in so many conventional conflicts, sabotage is also being employed as a weapon of digital warfare. On Thursday evening hackers attacked multiple Israeli websites, using the hashtag #OpIsrael to denounce what they called “the barbaric, brutal and despicable treatment of the Palestinian people”.

Whether Facebook posts and tweets, or campaigns by hacktivists, will change public opinion or merely reinforce existing viewpoints is open to debate. What’s clear, though, is that what the Israeli newspaper Haaretz calls laptop warriors will be fighting hard to make their voices heard in the days ahead. 

Ultimately, as Napoleon knew, the court of public opinion can be the most important battleground of all because “in the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind”.

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