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 atweet 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 OperationPillar 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 organizeseminars 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.
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