How Israel and Hamas weaponized social media

More militaries and armed groups are using social media as a weapon of war -- but when ground skirmishes are mirrored by cyber-social battles, managing the message can get messy.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
13 min read

Ahmed Jabari never saw the missile that killed him. As he drove past parked cars and empty intersections on a leafy street in Gaza City in November 2012, a drone circling high overhead took aim at the roof of his nondescript sedan and fired.

In the chaos that followed, little did anyone know that reducing Jabari and his car to a cloud of shrapnel and dust marked the beginning of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense. Within hours, the Israel Defense Forces made sure hundreds of thousands of people found out.

A senior Hamas military leader whom Israel accused of involvement in several terror attacks, Jabari was a strategic target for the Israeli military in its eight-day air and ground offensive against Hamas' Gaza stronghold.

Shortly after Jabari was killed, the IDF broke the news by uploading a brief, silent, black-and-white video of the airstrike to YouTube. It then took to Twitter to say "Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated" and posted a follow-up on Facebook with a photo of Jabari titled "IDF Begins Widespread Campaign on Terror Sites in the Gaza Strip," inviting its followers to "stay tuned for updates."

Before long, Hamas' military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, responded with its own social media barrage.

"Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)," the Al Qassam Brigades tweeted.

From this point forward, the world was given a couple of front-row tickets -- each with a decidedly one-sided view -- to watch as the conflict was live-tweeted between these bitter enemies.

Operation Pillar of Defense wasn't the first time that feuding armed groups used social media to broadcast a war. Militaries and militias have skirmished virtually in Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Kenya, Somalia, and elsewhere. But the Israel-Palestine conflict is such a hot-button issue that it was easy for the IDF and Hamas to capture the world's attention. It also was the first time that actual physical hostilities were mirrored by cyber-social battles for hearts and minds.

Palestinians extinguish the fire that engulfed Ahmed Jabari's car after the airstrike. Mahmud Hams/Getty Images

Ramping up

The IDF's social media czar is a woman named Avital Leibovich. A sandy blonde with Romanesque facial features and an unmistakable Israeli accent, Leibovich is in charge of running a 35-person team to tweet, Facebook, blog, build apps, edit videos, snap Instagrams, and update Google+ posts for the Israeli military.

When the IDF fired up its interactive media branch in December 2009, it started with a few videos on YouTube. Nowadays, it manages nearly 30 platforms speaking six languages: Hebrew, Arabic, English, Spanish, French, and Russian.

"The reason we started this is because we realized there is a whole new field of media developing and we wanted to be relevant and effective and influence this field as well," Leibovich says. "The military is a closed organization, it doesn't share with other people -- it maybe uses harsh language. Here we are exactly the opposite, we are creative, we are open, we are interacting, and we are sharing. This is something very unique."

For more than 50 years, Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in a near-continuous conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. Both sides in this struggle over the same piece of land claim the right to defend themselves. It's a complicated story with multiple strands but there's one common theme: both sides vie constantly for the world's sympathy, and social media has become the latest tool they reach for.

As might be expected from tech-savvy Israel, one of the IDF's objectives in using social media is to explain the acute security challenges that the nation still faces even as global attention in the Middle East has shifted to Syria, Egypt, and Iran.

"We still have security threats," Leibovich says. "I do want to keep in mind the fact that we have two major terrorist organizations in our region, which are threatening our lives."

The IDF has published dozens of YouTube videos to highlight these security threats. There are grainy night videos that show rocket fire coming from the Gaza Strip into Israeli residential areas. A YouTube video uploaded in December -- titled "What Is It Like to Be Attacked By Rocks?"-- shows scenes of what look to be groups of teenage boys lobbing stones at people presumably out of sight down empty streets and breaking windows of passing cars in the countryside. Toward the end of the video it reads, "The media consider[sic] rock-throwing a harmless provocation," followed by a recording from inside a vehicle as the windshield is belted by a rock. "Do you still agree?" the video ends.

Ever since Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense, both the IDF and Hamas have continued to ramp up their social media presence and take stabs at each other virtually the same way they battle tit-for-tat on the ground. The IDF now probably has the biggest social media presence of any military worldwide. Compared with Israel's level of technological sophistication, the much smaller Hamas is far more modest in its social media coverage.

The IDF's Facebook account. Screenshot by Dara Kerr/CNET
The Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, did not agree to an interview, so its full social media plans are unclear. In the past, the group reportedly managed a Facebook page and YouTube channel, but these no longer exist. The armed group maintains an active blog in English and its biggest social media presence is on Twitter, where the sporadic tweets of more than a year ago have grown to a consistent daily dozen.

As of January 9, 2014, Al Qassam Brigades' main Twitter account in English was suspended. Twitter wouldn't say why it took this action, only that "we do not comment on individual accounts, for privacy and security reasons." Al Qassam Brigades appears to now be using an alternative account that was initially geared toward its Arabic-speaking audience.

The US government lists Hamas as a "Foreign Terrorist Organization," as does Canada and the European Union. This means that signing up for social media accounts from companies based in the US isn't so easy. Facebook and Twitter both declined interviews for this story.

It's unclear who removed Al Qassam Brigades reported YouTube account. But a company spokesperson said, "We remove videos that violate our Community Guidelines when flagged for our attention. In addition, we terminate any account known to be registered by a member of a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, and used in an official capacity to further its interests."

While Al Qassam Brigades' social media contributions are now more frequent, it seems the group's goal isn't about being the biggest or most prolific -- it's about being the loudest.

New weapon of war

The same day that the Israeli airstrike killed Jabari, the IDF uploaded three other videos to YouTube. Two of the videos were aerial black-and-white recordings revealing what it said were Hamas rocket sites. The final video, titled "How Does the IDF Minimize Harm to Palestinian Civilians in Gaza?", showed an animation with a voice-over saying, "Despite the fact that Hamas operates from civilian areas, the IDF has consistently taken measures to minimize casualties to innocent bystanders."

A Palestinian man walks through debris of the internal security ministry in Gaza City after it was targeted by an Israeli airstrike on November 21, 2012. Mahmud Hams/Getty Images
The IDF wanted to show the world that its armed operation in Gaza was justified, and sought to rally support. But wars are always messy, and despite the IDF's reported intention to minimize casualties, civilians suffered in the crossfire. According to the United Nations (pdf), an estimated 101 Palestinian civilians, including 33 children, were killed and between 900 and 1,500 were wounded during Operation Pillar of Defense. On the Israeli side, four civilians died and 219 were injured by Hamas rocket strikes.

Hamas also created its own version of the operation, aiming to show its military prowess and to highlight civilian deaths. On Twitter it posted dozens of graphic photos of dead and injured children, along with tweets such as "Israeli #IDF is still bombing Gaza with hundreds of tons of explosives, killing civilians, women and kids" and "Al Qassam Brigades bombed multiple #Israeli targets with 527 projectiles including 'Tel Aviv' since the start of operation."

Although the IDF and the Al Qassam Brigades have similar social media objectives, the way they go about achieving them is markedly different. The IDF creates an immense amount of information -- it produces 200 to 300 blog posts a month, it just celebrated its 10,000th tweet, and in the last four years it uploaded roughly 500 videos to YouTube -- to reach as many followers as possible.

Leibovich notes that the IDF's presence is growing constantly and could reach 95 million people worldwide. Its Twitter account has more than 230,000 followers and its Facebook page just crossed 380,000 likes -- and that's only in English. For comparison, the Al Qassam Brigade's Twitter account in English had about 40,000 followers before it was suspended.

Leibovich believes a successful social media campaign involves creating a buzz around the plethora of posts. "I believe we did create that buzz," she says, reflecting on Operation Pillar of Defense. "I believe the content was high quality, I believe the message was very clear, and it also went to the audience we aimed at."

On the other hand, the Al Qassam Brigades is looking to create images and posts that will go viral and trigger an emotional response -- hence the photos of dead children.

"Both what the IDF and Hamas are doing is primarily propaganda," says Andy Carvin, former senior social media strategist for NPR and author of "Distant Witness." "Of course there are going to be times when they state information that has facts in it, you know 'a rocket landed here,' 'a certain person was killed.' But, most of their efforts seem to be rallying patriotic or national support for their followers. Especially on the IDF account, you see them sharing photos of young, beautiful, proud-looking Israeli soldiers. They're definitely trying to hit a patriotic nerve on those who are supportive of Israel."

Photo of Israeli soldiers posted to the IDF's Instagram account. The Israel Defense Forces
In this zero-sum conflict, there's always the possibility that one side or another will take this too far, posting images that are too gruesome or videos that are over-the-top patriotic. But, Carvin points out, it actually doesn't matter that much because in this conflict particularly, most people's minds are already made up.

"There certainly have been times when I've seen the IDF Twitter account being jingoistic and the like. I think their critics will say, 'Of course they're doing that,' whereas their supporters are saying, 'Oh, you're just haters,'" Carvin says. "Even when you can make an argument that someone has made a PR mistake, I don't know if that's going to change the hearts and minds of people who already support you or already hate you. There aren't exactly undecided voters in this particular conflict."

"You'll have the IDF and Hamas getting their own followers through social media," he continues. "They're just part of a larger ecosystem of each side using social media as essentially a continuation of war by other means, by virtual means."

When social media goes rogue

In a sense, social networking is a form of brand management. But managing the message in wartime is more complicated than tweeting a customer testimonial on behalf of the newest smartphone. One aspect of social media is that it gives free reign to users; it's an open, lawless place where people can write, comment, and share whatever they please -- within a site's or service's terms of use. This can create problems for bosses, governments, and authorities. And the IDF is no exception to that rule.

Consider what happened after an Israeli soldier named Mor Ostrovski posted a photo on Instagram earlier this year. It was an image taken through the magnifying scope of a sniper rifle, the crosshairs placed on the head of what looked to be a Palestinian boy. Before being wiped from the photo-sharing site shortly after it was posted, the photo got 149 likes.

An embarrassed IDF called the posting of the photo "a severe incident" that failed to comport with the army's values and said the soldier's commanding officers would carry out an investigation. But this was not a one-off. Facing risks reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the IDF has scrambled to respond to other incidents involving soldiers posting videos to YouTube and photos to Facebook showing abuse toward Palestinians.

"If the Israeli army is saying we are a wonderful moral army that does our best to protect civilians, but on the other hand you have Israeli soldiers Facebooking that they want to burn tents full of Palestinian children, that's really off message," says Ali Abunimah, co-founder of the online publication about Palestine, Electronic Intifada.

In June, the IDF issued new restrictions on the use of social networks by soldiers and officers. The military said that it made this decision to protect sensitive strategic information -- there was no mention of the soldiers' cases on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

Infographic created by the IDF during Operation Pillar of Defense. The Israel Defense Forces
A couple of months later, the office of Israel's prime minister announced that it was hiring university students to post pro-government messages and comments on various social networking sites -- a program in which the students would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to disclose they were working for the government.

That would fit a familiar narrative involving Israelis and Palestinians where each side is always keen to foster impressions of support from the general public, as well as a sense of nationalism. Indeed, Abunimah says he has seen a significant increase in the Israeli government and Hamas using social media this way.

"I think an important part of the story is the stuff they don't do in their own name," Abunimah says. "One of the most notable developments is the surreptitious use of social media, particularly by Israel -- comment farming and paying students to post favorable propaganda."

While it's unclear whether Hamas is paying people to write positive comments online, the group does employ tactics of its own to garner public support -- in particular, doctored images or old photos taken out of context. During Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense, the Al Qassam Brigades tweeted a photo of a weeping man with bloodstained pants standing in a hospital waiting room holding what appeared to be the lifeless body of a young boy. Within hours it was discovered this photo was actually taken in Syria months earlier. The photo was removed, but Hamas has continued to be dogged by accusations that it manipulates images.

An Al Qassam Brigades tweet in December 2013 after the IDF claimed to have successfully targeted Hamas in Gaza. Screenshot by Dara Kerr/CNET
"One of the big challenges for me dealing with digital media is the rumors and falsehoods," Leibovich says. "We have to be constantly aware, monitor the Web sites and the different platforms and make sure any such rumor would be immediately discovered. We have to do it within a couple of minutes because otherwise it can virally spread and it will be a totally different situation."

Debunking false photos on social media these days is fairly simple because of crowdsourcing information from followers and new tools like Google image search and TinEye, which can quickly fact-check where a picture came from and determine if modified versions exist. In the case of Hamas and the IDF, any bogus images will most likely get called out because so many people worldwide scrutinize their accounts.

"One thing that seems rather interesting with Hamas getting caught is they don't really seem to care," Carvin says. "From their perspective, it probably doesn't matter that much because it's spread out among people that they want to influence and have an emotional response to it. That's part of the nature of propaganda, people use whatever tools they have available to them in order to persuade the public to support their side, and so using photos that may be out of context suggest yet another tool in any propagandist's toolkit."

An Israeli tank maneuvers at an army deployment area near the Israel-Gaza Strip border on November 22, 2012, a day after the cease fire between Israel and Hamas was declared. Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

Leveling the playing field

As the gunfire quieted down after a truce was called on November 21, 2012, during Operation Pillar of Defense, it was clear that the protagonists had become hooked on the new ways to take jabs at each other. While the drone strikes and rocket attacks slowed, both the IDF and Hamas stayed the course in their stepped up cyber-social war.

"#Israel's army has raised the White Flag in front of Hamas's armed wing," the Al Qassam Brigades boasted on Twitter. The IDF meanwhile wrote a blog post warning that "The IDF is determined to continue targeting sites that are used to carry out terror attacks against Israel and its citizens."

At the same time, something curious and unexpected emerged from the eight-day conflict. Along with the expanded social media presence of the armed groups, the voices of regular people were being heard louder than before. They, too, were documenting the ground battle blow by blow.

"Basically every potential player in the conflict," Carvin notes, "from individuals in the grassroots to NGOs all the way up to governments and para-government organizations, now has a stake in the game in which they can potentially influence the public."

During the operation, these groups were out there filming, documenting, and disseminating footage. One tweet that got attention during the operation was posted by Palestinian blogger Rana Baker. She simply uploaded an audio file to Twitter of the sound of drones circling overhead and said, "#Gaza at this moment: Loudest drone buzzing since Wednesday now recorded."

It was a real-world example of mainstreaming social media -- especially in a situation where these platforms help level the playing field.

"It's a very equalizing platform, it's my voice and your voice, and the Prime Minister's voice," Orit Perlov, a social media analyst for the Israeli-based Institute for National Security Studies, says of Twitter. "Each one of us has 140 characters no matter what. So it's a very democratic platform. It doesn't matter if you're black, white, left-wing, right-wing, your voice is the same."

Thus propaganda has confronted the democratizing power of social media head on. Even though the IDF and Hamas carefully select what type of information to post, it's increasingly difficult to hide incidents they don't want known. So many people carry smartphones -- where anything can be recorded at any time -- it's become much harder for armed groups to keep confrontations under the radar.

"Ten years ago, this technology was only in the hands of the army or the state," Perlov says. "Today, each one of us has in our pockets this technology. Today, in the Middle East, you have more people with Internet and computers than people who have cars. It's like a viral tsunami, and we still don't yet know the effect it will create."