Operation Pillar of Defense: Israel Battles Hamas for Information Control
During Israel’s OPERATION PILLAR OF DEFENSE last November, @IDFSpokesperson hit “Send,” and the old merged with the new. New was the just-sent tweet, in a war that was announced over Twitter. Old was the image the message contained: a leaflet the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had just dropped over Gaza.
The IDF’s primary goal in the operation was to eliminate the threat of rockets being launched from the Gaza Strip against Israel. Using old and new media platforms, the IDF’s information operations (IO) sought to disrupt Hamas’ IO, to warn and / or intimidate, and influence public opinion. The first three elements focused on Hamas and the residents of Gaza. The final goal included not only them but public opinion world-wide.
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Disruption of an enemy’s IO can take many forms. A very effective one is to deny him a platform to get his message out. Television is by far the primary news source in Gaza, and Hamas has its own television station, Al-Aqsa TV, as well as an FM station, Al Quds Radio. Jamming or deliberate interference with a station’s signal is one means of denying the enemy an outlet, and Arab media reported some jamming of FM stations in Gaza during the conflict. Al-Aqsa anticipated they might be jammed and announced an alternative channel viewers should tune to if they could not receive Al-Aqsa on its usual channel.
But jamming is a blunt tool that prevents any message from going out. In the void jamming creates, however, there is an opportunity to influence an audience accustomed to tuning in. After Israeli air strikes knocked the program feeds of both Al-Aqsa and Al Quds off of the air, the IDF played its own programming over the frequencies of both stations.
Some of the messages broadcast by the IDF warned Palestinians to stay away from Hamas facilities so that they would not be hurt in any ensuing air strikes. The above-mentioned leaflet carried the same message. The IDF also warned Palestinians via SMS text messages.
Some of the same media platforms were used to intimidate. Graphic images were transmitted over Al-Aqsa by the IDF to make Palestinians think twice about resisting. Others showed pictures of IDF tanks and jet fighters in action. An IDF tweet told “Hamas operatives” to not “show their faces above ground.” The IDF posted a YouTube video of the airstrike that killed Ahmed Jabari, the leader of Hamas’ military, and issued an easy-to-share electronic poster touting his death.
The IDF also sought to influence world public opinion. In addition to using familiar tools such as press releases and interviews there was also an emphasis on new outlets, with an IDF team focused on social media. The tweet marking the opening of the campaign went out in English and was clearly intended for Western consumption. Twitter accounts in French and Spanish were added during the conflict. The IDF used Facebook and seemingly every other social media platform, such as Tumblr. Israel also encouraged Israeli civilians to use social media to describe living under the Hamas rocket attacks.
The IDF did not neglect the Arabic language, the primary language of the Gaza Strip. While Arabic leaflet drops were clearly intended for Gaza alone, the use of other platforms with a global reach meant that the messages over these outlets were for influencing Arabic speakers everywhere. For instance, the IDF’s Arabic Facebook page has a link to its French Facebook page, in recognition of North African Arabs who are more comfortable using French than Arabic.
On the other side of the conflict, Hamas also used tools such as Twitter, and there were reports that the program feeds to two Israeli television channels were briefly interfered with. Volunteers also rallied to present Hamas’ version of events via social media.
But the asymmetry between the two sides in IO capability is as pronounced as the differences in their military capability. Hamas’ IO was clearly disrupted, and losing control of platforms such as Al-Aqsa and Al Quds was a disaster. But with the Gaza Strip utterly dependent upon Israel for electricity, the Internet, telecommunications, and international media access, disrupting Hamas’ IO is a pretty easy objective for the IDF, which could quickly and effectively shut down any Hamas IO campaign that started to show success.
Determining the effectiveness of these campaigns is very difficult. True Measures of Effectiveness (MOE) are very hard to come by. The IDF has little idea of how many of the leaflets it dropped were read or how many people were listening when they broadcast on Al Quds Radio. The IDF can intercept Gaza’s Internet and telecommunications traffic, and monitoring these communications might give some indications of the effectiveness of the IDF’s IO, but attributing success to a particular IO platform or type of message is much more of an art than a science. For Hamas to measure its own IO success would be even more difficult; it faces the same difficulties the IDF does and does not have any systemic monitoring of Israeli communications.
Some of the newer media offer an advantage in providing some feedback on audience size. @IDFSpokesperson in English added tens of thousands of Twitter followers during PILLAR OF DEFENSE. But in the absence of opinion surveys before and after, it simply indicates the size of their current audience. @IDFSpokesperson appears to agree, stating on his Twitter page, “following does not constitute endorsement.”
Any IO message needs to reach the intended recipient to have a chance of success. Ideally, the message will be received unfiltered and unaltered, but gatekeepers interfere with this process, and they have many forms. For instance, the IDF and Hamas can make themselves available to foreign media, but that media will determine if and how their message is presented. Jamming is another form of gatekeeping.
Using social media for IO does not eliminate gatekeeping, it simply changes the gatekeepers. The IDF and Hamas will only be able to use Twitter as long as Twitter—or another gatekeeper who has power over Twitter—allows them to do so. The BBC pointed out that both sides were violating Twitter’s rules regarding threats. Some members of the U.S. Congress have asked the FBI to shutdown Hamas’ Twitter account.
PILLAR OF DEFENSE used a lot of media platforms, some of them quite new, but as much buzz as the new platforms generated, new tools do not change the fundamentals: 1) disrupt the enemy’s IO; 2) get your message out while minimizing gatekeepers; 3) measure its effectiveness.
In a perfect world, social media would never be used for threats or depicting violence. There were similar hopes for television and radio when those media were new. But threats via social media preceded PILLAR OF DEFENSE, and they will continue to be part of the brave new cyberworld.
About the Author
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Southwest Florida.