Israel using orchestrated social media strategy that mirrors Ukraine playbook

Experts tell The National that Israel has learnt from how Ukraine was able to get its message out

A video posted on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs' YouTube channel compares Hamas and ISIS. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs / YouTube
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Israel is the first country to use paid social media advertising to amplify its message during wartime, a move influenced by images from Ukraine, experts told The National.

Soon after Hamas attacked Israel, killed 1,400 people and took more than 200 hostages, the Israeli government flooded social media to express its outrage and highlight the plight of those taken captive.

The Israelis have been influenced by the way Ukraine was able to share powerful images of the Russian invasion to win support for its cause from the public and politicians alike.

In one video produced by Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the words “Hamas = ISIS” are placed over a picture of Israeli hostage Mia Schem and Kayla Mueller, who was kidnapped by ISIS in 2013.

The voice of the captive asking to be released from Hamas captivity fades into that of Ms Mueller, who pleads for efforts to be made to secure her freedom.

The video leaves the viewer with no doubt about how the country regards its enemy and is part of a co-ordinated social media campaign, which has included paid-for adverts, to get its message out to the world.

Another video begins in the manner of a children’s cartoon with horses and unicorns dancing over a rainbow background, before the words “40 infants were murdered in Israel”.

Other footage shows the mother of Israeli hostage Romi Gonen making an emotional appeal for her daughter's release from Hamas captivity.

The videos have regularly appeared on YouTube and other social media channels since the Hamas raids.

Meanwhile, Hamas has circulated videos of its preparations and graphic footage taken from its fighters' body cameras during their rampage.

Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The National that Israel is building on how Ukraine was able to use social media in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.

Following Ukraine's lead

“I think that early Israeli communications absolutely looked to Ukraine as an example,” said Mr Brooking, the co-author of Likewar: The Weaponisation of Social Media.

“If we think back to that conflict, many Americans and Europeans in positions of authority were hesitant to take many steps to support Ukraine but changed overnight.

“And it changed, I think, not just because of the material reality that Russia had invaded the country, but that there were so many shocking images.

“Russian tanks in the streets of Ukrainian cities and Ukrainian civilians in bomb shelters. Evocative and visceral imagery absolutely moves policy, so I think Israel has looked to the Ukrainian example for that reason.”

But he said he believes Israel is breaking new ground in the information battle being waged on social media with the use of paid advertising.

There is really nothing on this same scale and intensity that's been so deliberately targeted at western audiences early in a conflict
Emerson Brooking

“I’ve really been racking my brain over this question and as best I can tell this is the first time that a nation has deliberately bought online advertising, to support and justify its military actions,” he said.

“There is really nothing on this same scale and intensity that's been so deliberately targeted at western audiences early in a conflict.”

Mr Brooking says he has been studying the Israeli military’s communication strategy for more than a decade and it was quick to realise the importance of social media.

Israel has overtly used US volunteers to push its messages on social media and has not resorted to the covert methods used by Russia to target foreign citizens, he said.

In a campaign that was exposed by Israeli media earlier this year, the country’s military used fake accounts to engage its own citizens and engage audiences on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Mr Brooking said messages posted in Hebrew on Instagram were most likely not the work of official activity.

Powerful images

“I would just note that, especially in times of war, a range of people who want to feel like they're participating in some way can start different sorts of online influence efforts.

“Sometimes things can be attributed to a state actor, when in fact it is actually a group of patriotic volunteers.”

Mr Brooking said that in a “deeply international conflict” such as the current conflict, the military campaign “extends on to the internet and on social media because that’s where the battle for hearts and minds is waged”.

“So this stuff really does matter and I think it matters, especially after October 7, because many policymakers now use social media directly.

“Many American politicians woke up on that Saturday and they were on X directly viewing the images of the Hamas terror attack and the dead civilians.

“I think that almost certainly created a sense of immediacy, which drove such rapid policy statements in support of Israel.”

Militaries around the world will have studied both the war in Ukraine and the current conflict and decided to target an enemy’s access to the internet to prevent them from using social media messages in the propaganda war.

“Militaries have long understood you target communications early in a conflict basically because they limit their operational co-ordination.

“But now they know, if you targeted internet communications you can limit how much international support they can wrap up.”

The National has contacted Israeli officials for comment. Israel’s mission to the EU told Politico that while graphic images were not part of its culture, “war is not only on the ground”.

Colin Alexander, a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University, described Israel’s social media campaign as being “rather clunky and the content is a clear example of propaganda”.

Dr Alexander also questioned whether the directness of the campaign would be effective in winning over opinion “such is the obviousness of the message”.

“The highest art in propaganda is the communication's appearance as a work of impartiality, but which leads to the target audience's wholehearted adoption of the position desired by the propagandist.

“This is why behavioural science – nudging – product placement and celebrity association are much more effective tools.”

Dr Alexander “absolutely” agrees that Israel has learnt from Ukraine.

“The slickness of Ukraine and Zelenskyy in cyberspace will be something that others want to emulate,” he said.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 3:21 PM