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Operation Protective Edge: Social media observations

Operation Protective Edge: Social media observations

State actors have lagged non-state opponent use of media in recent decades. Such proficiency in the realm of traditionalmedia pales in comparison to recent circles run around state efforts in the social media arena, the recruiting success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) providing a prime example. Observations from Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge (OPE) suggest a number of lessons relevant to any in government – Defence or otherwise –seeking to redress the imbalance.

Backdrop: Israel confronted all-too-familiar challenges during OPE, short-range urban engagements and a steady beat of mortar, rocket, and missile fire from the Gaza Strip among them. The country’s soldiers also found themselves facing old problems given new twists by their adversaries, a prime example being a plethora of concrete-lined subterranean facilities that twisted beneath Gazan neighborhoods and the country’s border with the Strip. These hides and tunnels sometimes contained Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniforms and motorbikes to support kidnap raids into Israel proper. Difficult as these challenges were, the IDF could generally dominate the physical battlefield at times and places of their choosing. The same was not true in the social media sphere.

There will be environments in which the Australian Army will find television, radio, newspapers, leaflet distribution, and other traditional means of interacting with populations effective. Increasingly, however, it will be the smartphone, chosen means of communication in Asia-Pacific region, that will serve as the key means of reaching out to select audiences. An early 2014 Nielsen report estimated smartphone penetration in Indonesia at 23 per cent, Thailand 49 per cent, and Malaysia 80 per cent (the last exceeding Australia’s 75 per cent). The percentages may differ; the trends do not. The technology’s use is growing, often rapidly.

Insights from social media use during Operation Protective Edge: Hamas, Israel’s primary adversary in 2014 Gaza, capitalised on social media to plead its case with its own population, sympathisers in the broader Arabic-speaking world and beyond, and even among Israel’s citizenry.  Hashtags such as #GazaUnderAttack, #PrayFor Gaza, and #StopIsrael were among those highlighting Palestinian civilian suffering. That outside sources later reported images appearing on some came from previous conflicts mattered little. The damage was done from Israel’s perspective; immediate impact rather than factual information carried the day.1

Al-Qassam, the military branch of Hamas, posted to Arabic, Hebrew, and English-language social media sites. The IDF’s Spokesperson’s Office did so in six languages on six platforms. Seeking to limit itself to the truth, the IDF was further handicapped by its government affiliation, a government for which sympathy varies greatly worldwide. In contrast, Hamas’s portrayal of Gazans as victims helped to create social media rock stars such as sixteen-year old Farah Baker. Tweeting under the name Farah Gazan, the teenager had over 200,000 followers by OPE’s termination, transfixing her audience with messages such as ‘I can’t stop crying. I might die tonight’. While Baker appears to have been legitimate, the nature of social media platforms is such that it is possible to fabricate both personalities and their experiences for propaganda use. It takes but a moment’s consideration to realise the magnitude of the potential challenge for the ADF (and Australian government more broadly) given Pacific region youth bulges and the fact that those in such age groups are likely to rely on smartphones as a primary means of social intercourse.2

Israel’s cause found support from that same demographic, young members of its population voluntarily gathering together to promote Israeli operations. The at best semi-controlled character of these efforts points to a prime difficulty for governments seeking to compete in the social media sphere when the civilian community – invited or not – chooses to participate. The individuals most adroit at social media interaction are often the antithesis of the disciplined soldier. Some among the above-noted volunteers released the names of IDF casualties, including those wounded as killed. Fellow users subsequently called for any receiving such traffic to condemn those posting it while refusing to forward the offending messages. Governments finding themselves working with such challenges might consider developing ‘crowd policing’ guidelines prior to such incidents.

Yet there is fruit among these thorns. Monitoring Gazan social media allowed the IDF to collect valuable propaganda and situational awareness material. Having monitored Gazans’ complaints regarding Hamas theft of humanitarian food stocks, an IDF drone tracked a delivery vehicle and videotaped the supplies’ abduction for posting on social media platforms. Similarly, monitoring social media feeds from identified areas of interest allowed near real-time monitoring of events and the instant collection of information that would have taken hours to assemble via site inspections and interviews.

Concluding thoughts: Influence operations are a realm of 21st century state competition no less than combat. Yet differences between development of combat capabilities and those in the social media realm are dramatic. Decades may pass between conceptualisation and fielding of a new tank, helicopter, or ship. In comparison, introduction of new social media platforms and innovations within those platforms are the work of but months, sometimes less. Monitoring the social media arena and cultivating the skills needed to compete therein are sure to prove key during future challenges to Australia’s national security.

1 This does not imply Israeli sources were free of fault in this regard, e.g., IDF reports regarding a Palestinian attack by frogmen on an Israeli tank failed to mention that one attacker succeeded in mounting the vehicle, emplacing an explosive charge thereon, and escaping unharmed. The explosive was found to be too small to cause significant damage.

2The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), for example, reports that across the Pacific region those between the ages of 15 and 24 account for a third of the working age population (defined as individuals between 15 and 59 years of age). “The State of Pacific Youth 2011: Opportunities and Obstacles,” UNICEF, 2011, 9. Another source estimates that the percentage of 18-24 year-olds owning a smart phone worldwide is 54 per cent.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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