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Israeli army, Hamas military tap power of social media

Originally published on USA Today.

When the Israeli Defense Forces first announced it had killed top Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari last week, Twitter was its medium of choice. Using the Twitter handle @IDFspokesperson, the IDF communications tweeted a photo of Jabari with the word "Eliminated" stamped across his face, along with a list of his alleged offenses.

The IDF also uploaded a video of the attack that killed him to YouTube. Video released by the Israeli Defense Force shows claims to show air strikes against Hamas targets. In response, Hamas' military wing — Twitter handle @AlqassamBrigade — tweeted: "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."

As the conflict in Gaza intensifies and claims more lives, a new front has opened up: Both sides are now battling it out in social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook in an intense public relations offensive. In addition to Facebook and Twitter accounts, the IDF is also on Tumblr and Pinterest, posting photos of the military operation and of day-to-day army life. The Israeli military also is streaming images from drone cameras to Twitter posts.

In return, Hamas has been offering frequent updates on its mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli targets, apparently including military bases. Grass-roots activists are using social media to keep Palestinians up to date, said Maath Musleh, lecturer in media and human rights at AlQuds-Bard College in Jerusalem.

"The Israeli army cannot manipulate information and the imparting of information as easily as they used to," he said. "In terms of getting information out, the Palestinian network, especially on Twitter, is doing a great job. We are covering the events through people on the ground and trusted media sources." The Israeli strategy marks a departure from previous conflicts with Palestinian territories and is in large part down to negative response to how they have handled the media in the past, experts say.

In 2008-09's Operation Cast Lead, the IDF banned journalists from entering Gaza. Rather, the IDF set up a YouTube channel inform reporters, a move that dissatisfied many journalists who wanted to see the action for themselves and gave rise to criticism that the IDF was interfering with news coverage. More complaints came from the news media in 2010 when Israeli commandos boarded a ship from Turkey to prevent it from running a sea blockage of Gaza. Nine people were killed, and survivors on board told journalists the victims were peaceful activists who were killed by the Israelis.

The IDF denied the accusation, but it took hours before it released video of the event that showed the commandos were attacked as they boarded the ship. In the hours it took the IDF to release the video, speculation led to widely varying reports both on the sequence of events and number of casualties. "Since then, the IDF has invested heavily in its social media operation," said Rebecca Stein, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who has studied the IDF's use of social media.

"It has realized it has to talk in the vernacular of social media – its output is more polished," she says. Philip Howard, a fellow at Princeton University who specializes in social media and political Islam, said it is likely it is likely that Israel's tweets before the initial airstrikes were first time an army has provided advance warning of an attack using social media.

"There are examples of military officers blogging or posting things that enemy governments dislike," he said. "But this was no slip-up; there was a deliberate strategy to 'get ahead' of social media by tweeting in advance."

He said media positioning plays almost as important a role in modern conflicts as positioning the troops. "The IDF's communications people probably thought they could get some strategic advantage by being the first to tweet about activities," he said.

"The pictures and stories coming out of Gaza over social media will probably have a more global impact because they may be seen to be the victims. So the IDF probably thought they could dominate the international news story, set the tone and frame events by tweeting first."

This time around, journalists are allowed to enter Gaza. A 24-hour government press office has been set up to issue press cards to reporters. The Israeli government has streamlined its information gathering from the battlefield to regular news conferences. Media tours have been organized by the Government Press Office to the locations of rocket attacks from Gaza.

The operation's coverage inside Israel differs greatly from its coverage abroad. Even the operation's name, "Pillar of Cloud" in Hebrew, was translated by the Israeli army as "Pillar of Defense" for the English-language media. "Pillar of Cloud" is a biblical reference to God taking the form of a cloud to protect the Israelites against the Egyptians.

Despite the apparent smoothness of the Israeli media operation, it is a strategy that could backfire. On Monday, the hackers group Anonymous said it hacked into 87 Israeli websites in response to threats by the government to cut Gaza's telecommunications links.

"We are ANONYMOUS and NO ONE shuts down the Internet on our watch," the group said in a post on its website. The group threatened the Israeli government with the "full and unbridled wrath of Anonymous" if it shuts down Internet access in Gaza.

Originally published on USA Today.

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