Israeli army admits to covert influence campaign in Gaza war

Isabel Debre

AP  /  March 22, 2023

JERUSALEM – Days into Israel’s devastating war with Gaza militants in 2021, the Israeli army began deploying keyboard warriors to a second front: a covert social media operation to praise the military’s bombing campaign in the coastal enclave.

The Israeli military acknowledged Wednesday that it made a “mistake” in launching the secretive influence campaign on social media in an effort to improve the Israeli public’s view of Israel’s performance in the conflict.

The online campaign, which failed to gain traction, was one of several contentious steps taken by the Israeli military in the bloody 11-day war. The fighting killed over 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis as the military bombed the Hamas-ruled territory and Palestinian militants launched rockets at Israel.

Israel’s Haaretz daily first exposed the social media operation on Wednesday, reporting that the army employed fake accounts to conceal the campaign’s origin and engage audiences on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Experts say that although the Israeli military has frequently employed inauthentic social media accounts to gather intelligence on Arab states and on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, this marks the first known time that a military influence campaign has targeted Israeli citizens.

Uri Kol, a digital campaign expert, said the revelation could hint that the army has employed the tactic secretively against Israelis before.

“With the military’s tight censorship laws, the army always has the last word in what gets published and what doesn’t,” he said. “What we see here is a tiny facet of an online manipulation campaign that we haven’t ever seen before.”

The accounts posted and amplified footage and images of destruction in Gaza with the Hebrew hashtag “Gaza Regrets” — boasting about the strength of Israel’s military in a bid to counter viral images showing salvos of Palestinian rockets bombarding Tel Aviv.

The accounts targeted right-wing Israelis, tagging popular conservative TV hosts and politicians like current National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and posting in groups of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters with the aim of spreading the message to sympathetic audiences. Popular posts with the Gaza Regrets hashtag drew bellicose comments from Israelis, like “Why are buildings still standing in Gaza?”

“It shows the army’s frame of mind that it wants to reassure young people and get them pumped up for war,” Kol said.

The Israeli military conceded that it also coordinated the campaign with real social media influencers, providing them with images and hashtags to talk up the military’s achievements and showcase the damage it inflicted on Gaza.

But all the army’s efforts came to naught. The hashtag failed to leverage audiences, garnering few if any likes and shares, Haaretz reported. Successful online influence campaigns using false identities take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain followers’ trust, experts say.

In a statement, the Israeli military admitted that it used “a limited number” of fake accounts over the course of a day “in order to increase exposure.”

“In retrospect, it was found that the use of these accounts was a mistake,” the military said, saying it has not employed the tactic since the war. It claimed it approached social media influencers who joined the operation in an official capacity as the military’s spokesperson’s unit.

The Israeli military “is committed to the truth and adheres to reliable and accurate reports as much as possible,” it added.

The army spokesman’s office has long played a key role in defending Israel’s military actions in the international court of opinion.

But its relationship with the media has been strained at times, and its tactics have come under criticism, including during the 2021 war, when it was accused of circulating misleading reports among foreign journalists. Those reports suggested that a ground invasion was under way in an attempt to lure Hamas militants into a deadly trap. Some reporters were told outright an invasion had begun. The military blamed the incident on “internal miscommunication.”

Israel’s conduct in the war further inflamed tensions and angered international media when an Israeli airstrike levelled a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera offices in Gaza after giving those inside an hour to evacuate. The military claimed the building housed Hamas militant infrastructure but has provided no evidence.

Israel’s handling of the shooting death last year of a veteran Al-Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, became the latest flash point in relations between the military and reporters.

After initially suggesting she might have been killed by a Palestinian gunman, the Israeli military later admitted an Israeli soldier likely shot her and absolved itself of responsibility.

The military portrayed the shooting as a mistake during a firefight with Palestinian militants, without offering evidence.

The equivocal conclusion drew sharp condemnation from Palestinians and press freedom groups, who noted that Abu Akleh was clearly identified as a reporter and the area appeared to be quiet at the time.