JERUSALEM, March 22 (AP) — Days into Israel’s devastating 2021 war with militants in Gaza, the Israeli army has begun deploying keyboard fighters to a second front: A covert social media operation to Applauded the army’s bombing campaign in the coastal enclave.
The Israeli military admitted on Wednesday that it had made a “mistake” in launching a covert influence campaign on social media aimed at improving Israeli public perception of Israel’s performance in the conflict.
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The online campaign, which has failed to gain traction, is one of several controversial steps the Israeli military has taken in its bloody 11-day war.
The army bombed Hamas-ruled territory and Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel, killing more than 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
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Israel’s Haaretz newspaper first exposed the social media operation on Wednesday, reporting that the military used fake accounts to obscure the campaign’s origins and reach viewers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
While the Israeli military routinely uses inauthentic social media accounts to gather intelligence on Arab states and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, this marks the first time a military influence campaign has targeted Israeli citizens, experts said.
Uri Kol, an expert on digital campaigns, said the news could suggest the military has secretly used such tactics against Israelis before.
“Because of the military’s strict censorship laws, the military always has the final say on what is and isn’t released,” he said.
“What we’re seeing here is a tiny aspect of online manipulation that we haven’t seen before.”
The accounts posted and amplified footage and images of the devastation in Gaza with the Hebrew hashtag “Gaza Regrets” — bragging about the strength of the Israeli army against a viral image showing a salvo of Palestinian rockets bombing Tel Aviv.
The accounts target right-wing Israelis, tagging popular conservative TV hosts and politicians such as the current minister of national security, Itamar bin Gvir, and posting in groups of supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , with the goal of disseminating information to a sympathetic audience.
A popular post with the hashtag Gaza Regrets drew belligerent comments from Israelis, such as “Why are buildings still standing in Gaza?”
“It shows that the mentality of the military is that it wants to reassure young people and get them to fight,” Kerr said.
The Israeli military acknowledged that it also coordinated the campaign with bona fide social media influencers, feeding them images and hashtags to promote the army’s achievements and demonstrate the devastation it has wrought in Gaza.
But the efforts of the whole army were in vain.
According to Ha’aretz, the hashtag failed to reach viewers, receiving few likes and shares.
Successful online influence campaigns using false identities take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain the trust of followers, experts say.
The Israeli military acknowledged in a statement that it used a “limited number” of fake accounts throughout the day “to increase exposure”.
“In retrospect, it turns out that the use of these accounts was a mistake,” the military said, adding that the tactic had not been employed since the war. It claims it reached out to social media influencers who joined the operation in their official capacity as a spokesman for the military unit.
It added that the Israeli military is “committed to the truth and insists on reliable and accurate reporting wherever possible”.
The military spokesman’s office has long played a key role in defending Israel’s military actions in international opinion.
But its relationship with the media has sometimes been strained and its tactics have been criticized, including during the 2021 war, when it was accused of spreading misleading reports among foreign journalists. The reports suggest a ground incursion is underway in an attempt to lure Hamas militants into deadly traps. Some journalists were told directly that the invasion had begun. The military blamed “internal miscommunication” for the incident.
Israel’s actions in the war further heightened tensions and outraged the international media when Israeli air strikes on a high-rise building that housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza were evacuated within an hour. The military claimed the building was home to Hamas armed infrastructure, but provided no evidence.
Last year, Israel’s handling of the shooting death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a senior journalist for Al Jazeera, became the latest flashpoint in the military’s relationship with journalists.
After initially suggesting she may have been killed by a Palestinian gunman, the Israeli military later admitted an Israeli soldier may have shot her and shirked responsibility.
The military described the shooting as a mistake in an exchange of fire with Palestinian militants, but provided no evidence.
The ambiguous conclusion drew strong condemnation from Palestinians and press freedom groups, who pointed to the fact that Abu Akleh was apparently a journalist and that the area seemed quiet at the time. (Associated Press)
(This is an unedited and auto-generated story from a Syndicated News feed, the content body may not have been modified or edited by LatestLY staff)