References to Mean Girls and Jay-Z are designed to humanise an army known for lethal force in the region. And it is workingby Daniella Peled / October 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the bakery chain Greggs was the social media champion of 2019, with its genius marketing of the vegan sausage roll and expert trolling of Piers Morgan. But there are other contenders for the “most unlikely organisation to win the internet” award.
Take the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the best-trained and most capable army in the Middle East, feared for lethal and often disproportionate force, with the odd accusation of war crimes thrown in. And more recently, their Twitter snark.
Just last week, for instance, the IDF Photoshopped Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah into a Mean Girls scene alongside Lindsay Lohan. “There’s no one meaner than the mean girls of the Middle East,” ran the caption.
In something of a theme, there was also the mock-up of an online chat between Nasrallah and regional chums in which the Hezbollah chief is peeved they have forgotten his birthday. “Happy Bday, bunker boy!” replies Bashar al-Assad, while Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds brigade, sends a hilarious GIF.
Then there was Iran Against Humanity, the IDF’s take on the card game, featuring riffs such as: “In addition to hiding weapons in Lebanese homes, Iranian proxy Hezbollah has also been hiding the fact that it secretly likes to…”
As well as the usual infographics of attacks and images of Israeli homes destroyed in missile strikes, the posts also make much play of the ultimate IDF cliché: young, attractive women in combat uniform holding large guns. And then there’s the cuddly stuff—deaf soldiers singing the national anthem in sign language, officers building Lego with cancer-stricken kids in their spare time.
“I think the IDF is like Marmite on Twitter, a very strong and globally recognisable brand that people either love or hate,” said David Patrikarakos, author of War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. But either way, it “is now a household name in its sphere and without [the IDF], political and military Twitter would be a totally different place—especially in times of conflict,” he told me.
To an Israeli audience, the IDF celebrating the 25th anniversary of the sitcom Friends with grinning soldiers replacing Monica et al in the iconic opening credits doesn’t seem particularly weird. The IDF, after all, is an army of the nation’s children, with most Jewish 18-year-olds obliged to serve, and is consistently voted the nation’s most trusted institution. Getting the rest of the world to view it—and thus the Jewish state—as a friendly force for good might be a little trickier.
Israel is not very good at soft power, preferring overwhelming military deterrence. The IDF’s earlier approach to social media warfare demonstrated this, for instance its live-tweeting of the assassination of Hamas militant Ahmed Jabari in 2012.
But at the same time Israel has long been obsessed with the idea of hasbara, a concept roughly translated as “explaining,” but less charitably seen as propaganda. The idea, as Israel sees it, is that if they just explain to the outside world what they face—an overwhelmingly hostile region, with enemy neighbours and terror groups sworn to their destruction—then all this hostility might just go away.
Social media with its sassy tweets and cool content takes this to the next level. The IDF game is to humanise its institution abroad and sway public opinion in its favour. It helps to have a million followers and not an inconsiderable number of online ambassadors.
“People inside the unit have told me that it divides up its audience,” said Patrikarakos. “There are its supporters, for whom the feed is a source of information, especially in times of war, when it becomes a resource for many supporters who independently want to fight Israel’s cause on social media. So it provides people with the necessary content for things like that. Then there are the implacable haters it knows it will never reach so it ensures there is a counter narrative to what these people are putting out. And finally, it tries to reach the ‘undecideds,’ and make them aware of what it believes are the rightness of its arguments.”
From an organisational point of view, this is also wonderfully easy to monitor. The number of retweets and shares can be logged and tidied up into lovely little spreadsheets.
So the IDF can celebrate reaching a million followers on Twitter (which it did with a pastiche of a Jay-Z song, tweeting “We got 99 problems but 1 million followers on @Twitter ain’t one”).
The concrete impact is harder to quantify, but also less important. For Israel, it does make a certain sense in a situation of prolonged conflict where no one is seriously working towards a peaceful resolution—who still talks about a two-state solution?—to focus on winning the social media war instead.