The ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, which is in frantic peace talks at press time, is one of the first conflicts in which both sides have taken to social media to shape the war’s public narrative. Fast Company recently had the opportunity to speak with Captain Eytan Buchman of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) Spokesperson’s Unit. Buchman is the Israeli military’s main representative to the North America press. Born in Chicago, Buchman emigrated to Israel with his family as a teenager.
For both the Israeli military and Hamas, social media has served as a forum in which to publicize victories, engage critics, shape public perception of the conflict, and to influence public opinion. The interview with Buchman below was conducted by phone on Monday, November 19.
FAST COMPANY: Can you run us through what the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit does, and how it operates on social media. Do you have a dedicated social media staff, and has your social media strategy changed during the Gaza conflict?
EYTAN BUCHMAN: The IDF’s Spokesperson’s Unit has four primary branches that interface with the world outside the army. The first branch deals exclusively with local and domestic media (in Israel), and we have one branch that deals with the foreign press–until a couple of months ago, this included a new media or interactive media branch within it.
We also have a fourth branch that deals mostly with community outreach. This means Jews in the diaspora, visiting Congressmen who come out to Israel every once in a while, and anyone that doesn’t really fall under the category of media or interactive media.
I am the head of the North America media desk, inside the foreign press branch. I have worked directly under Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich, who at the time was both head of the foreign press and head of the new interactive media branch. The new media branch developed almost ad-hoc inside the military.
I’ll skip ahead for a second. Most of the innovation that comes from inside the IDF happens because we’re a very young army. We’re a very young military because of universal draft, most people come in when they’re 18. Males serve for three years and women serve for two years. This forms a parity where people find themselves between 18 and 21 and inside military operations. The idea of flexibility and innovation is always encouraged.
When flexibility and innovation reaches the communications world, suddenly it opens up new horizons. A number of years ago, one of our soldiers inside the foreign press branch suggested that we try to increase our social media presence. Initially, it was very grassroots inside the military. At one point, a soldier paid for a WordPress account using her own credit card just to get it off the ground instead of dealing with the military bureaucracy.
In the space of only a couple of years, it blossomed into a full-size branch with people who deal with all different forms of mediums–interactive mediums on a variety of platform and a variety of languages.
That’s where it came from; right now we have two primary interactions with social media. The first is the interactive media branch, which is responsible for outreach towards different audiences online. The second is desk offices from traditional media, such as Leibovitch, and the desk officer in charge of Russian media and myself, we all maintain our own Twitter accounts. In some cases, we also maintain Facebook pages and websites in specific languages in order to reach out to certain regions.
A lot of our reporters right now are getting their live updates on what happens as far as Israel’s concerned from Twitter, most of us get quoted… our tweets get quoted by normal newspaper articles. In terms of this specific operation, I think that it’s definitely the most intense so far in terms of social media.
We’ve been operating on a variety of platforms with a number of different Twitter accounts, on Facebook, on YouTube during the course of the operation. We opened up a Tumblr account, we have a Google+ account, Pinterest … we’re operating on almost every single account we can to make sure that we can get out our message as fast as possible to as many different audiences as possible. This is to both increase our legitimacy, to be transparent, and almost as importantly, to combat misinformation that’s being flooded out from inside Gaza.
Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades tweeted at the Israeli military in English. Was the IDF expecting to argue with Al-Qassam over Twitter?
I don’t think … That probably wasn’t the intention initially. We wanted to interact; it was interesting for us to see they were prepared to interact back with us. I don’t know (laughs) if the conversation that going on between the two sides was the most civil; the specific tweet that the IDF Spokesperson’s Twitter account tweeted was a direct quote taken from head IDF spokesperson Poli Mordechai.
He said it in a television broadcast, and in real time soldiers tweeted it out. It got a lot of media attention; it definitely got more in the Twitter version than it got on traditional media. When it did eventually go to traditional media, it was probably because it was so amplified on new media.
I don’t think we really expected the interaction (with Hamas – ed.). It didn’t go on so long either.
After that happened, did it change your Twitter strategy at all?
I don’t think so. We’ve been very pleased with the results of what we’ve been doing with new media–both as a catalyst for traditional media and for reaching out to different audiences. If anything, it was a blessing in disguise just because it created attention for our different new media platforms. Our Twitter account took off with followers. I don’t know what it’s at right now, but we started at 70,000 followers and by now it has doubled. (As of press time, the @idfspokesperson account has 188,324 followers. – ed.)
For your Twitter account, what does the IDF Spokespersons’ Office try to do to take followers who are, in this conflict, pro-Hamas or at least anti-IDF, to try to win them over or at least to criticize less?
We’re very confident in what we’re doing. We believe in this operation; it’s interesting, most of the soldiers and officers involved in this feel the effects of this operation very close to home. We started the operation because there were thousands of rockets over the past 10 years. Since before the first iPod came out, there have been rockets fired at civilians.
Every single soldier feels that everyone knows that the rockets are flying out here. Because we believe in the cause, it’s very easy for us to get out there and present our case to the world. That’s what we’re looking to accomplish with this. We feel that as soon as you have the facts behind you, it’s just a matter of reaching out and getting the right message to people.
A lot of times this just means that we are tweeting out to the Internet and hoping people pick up on it and it will generate interest. Occasionally, we will see something that we feel is blatant misinformation and we’ll act on it. If we have the time during the day and we see something that is clearly misguided, inaccurate, or biased, we’ll try to combat that. We’ll try to engage the person, we’ll tweet a reference to that specific tweet and put it out. I think the best example of trying to correct biases… we’ve put out two videos so far of misinformation that Hamas has leaked out on our YouTube account. We’ve shown exactly what was inaccurate about the Hamas YouTube videos.
It’s the battle for information. It’s a battle that I think, at this point, we are winning.
What relationship does the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit have with the actual companies of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube-Google? I understand that one of your videos, the targeted killing of Ahmed al-Jabari, was actually taken off YouTube for a brief period of time?
We maintain a technical relationship, like most large businesses or organizations do, with these accounts. For a while, an IDF site was taken down by hackers in what seemed to be a DDoS attack. We’re working on getting that back up. There’s been a lot of talk about freezing our Twitter account or taking down our YouTube channel. Right now I know that everything’s been resolved; I think that it will stay that way.
I understand that the IDF holds daily conference calls for bloggers, and that these function as briefings?
Yes, this is something that we also do in real time. What’s sometimes easy to forget when you deal with the media and the interactive media is that it’s easy to forget you’re in the military. Sometimes you feel that you’re working in a normal company; suddenly you zoom out and you remember that the purpose of a military is to be able to win a war.
It’s easy to lose sight of that, but at the end of the day, that’s all what this media activity is for. On a day-to-day basis, in order to improve our legitimacy and to get our message out, beyond our normal Twitter activity and briefings for traditional journalists, we also reach out to more prolific bloggers both in Israel and overseas who we feel help us expand our audiences.
A lot of people are thirsty for information. There are also a lot of people who believe very adamantly in what Israel is doing and want to get the information out. One of the easiest ways for us to do that is to tap that audience and to allow them to get the necessary weapons–the information in their arsenal–to fight for us and help us do what we’re doing.
So I’m guessing the bloggers invited are all pro-Israel?
Almost exclusively pro-Israel bloggers. There’s something a little more difficult when it comes to engaging people in the online world. Sometimes it feels like there’s a law of diminishing returns for when you engage people who are overtly hostile.
When it comes to journalists, I believe most journalists want to uncover the true story. Whether or not their personal opinions coincide with your own, they’re willing to listen and they’re willing to hear what you have to say.
But when it comes to online interactions, even before you have phone calls with bloggers, you can generally see from their Twitter interactions and the online world that there are many people who just aren’t interested in hearing your message. Almost every person who tweets for the Israeli Army has gotten dozens of threatening emails, text messages, tweets…
For the briefings, if, say, Glenn Greenwald (a Guardian columnist who is highly critical of the Israeli military -ed.) wanted to be in on one of these conference calls, he would have a hard time?
It’s something we haven’t explored so fully. We’re definitely considering it–well, that’s something that would be better tested out when it’s more routine. Well, when we’re not engaged in an operation.
That’s an interesting course of action! I guess we would have to think about that a little more carefully.
Bouncing off of soldiers being threatened by Facebook and social media, this is a more general question, but what kind of social media training are Israeli soldiers given?
We’re actually … I’ve interfaced a lot with the U.S. Army, at least the European Command’s public relations branch. The media environment that they allow their soldiers to participate in is much more permissive.
We’re very concerned for information security in the IDF. There a lot of people around us who are tracking what we do very, very closely and we have to be extremely careful to make sure that information doesn’t come out.
We don’t really allow soldiers to tweet or to post things as soldiers. We ask that they not identify themselves, we ask that they don’t discuss operational issues because once you have mandatory draft–almost everyone in the country is asked to serve–it’s very difficult to ensure that the people who are coming in are savvy enough to avoid mishaps on the Internet. This includes accidentally leaking information.
We’ve had cases in the past where soldiers update Facebook statuses and reveal very sensitive mission information before we engage in operations. Even things like meta-information in pictures matter. If someone takes a picture of a number of tanks and uploads the picture, the enemy can figure out exactly where the troops are located. That makes things very dangerous.
We’ve gone even further than that. We’ve asked civilians in Israel to avoid tweeting or posting Facebook statuses when rockets fall nearby. We have it on very good authority that terrorists who launch the rockets follow Israeli social media platforms and traditional media platforms to figure out where those rockets landed so they can modify the range and the angle; this can help them hit more desirable targets.
The range of tools that terrorists can use is as simple as following an Israeli Facebook page and using Google Maps to change what they’re launching at.
One thing I’m curious about is all the Israeli soldiers on Instagram. Soldiers who were being called up to reserve duty posted pictures on Instagram that then ended up on BuzzFeed. What was the reaction from your team when all those pictures appeared on BuzzFeed and Instagram?
It’s a little bit difficult to gauge. Because we don’t have control over that, sometimes people can put out the wrong messages. These soldiers, if you’re a 25-year-old or a 23-year-old who’s leaving university because you’re called up to reserve duty … you’re in a certain mindset. The media scrutiny and interactive media scrutiny we’re exposed to means that even innocuous posts like those can have negative repercussions.
So we ask that they stop. From the time they are called up until they show up here, they’re civilians and it’s difficult to control what they do. But during regular service and reserve service, we try to explain to them as much as possible what the risks are–both from a public relations perspective and from an information security perspective.
You mentioned earlier speaking with the U.S. military’s European Command about social media policies for soldiers. I’m curious if the two militaries consult with each other on social media policies? Does one take cues from the other?
I’m going to have to answer with a very diplomatic answer–I think everybody has a lot to learn from everybody else. This is a new battlefield and no one has a monopoly on creativity and intelligence.
I think we’re both in two different positions. We’re in a position where we’re almost constantly defending ourselves both in the cyber world and the real world; that creates a certain reality. If you look at the numbers of the followers we have, definitely per capita we’re doing a great job. I know that they’re very interested in how we engage people and how we speak–the quality of our products.
We have young Americans and other foreigners of Jewish background who decided to move to Israel when they’re 18 or 22 or 25 and they generally decide to volunteer for the Israeli military when they get here. This means we can get somebody with incredible knowledge and skill sets.
We recently had somebody who interned–worked for three or four years on a major U.S. television show–and you get people with incredible skills, creativity, and exposure to different audiences. When you bring in someone like that into the interactive media or traditional media branch and say “Go!,” they can generally come up with amazing results. I think the U.S. military in many cases can rely on the fact that people who sign up want to; it’s not a mandatory draft.
These are people who categorically believe in the cause, people who are a bit more disciplined, and don’t foster creativity so much as follow the rules. You can let people be active in the social media world by themselves, and I feel that’s been incredibly helpful for them.
We’re in two different situations; I think that leaves important lessons for everybody to learn.
The Israeli military took a lot of flack for gamifying their blog by offering users military-themed badges and points for sharing content. Why was the decision to gamify the blog made?
We got a lot of flack for that, although most came after our current operation started. The gamification portion, IDF Ranks, had been up for four months prior. We devised this rank game to get people to share as much data on social media as possible. Some people accused us of gamifying war, but we see it as building interest.
Returning to social media, the graphics and photos that are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr… how does your unit decide what to make and what to show?
That’s part of–I’d use the word ragtag–but part of the nature of the soldiers that are here is that they come with their own personal backgrounds. They know they leeway; room for creativity and innovation. They’re a very small group of people who sort of talk amongst themselves, there are a lot of vibrant ideas that are thrown around and we constantly reassess what we do.
We let them see where we need to work a little bit more; that’s what we focus on. Coming into this operation, for example, we had a lot of material already. We knew in advance what a lot of the claims would be. This unfortunately is a situation that we’ve not totally been unexposed to in the past. We knew what we were coming into and we were able to get some media prepared before we actually engaged in the operation.
Also, a lot of it is soldiers just working through the night to try to see what people are focusing on and how we can change opinion.
When rockets land or military operations take place, do you post pictures right away or is there a period when pictures are formatted and edited for publications?
I’ll give you an example. On Sunday morning Israel time, we were told–our intelligence found–that Hamas operatives were using a media building in the middle of Gaza for military communications. They were disseminating information for military operatives around Gaza. There was a military necessity to target the antennas on the roof of that building.
We bought in precision munitions for an aerial strike and we targeted those antennas. We came in knowing that would probably be problematic. We’re huge fans of free press here; we let journalists into Gaza. We do everything we can not to injure journalists, but we had a military necessity and a military obligation, as well as a legal privilege, to target that building.
At the same time, we got a lot of flack for that. So when we realized that would become an issue, after it happened and the media began asking a lot of questions about it, we knew we would have to defend our actions. We spoke to the Air Force and released material as soon as possible in order to show how surgical and pinpoint that information was.
On Monday, we were forced again to target media buildings because we knew for a fact that there was an Islamic Jihad terrorist–a pretty senior terrorist–operating out of the building. Again, using very targeted precision munitions, we targeted one floor and only killed that one terrorist. We had to get the information out as soon as possible.
Before we even put the video out, we saw that the media inside Gaza realized there was a terrorist there so at that point all we had to do was basically retweet the information that was coming out from the journalists there.
You constantly have to reassess yourself. The timeframe for the news cycle has evolved from 72 hours to 30 seconds; you constantly have to have your finger on the pulse and see where things are going.
(Editor’s note: According to Reuters, the Monday attack was reported by medics to have injured six other people. The militant group Islamic Jihad confirms that one of their members, Ramaz Harab, was in the media building at the time of attack.)
When situations like that happen, and your unit is getting a hard time in the world press and in social media, do you bring in extra people for those periods?
We’d have more people on hand if we need to. We’re a military, we’re used to working under intense pressure around the clock.
This interview has been edited for readability.
[Top Image: Courtesy U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv]