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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My friends at the IDF

I'm old enough to be their father (and then some), but I'd like to introduce you to some of the people who get me the information that makes a lot of the posts on this blog possible. This is the IDF's new media division.

It’s not clear who’s running the Qassam Brigade’s twitter feed, but in Israel, the IDF’s social media operation is run by a 26-year-old immigrant from Belgium named Sacha Dratwa. In the past two years, Dratwa has taken a small operation initially created during Operation Cast Lead to streamline the IDF’s YouTube and Facebook presence and turned it into the most globally visible arm of the Israeli military. In the past year, the new media desk has rapidly expanded into new terrain, from commissioning content designed for viral sharing to creating a Foursquare-style game for the IDF blog that rewards frequent visitors to the site with badges. The IDF is also posting video of its drone strikes, starting with the Jabari assassination, as well as of Israelis taking cover during air raids and of Iron Dome units successfully thwarting rockets launched from Gaza.
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The goal, as Dratwa explained it, is twofold: to get Israel’s narrative out in real time, as people read about red alerts in Tel Aviv and rocket landings in Gaza on Twitter, and to cut out the middleman of “old media” in communicating with pro-Israel activists. “What we try to do is to be fast and get information out before the old media,” Dratwa told me. “We believe people are getting information from social media platforms and we don’t want them to get it from other sources—we are the ones on the scene, and the old media are not on the scene as are the IDF.”

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The IDF’s new media presence was originally the brainchild of Aliza Landes (the American-born daughter of the historian Richard Landes), who was herself only 25 when, as an officer on the IDF’s North American press desk, she piloted the IDF’s first forays into virtual warfare during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009. “In Israel, Facebook had only just opened up, and it was considered a toy for kids,” Landes said. “YouTube was the same. They didn’t think of it as a dissemination tool that could be effective—it was just a way for people to waste time in the office.”
Landes had already written position papers trying to excite her commanders in the spokesman’s office about the possibilities of a more aggressive social media strategy, but it wasn’t until videos she posted on YouTube began to tally up impressive views that they paid attention.
Originally, she told me late last week, she had used YouTube as a way to transfer video files to foreign journalists, who were prevented by the Israeli military from entering Gaza during Cast Lead and were in many instances forced to rely on IDF footage. “It wasn’t for public consumption,” Landes said. She soon began posting routine information updates, like statistics on the number of rockets fired, to an IDF blog and, by the time Cast Lead concluded in January, had moved to commissioning original videos from the military film department. “It was sort of my pet project on top of everything else I was supposed to be doing,” Landes said.
In August 2009, Landes succeeded in convincing her superiors to give her a dedicated budget for a new media operation. The first big test came in January 2010, not for a war but after the massive earthquake in Haiti, when Israel dispatched emergency medical staff to the Caribbean island. “People were sending us requests for assistance based on Twitter,” Landes said. “So, it wasn’t just a PR tool, it became a practical rescue tool too.” That summer, Landes was responsible for sending out footage from the controversial Mavi Marmara commando raid and convinced her superiors to give her near real-time access to video.
By the time Landes left later that year, she had a staff of 10 people devoted to putting out polished material in concert with other government ministries–some of which, particularly videos from the widely scrutinized Mavi Marmara episode, wound up giving ammunition to Israel’s critics. “It’s important to be in the conversation,” Landes said. “If you just say, ‘I’m going to cut this out entirely,’ you’re not doing yourself any favors, and in fact you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

The fact that the IDF has even allowed this article to be published shows that they've come a long way. Originally, everything about it was supposed to be super secret. The Marmara was a big turning point. Even though they took way too long to release the footage, they saw what an impact it had when people were able to take material posted by the IDF and make it go viral.

We have nothing to hide and nothing about which we should be ashamed. The IDF is doing a great job of getting its message out there. And today, that's an important part of fighting a war.

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