Saving Face(book)

An update to my post on the use of social media in Israel’s latest assault on Gaza: at the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) Rebecca Stein provides an important historical perspective on the IDF’s mobilisation of these digital platforms and the resistance from senior commanders to resorting to a ‘digital vernacular’:

Even as the IDF labors to speak in a language that will be intelligible to the general public, largely abandoning traditional forms of military jargon, its Facebook and Twitter practices remain committed to the foremost military mission — that of asserting control over social media’s highly interactive field.

Rebecca also draws attention to the ways in which these military mobilisations complicate the ‘digital democracy’ narrative that emerged in the wake of the Arab uprisings.

I talked about this briefly in my essay on Tahrir Square, where I noted that it was not only the Israeli military that was learning from those events.  As Lt Col Brian Pettit put it, ‘the Arab Spring has profound implications for the US Special Operations mission of unconventional warfare’ that need to be incorporated into ‘theory, doctrine and training’.  He argued that standard ‘red force tracking’ in which the enemy is caught in a net of electronic surveillance should now be complemented by ‘social tracking’ in which social media are monitored and even enlisted.  The standard image of unconventional war, the same officer concludes, is of ‘underground resistance leaders meeting with US advisers, clustered in a dark basement around a crumpled map, secretly organizing and planning their next tactical move.’  But this is now incomplete, and future operations will need to enlist ‘a scattered network of digerati, all texting, tweeting, posting and hacking from thousands of locations.  Publicity is as paramount to the success of the digerati as is secrecy vital to the success of the traditional underground resistance cell.’  As I noted at the time, it’s not difficult to work out ‘which ‘resistance leaders’ were likely to be meeting with US advisers, nor the bodily consequences for those on the other side of the street.

But using social media is only one part of military strategy.  Writing in Joint Forces Quarterly early in 2011, Lt Col Thomas Mayfield had already accepted that ‘aggressive engagement in the social media environment can aid the commander in winning the information fight’  – bizzarely he pointed to the IDF’s ham-fisted use of social media during its previous assault on Gaza in 2008-9 – but his first priority was to monitor the use of social media to enhance ‘situational awareness’.  For a Canadian/NATO perspective on media monitoring, here is Bruce Forrester from Defence R&D Canada at Valcartier on ‘Social Media Exploitation Tools’ after the Arab uprisings.

If this is all too depressing for you, then try Richard Poplak who provides a different take on the IDF’s most recent attempts to use Facebook to save face…