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The Israeli army admits to conducting covert influence campaigns in the Gaza war


JERUSALEM – Days after Israel’s devastating 2021 war with militants in Gaza, the Israeli army began deploying keyboard fighters for a second front: a social media covert operation to praise the army’s bombing campaign in the coastal enclave.

The Israeli army acknowledged on Wednesday that it had made a “mistake” in launching the covert social media influence campaign in an effort to improve the Israeli public’s opinion of Israel’s performance in the conflict.

The unsuccessful online campaign was one of many contentious moves by the Israeli military in the bloody 11-day war. More than 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the fighting as the military bombed Hamas-ruled territory and Palestinian militants fired rockets at Israel.

Israeli daily Haaretz first exposed the social media operation on Wednesday, reporting that the military used fake accounts to hide the campaign’s origins and engage the public on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Experts say that while the Israeli military has often used inauthentic social media accounts to collect intelligence on Arab states and on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, this is the first known time that a military influence campaign has targeted Israeli civilians.

Uri Kol, an expert on digital campaigns, said the revelation could indicate that the military has used this tactic against Israelis in the past in secret.

“With the military’s strict censorship laws, the military always has the final say in what is and isn’t published,” he said. “What we’re seeing here is a small facet of an online manipulation campaign that we’ve never seen before.”

The accounts posted and amplified footage and footage of destruction in Gaza with the Hebrew hashtag “Gaza Regrets” — boasting of the strength of the Israeli military in an effort to counter viral images of Palestinian rocket salvos bombing Tel Aviv.

The accounts targeted right-wing Israelis, tagging popular conservative TV presenters and politicians such as current National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, and posting in groups of supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the aim of spreading the message to a sympathetic audience. Popular posts with the hashtag Gaza Regrets drew bellicose comments from Israelis, such as “Why are there still buildings in Gaza?”

“It shows the state of mind of the military that it wants to reassure young people and get them ready for war,” Kol said.

The Israeli army admitted that it also coordinated the campaign with real social media influencers, providing them with images and hashtags tout the army’s achievements and showcasing the damage it has inflicted on Gaza.

But all the efforts of the army came to naught. The hashtag failed to engage the public and received little or no likes and shares, Haaretz reported. Successful online influence campaigns using fake identities take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain followers’ trust, experts say.

In a statement, the Israeli military admitted that it used “a limited number” of fake accounts over the course of a day “to increase exposure”.

“In retrospect, it turned out that using these accounts was a mistake,” the military said, saying it has not used this tactic since the war. It claimed it had approached social media influencers who had joined the operation in an official capacity as army spokesperson.

The Israeli army “is committed to the truth and adheres to reliable and accurate reports as much as possible,” it added.

The army spokesman’s office has long played a key role in defending Israel’s military actions before the international court of opinion.

But its relationship with the media has been tense at times and its tactics have been criticized, including during the 2021 war when it was accused of spreading misleading reports to foreign journalists. Those reports suggested that a ground invasion was underway in an attempt to lure Hamas militants into a death trap. Some reporters were flatly told that an invasion had begun. The army blames the incident on “internal miscommunication.”

Israel’s conduct in the war further fueled tensions and angered international media when an Israeli airstrike razed a high-rise building that housed the offices of The Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza after it was demolished within an hour. had time to evacuate. The military claimed that the building housed Hamas militant infrastructure, but provided no evidence.

Israel’s handling of the death by shooting last year of veteran Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, became the latest flashpoint in relations between the military and reporters.

After initially suggesting that she may have been killed by a Palestinian gunman, the Israeli army later admitted that an Israeli soldier probably shot her and absolved itself of responsibility.

The army portrayed the shooting as a mistake during a firefight with Palestinian militants, without providing any evidence.

The ambiguous conclusion drew sharp condemnation from Palestinians and press freedom groups, who noted that Abu Akleh was clearly identified as a reporter and that the area appeared to be quiet at the time.

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