Israel's military has admitted it made a 'mistake' by targeting civilians in an effort to shore up support for its 2021 Gaza campaign
The Israel Defense Forces illegally targeted the Israeli population with a social media psychological operation to convince citizens that its airstrikes were "taking a toll" on Gaza during the 2021 Guardian of the Walls military operation, a Haaretz investigation published on Wednesday has revealed.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit posted videos and images of Israeli airstrikes against Gaza using the hashtag #GazaRegrets, using dozens of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok and even working with popular Israeli influencers in order to conceal the military origin of the astroturfing campaign. The campaign went live several days into the 2021 military operation, when the IDF became concerned Israelis were more impressed by viral footage of Hamas rockets hitting Israel than the actions of their own military, according to Haaretz.
The IDF admitted to the outlet that it had worked with influencers to spread footage of its airstrikes on Gaza and even acknowledged setting up "a limited number of fake accounts" for that purpose, "in order to maximize audience reach" - though the content received hardly any likes or reposts.
However, it dismissed the astroturf campaign as a brief, anomalous "error," insisting the bots had been operational for just 24 hours, with no similar episodes in the last two years.
Israel's military intelligence division is notorious for using similar manipulation tactics to sway popular opinion in foreign countries. However, it is legally prohibited from targeting the domestic population with psychological warfare, and so strict is this prohibition that the IDF was forbidden from deploying its tools domestically even at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when some in the government wanted them for contact tracing.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit chief Hidai Zilberman has insisted the division's role is "to report nothing but the truth to the public" and that it would never stoop to psychological warfare ever since he was caught during the 2021 Gaza operation spreading deliberately fake news through the foreign press.
However, Haaretz recently discovered that not only does the unit regularly collaborate with local influencers to nudge Israeli public opinion, it was even referring journalists to a Telegram channel run by a creator the IDF had contracted as a consultant for "psychological warfare."
Confronted with the totality of their investigation, a senior defense official described the situation to Haaretz as "scandalous ... something like that shouldn't have happened."