Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age. By Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein. Stanford University Press, 2015,$21.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Donna Halper
It is well-known in academia that the Internet has been a mixed blessing, accused of contributing to shorter attention spans, and making us less able to engage in critical thinking (see, for example, Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid” here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/). There are also many scholars who have explored the impact of the Internet and social media on everything from family life to dating to the process of seeking employment. But one area that has received less scrutiny up to this point is how online media have affected the way wars are waged. In a world with so many ongoing conflicts, this is a topic worthy of serious study. It has become especially relevant in the past decade, as a growing number of countries began using social media to disseminate their government’s viewpoint. In previous wars, politicians gave speeches and government officials hoped for some coverage on TV and radio. But now, thanks to social media, governments can go around the mainstream media filter, and get their message out to millions of supporters instantly.
In their new book Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age, Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein analyze how social media have been used to reinforce the militaristic policies of the Israeli government; they also examine social media usage by individual members of the Israeli military, and by supporters of Israel, within the country and internationally. Focusing their analysis on the years 2008–2014, a time when “…digital militarism moved from the margins of Israeli society to its center,” the authors provide numerous examples of how social media have been utilized to promote a dominant discourse that was pro-militarism, while presenting the occupation as both normal and necessary. Using numerous postings found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, Kuntsman and Stein demonstrate how social media in Israel are an essential tool in the ongoing war against the Palestinians. As a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) once acknowledged, “Computers and keyboards are the weapons, Facebook and Twitter are the battlefields. It is there we fight, each and every day.”
The authors show how social media serve a number of purposes in this cyber-battle. For one, social media have fulfilled a humanizing function, transforming members of the Israeli military into ordinary young men and women who are just keeping in touch with their friends. For example, many Israel soldiers have posted selfies on social media; although they were wearing uniforms, they were shown smiling or mugging for the camera, as if they were just friendly and photogenic young adults at some kind of camp, rather than members of an occupying military force. Another use for social media was to create a virtual gathering place, where supporters of Israel could exchange comments as they reacted to the news of the day. Pro-Israel Facebook pages, for example, enabled participants to post patriotic messages and reaffirm their support for the military.
On the other hand, as the IDF spokesperson had stated, there were also many occasions when pro-Israel voices ended up in social media clashes with anti-Israel voices. For example, a Twitter message from the Israeli government that a certain major figure in Hamas had been “eliminated” was met with a tweet from Hamas warning that Israeli soldiers would soon be killed in retaliation. The IDF also put a colorized poster of that now-deceased Hamas leader on the official IDF Facebook page. The poster, which looked like an image taken from a video game, had the word “eliminated” in bold letters, along with reasons why he had deserved his fate. Such postings were part of the Israeli government’s social media strategy: military leaders could choose the topics they wanted everyone to discuss, and the various social media platforms provided many opportunities to discuss them. Thus, Israeli social media users “… (became) conscripts… within the state’s occupation project.”
Occasionally, there has been some skepticism or even outright disapproval of certain social media messages. The authors discuss one set of Facebook photos from 2010 that caused a brief scandal. They were posted by an Israeli female ex-soldier, who was shown in poses with Palestinian detainees. She seemed to be degrading and humiliating them, as she joked about them on her Facebook page in a vulgar manner. The photos, and her comments, struck a nerve, both with the Israeli public and with international viewers, nearly all of whom found her Facebook page appalling; there may also have been some sexism involved, since war photos and comments posted by male soldiers did not seem to evoke a similar response. But the authors suggest the real problem was neither sexism nor a sudden sympathy for Palestinians prisoners. Rather, these photos and postings were so upsetting because they violated the Israeli government’s insistence that it always conducted its conflicts ethically and did not abuse detainees. But while this incident provoked heated debate about the treatment of the Palestinians, all too often, the majority in the pro-Israel community seemed willing to accept the point of view presented by military leaders and their surrogates. With rare exceptions, the Israeli public confined themselves to the conversations (and perspectives) the government encouraged.
Kuntsman and Stein look at each of the conflicts that occurred between 2008 and 2014, and they show how Israel’s use of social media became increasingly more sophisticated. They also delve into the common themes the government promoted, including a constant drumbeat of messages about how Israel was always under threat and had to be ready to defend itself at all times; how Palestinians and their leaders were untrustworthy and had malevolent intentions; and most of all, how Palestinians lied about the number of casualties they suffered during each Israeli incursion. Israelis who were deeply suspicious of Palestinians were given numerous examples of why they were right to feel that way; in fact, “digital suspicion” was frequently utilized by the Israeli government—if Palestinians posted photographs of children being injured or killed, Israeli bloggers would immediately claim that the images were photo-shopped or digitally altered, or that the Palestinians in the photos were actors, and thus not really injured at all (pp. 60-61). The government’s assertion that Israel’s military behaved ethically while the Palestinians were guilty of deception was frequently seen on pro-Israel websites.
In 2014, when Palestinians killed three Israeli teens, expressions of anger and demands for vengeance were prominent on many pro-Israel social media sites. The authors describe how supporters began posting “revenge selfies,” holding signs with anti-Arab slogans and demands for retribution (pp. 92–94). Their cries were heeded by the Israeli government: Israel soon launched an invasion of Gaza, and social media was employed to reassure the public and promote the discourse of necessary and justified militarism all over again.
The authors are to be commended for introducing this exploration of social media in a time of war, and for taking on the task of archiving online messages, which can often be ephemeral. They are also to be praised for tackling such a contentious subject—any time the Middle East is written about, intense debate always seems to follow, and this book will certainly be part of that conversation.
But despite the authors’ good intentions, Digital Militarism has some flaws. For one, it is very short—only about 100 pages of content. For another, despite the authors’ assertions that they wanted to do a scholarly study, the tone of the book is often polemical. It is very clear where the sympathies of Kuntsman and Stein lie—they rarely miss an opportunity to criticize Israel, whether locating its origins in “colonial fictions” (p. 15) or minimizing the times that Israel really was under threat from its Arab neighbors. In page after page, one sees Israel at its worst, with little context provided for why the government or its Jewish citizens felt so beleaguered; lacking any information about what the Arab world’s social media were saying, the reader is left with the impression that Israelis are callous and bigoted, and they hate Palestinians for no apparent reason. Thus, while the material in this book may indeed be accurate (and there is no reason to believe that the authors invented it), the examples may have been compiled in a way that confirms what the authors already believe.
That said, there can be no denying that digital militarism exists and is now a real factor in war; nor can it be denied that many governments use social media to inflame and manipulate, or to hide unpleasant truths and shape the discourse. I only wish that Kuntsman and Stein had not made it seem as if only Israel does these things.
Donna L. Halper is an Associate Professor of Communication at Lesley University, Cambridge MA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.