Almost as important as its military campaign for Israel is its battle to control its public image. Even as it kills thousands of people in Gaza, the small Middle Eastern nation is spending millions of dollars on a propaganda war, purchasing ads on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other online apps. At the same time, an army of pro-Israel trolls has invaded the Community Notes function on X/Twitter, attempting to influence the online debate around the ongoing crisis.
SPENDING MILLIONS TO WHITEWASH MASSACRES
Since October 7, Israel has inundated YouTube with advertisements, with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs spending nearly $7.1 million on ads in the two weeks following Hamas’ incursion. According to journalist Sophia Smith Galer, this equates to almost one billion impressions.
With its campaign, the Israeli government overwhelmingly focused on rich Western nations, its top targets being France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the United States. In France alone, the ministry spent $3.8 million. Other branches of the Israeli government undoubtedly also spent money on ads. The overwhelming message of the campaign was that Hamas are terrorists linked with ISIS and that Israel—a modern, secular democracy—is defending itself from foreign aggression.
Much of the content blatantly violated YouTube’s terms of service, including a number of ads featuring gory shots of dead bodies. Another ad that piqued public attention was played before videos aimed at babies. Amid a scene of pink rainbows and soothing music, text appears reading:
We know that your child cannot read this. We have an important message to tell you as parents. 40 infants were murdered in Israel by the terrorists Hamas (ISIS). Just as you would do everything for your child, we will do everything to protect ours. Now hug your baby and stand with us.
Nearly all the Ministry of Foreign Affairs views are inorganic. Most of their YouTube uploads garner only a few hundred views. But the ones selected as advertisements have hundreds of thousands or even millions of views.
Israel’s YouTube campaign has been matched by expansive attempts to control the public debate on other social media platforms. In barely a week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ran 30 ads seen over 4 million times on Twitter. Like with YouTube, analytics data shows they were inordinately targeting adults in Western Europe.
One ad contained the words “ISIS” and “Hamas,” showing disturbing imagery that gradually sped up until the names of the two groups blended into one. In case the message was not clear enough, it ended with the message,
The world defeated ISIS. The world will defeat Hamas.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also bought large numbers of advertisements on Facebook, Instagram, mobile games and apps such as language trainer Duolingo.
The Community Notes function on Twitter is an attempt to fight false information. Contributors who sign up for the feature can leave notes on any post, adding context to potentially misleading statements. The community then votes on these notes, and if enough people consider the note useful, it is presented below the original tweet.
While it has its advantages, the system is ripe for abuse and infiltration. Since October 7, an army of pro-Israel trolls has brigaded the function and is attempting to undermine and attack as many posts as possible showing Israel in a negative light or Palestine in a positive one. This has often been done in an attempt to hide Israeli war crimes.
“If you’re not a Community Notes contributor, then you may be unaware that any tweet about Gaza that poses an inconvenience to Israeli information interests is being mobbed by Israel apologists working to manipulate the narrative, including on tweets just voicing an opinion,” wrote journalist Caitlin Johnstone.
A case in point is the attack on the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. Under a tweet from journalist Dan Cohen noting that Hananya Naftali (an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) had boasted that Israel carried out the attack before deleting his message, Community Notes wrote that “Naftali has openly retracted his statement, as conclusive evidence has since shown the explosion was fired from a misfired rocket from Gaza.” The “conclusive evidence” offered was a statement from the Pentagon and a tweet from a former Israeli Air Force squad commander.
Community Notes falsely claims there’s “conclusive evidence” showing Palestinians bombed their own hospital. It cites as evidence Hananya Naftali’s retraction, and an evidence-free claim from the Pentagon – which gave Israel the bomb it dropped on the hospital.
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) October 19, 2023
Meanwhile, a tweet from Lebanese political commentator Sara Abdallah breaking the news that Israel had just bombed the St. Porphyrius Church in Gaza was flagged by Community Notes. This meant that all users saw a note added reading, “False. Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church in Gaza has posted they are untouched and operating as of October 9, 2023.” The problem was this was breaking news related to October 19, so any statement before that time was meaningless in assessing the news. Further undermining the community note was that Israel almost immediately accepted responsibility for the destruction.
Pro-Israel trolls have also not been above blatant smears. On a popular post from myself where I shared a picture of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu embracing with the words, “In the future, this image will be looked upon as one of the most shameful moments in history,” Community Notes added the message: “Alan MacLeod is a Senior Staff Writer at MintPress News. MintPress is renowned for publishing far-left disinformation and antisemitic conspiracy theories.” Other MintPress staff, such as Lowkey and Mnar Adley, have also been consistently targeted with smears and arguments dressed up as clarifications.
If you're not a Community Notes contributor then you may be unaware that any tweet about Gaza that poses an inconvenience to Israeli information interests is being mobbed by Israel apologists working to manipulate the narrative, including on tweets just voicing an opinion. pic.twitter.com/fUT1bWXKDq
— Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz) October 19, 2023
SEEING WHAT STICKS
In the fog of war, the Middle Eastern network Al-Jazeera has been a consistent source of live reporting. The well-funded network has a large team of reporters in Palestine and the wider region and has a long history of covering the conflict.
Therefore, when Al-Jazeera released an investigation that found no evidence to support Israel’s claim that a failed Palestinian rocket launch was to blame for the damage at the Al-Ahli Hospital, the story went viral.
This was a major blow to Israel and its apologists, who did not want the blood of hundreds of innocent doctors and patients on their hands. And so, pro-Israel users attempted to get community notes plastered all over the Al-Jazeera story, including ones that read:
This is false. Iron dome cannot intercept rockets during their ascend phase. It intercepts rockets during descent when their trajectory is more predictable. The crater is not consistent with an airstrike.
Al Jazeera is a Qatari state-owned outlet, whose journalist independence has been questioned by the U.S. government, and Qatar hosts the political office of Hamas, one of the combatants. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence indicates the explosion was indeed a failed rocket.
Imagine if people start community noting US and European news sources when it comes to covering Israel. By similar argumentation US news organisations reproduce Israeli narratives through social and political conformity that privileges pro Israel views. #Gaza pic.twitter.com/16WuIf1xy7
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) October 20, 2023
Al Jazeera video digitally manipulated the hospital explosion moment time and IR image shown in the video can’t be used to judge rocket debris. Other sources already showed that the explosion at hospital yard is consistent with rocket debris and not with aerial attack.
If you watch the video Gaza has lights on in the footage of the missile being intercepted by the iron dome whereas in their own footage Gaza is dark. Suggesting that the videos are of different times.
“[Israel apologists] are just throwing everything they can at it to get something to stick, solely because it is viral and inconvenient,” Johnstone wrote.
This is not the first time that Israel and its supporters have attempted to hijack and manipulate public highways of information. For over a decade, well-organized and well-funded Israeli groups have infiltrated Wikipedia and attempted to rewrite the encyclopedia to defend Israeli actions and demonize voices who speak out against them.
One of the most well-known of these is the Yesha Council, which, as far back as 2010, claimed to have 12,000 active members. Yesha members painstakingly police Wikipedia, removing troublesome facts and framing articles in a manner more favorable to Israel.
Those Yesha considers the “Best Zionist Editors” receive rewards, including free hot air balloon rides. Between 2010 and 2012, this project was personally overseen and coordinated by future Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Yesha and other pro-Israel groups have ceaselessly targeted MintPress’ Wikipedia page, filling it with demonstrable falsehoods and misinformation. Wikipedia is aware of this problem but has refused to address it adequately, perhaps partly because of its co-founder Jimmy Wales’ unabashedly pro-Israel partisanship.
Another organized pro-Israel group is Act.IL, an Israeli government-sponsored app. Users of the app (which reportedly once had a budget of over $1 million per year) are encouraged to mass report posts, leave replies in comment sections of websites, or boost and share pro-Israel messages online. The point is to create a groundswell of artificial support for Israel in crucial forums in order to influence public opinion.
SPIES AMONG US
One of the reasons that social media companies have not cracked down on disingenuous pro-Israeli activities could be that former Israeli government and military officials hold top positions at a great number of the world’s most important platforms.
Emi Palmor, for example, is one of 22 individuals who sit on Facebook’s Oversight Board. Palmor was formerly the General Director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice. In this role, she directly oversaw the stripping away of Palestinian rights. She created a so-called “Internet Referral Unit,” which would push Facebook to delete Palestinian content that the Israeli government objected to. In her new role at the Oversight Board, she effectively writes Facebook’s rules, deciding what content to promote to the platform’s 3 billion users and what to censor, delete or suppress.
Palmor is also a veteran of Unit 8200, perhaps the most controversial unit in the Israeli military. Described as “Israel’s NSA,” Unit 8200 is the centerpiece of the country’s high-tech surveillance industry. Unit 8200 spies on the Palestinian population, compiling vast dossiers on millions of people, including their medical history, sex lives, and search histories, to be used for extortion later. Individuals found to be cheating on their spouse or engaged in homosexual activities are often distorted by the military, and turned into informants. One veteran admitted that, as part of his training, he was assigned to memorize different Arabic words for “gay” to listen out for them in conversations.
Unit 8200 graduates have gone on to produce much of the world’s most controversial spying tools, which they have sold to repressive governments around the globe.
A MintPress News investigation unearthed a network of hundreds of Unit 8200 veterans working in influential positions at some of the planet’s most important tech and social media companies, including Google, Amazon and Meta (Facebook).
For example, Google’s Head of Strategy and Operations for Research, Gavriel Goidel, was previously a senior officer in Unit 8200, rising to become Head of Learning. Facebook Messenger’s Head of Data Science, Eyal Klein, served for six years in Unit 8200, rising to the rank of captain. And after serving in the controversial unit, Ayelet Steinitz became Microsoft’s Head of Global Strategic Alliances.
While Israel is militarily dominant over its neighbors and its captive population, it is losing the battle for public opinion in the West. Virtually every major city across Europe and North America has seen giant protests calling for a free Palestine. Meanwhile, despite near wall-to-wall support from top politicians and corporate media alike, pro-Israel demonstrations have been poorly attended.
Governments are siding with Israel. But the people are standing with Palestine. And so, while Israel is perfectly capable of leveling Gaza, no matter how much it spends, how much propaganda it produces and how many dirty media tricks it plays, it seems it cannot convince the world to support its actions. But that isn’t stopping it from trying.