A computer lab staffed by students in an Israeli university is playing a key role in the war of information in the Gaza conflict.
Inspired by the role of social media during the Arab Spring and boosted by the support of the Israeli government and Israel Defence Force, student volunteers at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a private university north of Tel Aviv, are waging their own propaganda war countering online anti-Israeli sentiment.
Staffed by approximately 400 student volunteers the project which goes by the name “Israel Under Fire”, claims to have succeeded in closing anti-Israeli pages on Facebook and challenging propaganda from Hamas, the organisation that governs the Gaza Strip and whose military arm is firing rockets at Israel.
According to Igal Raich, a 23-year-old IDC student who volunteers in what is called "The Advocacy Room", the project aims to counter what is perceived as a false representation of Israel in international and social media through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“It is run by students who are all volunteers,” said Raich, who grew up in Canada before moving to Israel to study and also served in the Israeli military. “The school gave us a computer lab to work from and from nine in the morning until eight at night it is constantly full with student volunteers.”
Volunteer groups include a team that translates messages from Hebrew into 30 languages and a graphics team creating charts and images to be distributed via Facebook and Twitter.
There is also a video editing department and a talkback team that, according to Raich, trawls social media “looking for inconsistent facts like ‘Israel constantly kills women and children’”.
“They are skilled with what they do,” said Raich of the volunteers. “A lot of people buy what is posted online but before you make your judgment you need to know both sides of the story.”
Raich said students played a similar role during 2012’s Pillar of Defence operation – another Israeli military action against Hamas in Gaza. According to the university's figures, 1600 students volunteered to spread social media messages to an audience of 21 million people in 62 countries and in 31 languages. The Prime Minister’s office, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Defence Force considered the university’s efforts so successful they sought to collaborate during subsequent military actions.
“We started to work together,” said Raich, who is sitting exams during the current conflict. “We are constantly getting updates from the Prime Minister’s office and the Minister of Foreign Affairs because they know we are successful in what we do.”
The Prime Minister's office has also purchased promoted tweets for selected posts to increase their visibility
Like missiles targeting both Gaza and Israel, the online battle is two-way traffic. As well as the student campaign, Israel’s IDF also runs social media accounts promoting Israeli perspectives.
A Palestinian point of view is represented in social media accounts run by the al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas. Tweets from the al-Qassam Brigades include graphic images of dead or injured children and videos showing rockets being prepared for launch, presumably at Israel.
At the other end of the spectrum, Twitter accounts from civilians in Gaza detail the lives of scared teenagers counting Israeli bombs falling in residential areas and the effects of sleepless nights due to the sound of overhead drones.
Critics of the Israeli social media campaign suggest that, like many things on the internet, it is difficult to discern truth and are sceptical of the authenticity of pro-Israeli posts that appear to be organic but are government propaganda.
“The whole point of such efforts is to look like they are unofficial, just everyday people chatting online,” Dena Shunra, a Hebrew-English translator, told The Electronic Intifada, an online news site.