Israeli propaganda to the Arab world takes new, insidious form

Facebook provides a platform for Israel to communicate to an Arab audience unadulterated propaganda messages about its army, its capabilities, technologies and “moral values”.

A daily dosage of propaganda is delivered by Avichay Adraee, the head of the Israeli army’s Arabic media desk.

A fluent Arabic speaker, Adraee has become a regular face on Gulf-owned Arab satellite channels. In his television appearances, he is almost always on the defensive, usually defending Israel’s brutal wars on Gaza and Lebanon, whereas on his Facebook page, he is free to do Hasbara, the Israeli government’s overseas PR campaign.

Hasbara (which means ‘explanation’ in Hebrew) is believed to be one of the biggest state-run propaganda campaign in the world. 

As you are reading this, please note your reaction to Israel; is it softening? This is a highly targeted propaganda designed to win the hearts and minds of Arabs. But bear in mind it is not the Israeli message beamed at the Western world where Arabs are universally derided as an inferior culture and a terrorist threat. 

How does Israel present Hasbara to Arabs on Facebook?

Everyday, Adraee delivers visual messages to an Arab audience, in the form of propaganda videos and still pictures, mostly  featuring the Israeli army. 

He delivers a limited set of messages, expressed in stereotyped formulas and persistently repeated in various forms: "The Israeli army has professional capabilities, a high level of preparedness to defend its people against terrorism"; "it respects Muslim tradition and culture"; "Israel’s enemies are not Arab people but terrorists and saboteurs”--meaning Hamas and Hezbollah. 

In the videos and pictures, Israeli soldiers can be seen in several of their trumpeted roles: as “professional soldiers”,  “ethical”, “multi-ethnic” “life savers and helpers of the weak”, even if it is the Palestinians. This constant message makes a mockery of the realities of daily Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.  

In his posts, Adraee makes a fetish of the army’s "respect for Muslims and their culture"--one of the perennial messages that all of Israel’s official pages in Arabic on Facebook communicate.

The didactic posts that accompany the propaganda videos can be read as an interpretation of the Israeli army’s strict military narrative using Facebook.

Since launching its first official Facebook pages in English and Arabic in 2011, the Israeli army has had to come to grips with the informal, open nature of this social media platform. And it had to reconcile it with the tradition of security, confidentiality and strict rules that characterise military organisations, according to Rebecca Stein, the author of ‘Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age’.

The posts are written in a formal serious style of heightened impersonal language, whereas the videos are made for quick, easy consumption—they are full of jump cuts, a popular transition in online videos used to create an effect of acceleration suitable for Facebook.  All these visuals seem to be in the spirit of the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”. 

Softer narrative using Um Kulthum's songs

Adraee makes an attempt at a softer, more informal narrative than the corporate speak of the propaganda videos when he addresses his Arab audience on religious occasions like Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr and every Friday, the Islamic holy day.

It is a narrative that may resonate better with his audience by appearing personable and knowledgeable of the complex details of Arab culture. 

In one of his congratulatory messages for Eid, he published a video of a popular Eid song by the late Egyptian singer Um Kulthum and a short comment expressing his liking for it.

The blessings and good wishes which he routinely makes every Friday are usually citations from the Koran, a poem “from a Muslim friend in Nablus”--in the occupied West Bank—or common Arab sayings.

Cultural references, Koran citations and songs are used to delegitimise Hamas and discourage Palestinians from becoming “mukharibeen”, saboteurs in Arabic. It is the term he uses interchangeably with “terrorists”. 

He makes use of Arab pop music and soap operas to condemn attacks on Israelis by Palestinians.  He posted a scene from the popular Syrian soap Bab al-Hara to communicate the message that “Islam proscribes violence, contrary to what some Muslims think”, the same message conveyed in the scene.  

Another de-legitimatisation technique is using Hamas’ internet visual images and posts that are meant to be propaganda and repurposing them as an object of moral outrage.

This social media practice was used by both the Israelis and Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza war in what is known as the war of hashtags. 

How do Arabs react to Hasbara on Facebook?

Adraee’s page has over 900,000 likes, a big number that gives the page validation. Yet it is well known that a big number of likes is meaningless unless it is translated into engagement and sharing of content. 

Besides, some of these likes could be fake ones or created by fake accounts of people without real intent.

The videos he posts generate the highest level of engagement, reaching about 198,000 views for one Eid message and between 20k and over 60k views for videos about the army.

The comments on the posts are consistently anti-Israel, many contain expletives, hate-filled invectives and reminders of past Arab-Israeli wars and incidents of animosity between Muslims and Jews in the distant past. 

Whether intentionally or not, Adraee’s posts invariably generate a high level of coarse language by commenters directed at other commenters.

The trading of ethno-cultural slurs and sexual expletives between commenters makes up a significant part of the comments on Adraee’s posts. 

The war of expletives involves Iraqi Arabs vs Iraqi Kurds, Christian Arabs vs Muslims, Amazigh vs Arabs, in other words the Arab world’s resentful minorities vs the majority. But on the internet, it is difficult to discern real from fake commenters.

While Adraee never engages with his audience, other regular commenters, some are probably Hasbara trolls with names like Monika Schoengrunner, take charge of defending Israel and engage in the war of expletives when it breaks out.

Why are comments of such a vitriolic character kept on the page?

In her book, Stein looked at how the Israeli army’s approach to Facebook comments changed over time. At first, Stein wrote on the website Mondoweiss.net, the army’s social media teams were eager to remove what they perceived to be “derogatory” comments—namely those containing criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. A shift in approach came in coming months: critical comments were kept visible to the audience.

“In the language of the military, this shift in policy was articulated through the metaphor of graffiti, by which the Facebook wall was conceived as a physical edifice, available for public defacement,” she wrote.  

Adraee’s comments reverberate beyond Facebook

Vitriolic comments are not the only response that Adraee’s page generates. His posts often reverberate beyond Facebook.

His Ramadan messages and Koran citations in his Friday’s posts give Arabic Twitter users something to talk about.

He was the butt of jokes for Egypt’s famous satirist Basem Yousef and an object of a satire on an Egyptian, web-based show. And he brought trouble unto former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri after they both exchanged a tweet wishing each other a good morning.

Facing outrage online and in the Lebanese media, Hariri apologised, saying he did not know that he was tweeting an Israeli army spokesperson.

Adraee’s posts are designed to create controversy. They seem to achieve this purpose--the fact that Arabs on social media are talking about Adraee’s posts, even if they are saying he is wrong is in itself a victory. This means Israel is able to control the narrative and the command of the information environment.