Hezbollah, the “Party of Allah” (aka Party of God) recognized as a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon, has repeatedly demonstrated its mastery of the use of media and social networks to shape public opinion and grow sympathetic followers. Even recently the group has placed its operatives within Israel to regularity and spar with both Israel and the west via social networks.
For instance, on Oct. 26 we witnessed a subtle piece of social media forehead-thumping between Hezbollah and Israel. Hezbollah posted a variety of photographs on Hezbollah’s Central Military Information Twitter and Facebook accounts C_Military1 with the message (loose translation by author using machine translation):
Who thinks he’s tracking us. Don’t forget to look behind you too.
Whoever thinks he’s following us. Don’t forget you’ll look after you too.
— الاعلام الحربي مركزي (@C_Military1) October 26, 2017
The Jerusalem Post picked up on the Twitter posting, noting the effectiveness in sending the message in both Hebrew and Arabic from the Hezbollah psychological warfare team, conveying a message, that they can infiltrate Israel.
What is Hezbollah, and What is Its Use of Social Media?
Hezbollah’s relationship with Iran is rarely disputed, given its roots are founded in the Iranian efforts of 1980s to place all of the Shi’a groups in Lebanon under one umbrella of Iranian influence and support. Many view Hezbollah as an extension of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and Iran’s proxy in an ongoing low-intensity conflict between Iran and Israel.
This latter point is often missed when one analyzes the activities of the organization, and may tend to lead one to underestimate the skill and capabilities of Hezbollah. The group is adroit, disciplined and capable in the world of influence, intelligence and counterintelligence. It operates as a nation-state would operate, complete with SIGINT (signals intelligence) and HUMINT (human intelligence capabilities). The U.S. Department of State considers the organization an international terrorist organization.
While the above is a current example of the use of social networks by Hezbollah, the organization has been honing its skills to influence public opinion and utilize the social networks to shape itself in a positive perception. The Jerusalem Post, in an opinion piece, “How Hezbollah Came to Dominate Information Warfare,” walks the reader through how Hezbollah is masterful at “gaining an advantage over an adversary through the management of information.” The Hezbollah mantra, “If you haven’t captured it on film, you haven’t fought,” is not that different from the current social meme: “Pic or it didn’t happen.”
This philosophy far precedes social media. Consider how Hezbollah demonstrated this in 1984-1985 when it filmed William F. Buckley, who was the CIA station chief in Beirut operating under diplomatic cover and was kidnapped by Hezbollah March 16, 1984. The film of the torture and death of Buckley was beyond horrific. How did the United States learn of the details of Buckley’s ordeal? The information and was delivered to the U.S. government via the nephew of Hashemi Rafsanjani (then No. 2 behind Ayatollah Khomeni in revolutionary Iran).
While psychological messaging is largely thought to be of ultimate use during low-intensity conflict, we saw during the Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006 how Hezbollah used the media as a weapon in an asymmetrical conflict. A Brookings Institute study on this topic articulates, how the 34-day conflict reset the standard on how media coverage was leveraged for tactical advantage. The authors of the study argued how “Hezbollah saw itself as a resolute leader in shaping the Arab future.” They also noted how Hezbollah wasn’t just fighting a battle against Israel, but rather fighting to “link religious fundamentalism to Arab nationalism” (quietly funded by Iran.).
Perception, and Hezbollah’s Goal
Moving to 2017, 11 years later, Newsweek in an opinion piece on Hezbollah and its “Campaign of Perception” describes how the organization has “stepped up its campaign on the cognitive front and wages a war of perception and influence against Israel.”
The piece describes the social media campaign of Hezbollah, dubbed “We are coming!” The examples provided from the Hezbollah Central Military Information above are but one example. Others include the group’s threat to destroy Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Hezbollah’s goal? Apart from the annihilation of Israel, it needs to rebuild its support within its own constituency, as the organization’s losses of personnel incurred in Syria were substantial. By sowing concern and apprehension within the Israeli population, Hezbollah hopes to dissuade Israel from engaging in armed conflict. It also is working to undermine Israeli political standing in the world.
In sum, Hezbollah’s use of social networks is like that of a company trying to generate support and interest for its point of view of product. The group will continue to attempt to project the “possibility” of “hundreds of thousands of fighters from across Arab and Muslim countries toward Israel via Syria,” to sow doubt, discontent and fear within the Israeli population.
We should expect, as the Jerusalem Post suggests, we will see C_Military1 active with that messages on both Twitter and Facebook. We will also see, as noted in the Newsweek opinion piece, Hezbollah’s continued use of media to include “an array of tactics that include postcards, posters, videos, keychains, billboards, video games and elaborately constructed websites.”