‘Scholars, be careful with your words’

Psychological warfare in the age of social media and political discord.

Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system fires an interceptor at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on May 10, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Israel's Iron Dome air-defense system fires an interceptor at rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on May 10, 2023. Photo by Flash90.
Irwin J. Mansdorf
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, Ph.D., is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs specializing in political psychology and a member of the emergency division of IDF Homefront Command.

When a woman began screaming in a Tel Aviv restaurant on a Saturday evening in May, it set off a general panic among the patrons, most of whom assumed a terror attack had occurred. In reality, the woman’s screams were her response to seeing a cockroach.

Strange as it may seem, this reflects the bizarre state of affairs Israelis find themselves in. On the one hand, Israel clearly enjoys a huge military advantage over the Palestinian terrorists who threaten it. On the other hand, Israelis are delicately susceptible to the fear these random attacks generate.

The fear of a terrorist attack is certainly not irrational or dysfunctional. However, when this fear moves from taking calculated and rational steps to having exaggerated responses to the threat, Israel’s enemies score a victory. Psychological instability, such as panic and insecurity in the population, undermines the country’s ability to respond to threats and attacks effectively.

Consequently, the psychological preparation for future conflicts must be part of any strategic military equation. If a cockroach can trigger mass panic, one can only imagine what would result from a far more credible threat that may come from Hezbollah and/or Iran.

Since first being proposed as the central concept of Islamist warfare, psychological asymmetry has been a feature of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Time and again, we see Israel sustaining minor to no damage or casualties relative to the Palestinians, yet still not sensing “victory.” 

This has been evident in each round of fighting with Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Still, it is becoming increasingly evident even against the random but occasionally more lethal individual attacks by Palestinian terrorists targeting Israelis.

In brief, the concept of psychological asymmetry holds that, despite (and perhaps because of) Israel’s military advantage, any military confrontation will create an imbalance in perceived victimhood, with the Palestinian side inevitably emerging as the victim, notwithstanding their status as the initiator of the aggression.

When Palestinian terrorists are killed during or shortly after an action, Palestinian leadership responds asymmetrically, blaming the real victim for responding and honoring the terrorists with grand funerals and blaming the actual victim (Israel) for retaliating.

Embellishing victim status is a recurrent theme in the Palestinian media. That is one side of the asymmetry. The other side for the Palestinians is to invert Israel’s ostensible military advantage and present it as a weakness.

For example, the “Iron Dome” program is arguably one of Israel’s greatest assets. Not only does it provide an effective defense for its citizens against Palestinian missile attacks, but it also allows Israel to limit retaliatory offensive activity, particularly ground force activity, in light of these limited losses.

Curiously, Palestinians portray this as a psychological weakness and use it to promote a narrative that Israel is cowering in fear of Palestinian missile attacks.

The Palestinian leadership has turned victimhood into a strategy for “victory” by using it to justify “resistance,” which inevitably translates into violence. Terrorist activity is rewarded, families of terrorists are given hero status and national tragedy is turned into an anchor for foreign policy.

This all serves to sustain popular motivation and support from the populace for continued terror activity (deemed “operations” in Arabic), which in turn justifies the Palestinian political leadership to continue in their roles. This strategy appears to have worked. Despite most terrorists being ultimately captured or killed, terror activity continues unabated.

Victimhood also serves the Palestinians internationally, with a willing media serving to enable the preservation of victim status as somehow justifying or at the least providing understanding of the behavior of the Palestinian leadership.

In some cases, the consequences of tolerating terror are ignored and even used as a wedge against what usually would be considered acceptable military targets. For example, in one CNN report, Ben Wedeman focused on a group of handicapped Gazans who were rendered homeless after a building that housed a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad member was destroyed.

No doubt such reports, known as “lethal journalism,” are welcomed by the Palestinian leadership and indirectly reinforce their strategy.

As noted by Boaz Ganor, the primary purpose of terror is to create fear, even though this fear “bears no relation to the actual statistical probability of one being killed or injured in a terror attack.” This is another example of psychological asymmetry in that those with the most to fear (namely the Palestinians and affiliated terror groups) create situations in which those with the least to fear, namely the Israelis, exhibit fear.

Nevertheless, fear is not always irrational or out of proportion to the nature of the attack. Israel has developed “resilience centers” to deal with post-attack anxiety in addition to establishing several organizations that deal in psychological first aid in these cases.

However critical it is for the population to deal with rational post-attack anxiety, a greater danger is a future attack creating a mass “psychological casualty” event, which would disrupt daily functioning and lead to demoralization. And while Israel has done well in dealing reactively to anxiety cases related to war and terror, it has yet to develop a proactive strategy that would, in effect, inoculate or protect the population against future psychological consequences.

Confronting expected psychological anxiety in war is valid and commendable. But while fear and victimhood serve the interests and goals of the Palestinian political leadership, the opposite is true for Israel. Significant psychological trauma will likely bring instability rather than sympathy for Israelis and schadenfreude rather than deterrence for its enemies.

Part of how mass psychological trauma is formed and spread is through media reports, as discussed in an Israeli study by Bodas and colleagues. To that end, it would be critical for Israel not to create an “own goal” by unintentionally mimicking and amplifying reports of Israeli panic. 

One example would be the media, which overly focuses on anxiety-ridden citizens during and after any attack. While the angst and drama may serve to increase viewership, it likely will also have a detrimental psychological effect on many viewers.

The goal of Israeli media should be timely, accurate, factual and informative reporting, trying as much as possible to temper reports to avoid mass anxiety. Unfortunately, past events have not always been reported in a way that would reassure rather than alarm. Nowhere was that more evident than in the over-the-top multiple-channel live coverage of a terrorist on the loose following an attack on a Tel Aviv restaurant in April 2022. Discussing the coverage, The Jerusalem Post wrote, “This was about ratings and drama,” reminiscent of an episode of “‘24’ or ‘Miami Heat.’”

Social media posts, even (or especially) well-intentioned, can heighten rather than mitigate anxiety. By presenting a picture of Israelis fleeing for safety and seemingly panicked, some may mistakenly feel that points are scored on the “hasbara” side, but this comes at the price of embellishing a situation more than reality justifies.

The reality is that, more often than not, Israelis are well-disciplined in seeking shelter during an alarm and most often act responsibly and without panic.

There are other aspects to preventive resilience, especially relevant during times of contentiousness in domestic politics. Zemishlany notes, “Resiliency can be enhanced by strengthening community solidarity and confidence in the army and the national leadership of the country.” 

While political critique is acceptable and welcome in any democracy, opposition leaders also need to be careful not to cross the line from legitimate criticism to inaccurate and politically based criticism that wrongly questions the competence of the government leadership during a crisis.

To that end, the statements by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz during “Operation Shield and Arrow” were important, potentially preventing a slide into an appearance of mayhem.

In an age when reality is fashioned by the media, including social media, it is critical to ensure that psychological warfare aimed at sowing panic and insecurity does not take hold in the population. A prevention strategy requires responsible reporting by mainstream media and monitoring the social media of unofficial “spokespersons” so that exaggeration and hyperbole are minimized and mitigated. To the degree that political figures can inflame or calm a situation, it would be best for them as well to refrain from petty political overstatement, especially during times of conflict.

Israel is likely to experience conflict in the future, some of which, as noted by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, may be unprecedented and likely difficult and trying. Israel’s leaders and media must act responsibly to ensure the population is prepared for incidents involving more than just a wayward cockroach under one’s table.

The words of Avtalyon, as quoted in the Mishnah, ring true today as ever: “Scholars, be careful with your words. For [someone may] distort your words to suit their negative purposes.”

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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