- StateTube:Anthropological Reflections on Social Media and the Israeli State
Computers and keyboards are the weapons-Facebook and Twitter are the battlefields. It is there that we fight, each and every day.-Israel Defense Forces spokesman, New Media Division
Facebook pages...have as much impact as a tank-and sometimes even more.-Israeli Member of Parliament, Danny Danon (Likud)
Consider, as a point of departure, a set of images that went viral on Israeli social networks in October of 2011. Their occasion was the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held for five years by Hamas and freed in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. 1 Popular Israeli criticism quickly mounted about the ways Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had mobilized Shalit's release for electoral gain. Some Israelis voiced their disapproval in the language of the "meme"-that is, an image, video, or phrase that circulates virally between social media users "in the form of parody, pastiche, mashup, or other derivative work" (Shifman 2011). The basis of this pastiche was a photograph issued by the Israeli government on the event of Shalit's release, picturing Shalit embracing his father against the background of the smiling Prime Minister [End Page 893] (see Figure 1). Only Netanyahu's smile remained intact in the photoshopped memes that ensued, while the remaining image was playfully altered in accordance with the authorial vision of its remixer. "Bibi-bombing," as this widespread practice was named (playing alliteratively with the Prime Minister's nick-name), flooded Israeli social networks, Facebook and Flickr in particular. The range of remakes was wide: from key moments in Israeli history to iconic popular cultural events and images (looking on at the wedding of William and Kate, joining the cast of The Matrix, etc.), all overlaid with Netanyahu's cheshire smile (see Figures 2-4).
This meme culture generated little surprise among Israeli social media users. Yet the involvement of the Prime Minister's office in these viral circuits precipitated considerably more commentary. As Israeli newspapers noted, Netanyahu had "post[ed] his own 'Bibi-bomb' on Facebook" within days of the meme's inception-a photoshopped image of the now iconic smile against the background of Netanyahu's recent United Nations
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address during the controversial Palestinian membership bid. American Jewish bloggers praised the effort as a welcomed shift from the "dour and humorless" tenor of the PM's office, as a refreshing refusal of the premise that social networking was "conduct unbecoming" of a head of state.2
A similar buzz was generated in March of 2011, when Netanyahu became the third world leader to appear on YouTube's live interview format, "World View" (see Figure 5). The user response was substantial, as thousands of viewers from over 90 countries posted video and text questions and Netanyahu responded in his well-honed American English and flair for conversational address.3 The substance of his comments was nothing new, including his standard defense of settlement building and celebration of Israel's multicultural democracy. YouTube, however, constituted the difference-that is, the ways this social media platform altered the structure and performance of his address. Joining Netanyahu in his Jerusalem living room where the event was staged were both the interviewer and a large computer screen on which video questions from YouTube viewers were screened. Most conformed to the platform's protocols for amateur
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video production, including poor lighting and shaking cameras. Netanyahu responded in kind, often speaking directly to the screen as he employed the exaggerated informality that is social media's hallmark. The event was hailed as a success by members of the prime minister's staff who praised the Prime Minister's ability to address the international Internet public "without filters" (Ha'aretz 2011).
Within the broader context of Israeli state practices where new media are concerned, these two incidents are by...