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Israeli protests shake Netanyahu’s social media empire

With so many top high-tech Israeli figures leading the anti-judicial overhaul movement, social media wizard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reason to worry.
 A print house worker rolls up a Likud party election campaign poster that shows former Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu on October 19, 2022 in Rosh HaAyin, Israel. Legislative elections will be held in Israel on 1 November 2022 to elect the members of the twenty-fifth Knesset. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Yair Netanyahu, son of Israel’s incumbent prime minister, suggested on Wednesday that anti-judicial overhaul plan protests could be financed by foreign countries in an attempt to destabilize his father’s rule.

“So obvious that people are being paid to participate in this anarchy. Who is funding it all? The current assessments are that the anarchist demonstrations over the past two months cost half a billion shekels so far. Are foreign countries behind this money?” he tweeted. Yair Netanyahu then added documentation to prove his claim, without specifying the source.

The younger Netanyahu is known for being his father's voice across social media, but also has no inhibitions. He is one of the most active Twitter users in Israel with an account that has almost 160,000 followers. He uses this account to attack anyone he perceives as his parents’ enemy, particularly on the left and in the media.

Netanyahu's love/hate relationship with media

The burgeoning protest movement against his father has gotten Netanyahu Jr. to lash out against the media without restraint, which he believes is collaborating with the protests’ organizers while hiding the truth from the public. Wednesday’s tweet was just one of many he had published in recent weeks against the protesters.

It is rare to see Netanyahu disavowing his son’s tweets. In most cases, he simply says that his son operates independently, and that he does not control him. Still, this does not reflect the true nature of the relationships within the Netanyahu family. The parents and their two sons fight vigorously for one another.

Netanyahu has had a love/hate relationship with the media throughout his political career. He admires the power of the mass media and has ever since his time in the United States. As a politician, he learned to use the media to relay clear and unequivocal messages. He also gained a reputation as a master of TV appearances. On the other hand, Netanyahu loathes the media, believing that it is just an arm of the left, which will always harass him and his family.

The emergence of social networks as an especially influential political tool over the last decade strengthened Netanyahu even further. He managed to build a “digital empire” for himself, and quickly at that. In doing so, he was able to circumvent the established media outlets, no matter how powerful they were.

Netanyahu is now the oldest active politician in Israel and the most influential online. He has a presence on every major digital platform, releasing new video clips almost on a daily basis and reacting to every development in real time.

This allows Netanyahu to dictate the national agenda. His accounts are especially impressive, with millions of followers, while the online influencers who support him have huge followings of their own. This provides Netanyahu with a platform to get his messages across unhindered.

Netanyahu’s discovery of the internet changed his style, too. He has become less politically correct and started to do the kinds of things he never would have dared to do before, particularly when it comes to his legal woes.

The number of weekend chats he once held with political pundits has started to decline. Instead, Netanyahu devotes his time to cultivating right-wing journalists and news outlets, the ultra-Orthodox, bloggers and influencers, not to mention an even more robust presence on social media.

While building his reputation as a major player on social media, Netanyahu adopted a strategy that he was once reluctant to use: He has begun launching personal attacks on journalists. He started mocking them at election events and on social media, calling them “lapdogs,” while calling the country’s news channels “Soviet propaganda channels.” He even stopped watching the eight o’clock evening news, something he did for decades.

What Netanyahu has effectively done is establish his own communications system. This goes far beyond his personal accounts on social media. Legal experts — including police investigators and former employees of the attorney general’s office, media figures and right-wing activists — have lent their support to Netanyahu’s struggle. Some of them used crowdsourcing to fund independent online channels to cover Netanyahu’s trial.

There are those who claim that Netanyahu was influenced by the style of former US President Donald Trump and is now imitating it. In practice, however, Netanyahu is influenced primarily by his son and a slew of young consultants who grew up online and understand how the internet works. They have become his teachers.

Social media not only allows Netanyahu to take on his political rivals and get his message across, it also allows him to design and determine how he is seen, without any mediation or filters. He injects these efforts with humor, causing him to appear as a very human family man. He makes a point of being filmed with his wife walking along the beach, reading a book while flying or meeting his admirers.

Outplayed by protests

The problem is that in the past few weeks, a new opponent has emerged to take on Netanyahu. The mass protests are not being led by politicians. They also make extensive use of the very social networking platforms that Netanyahu once dominated. The protests’ messages go viral, and they can organize a demonstration in a very short time.

At first it seemed as if Netanyahu himself did not fully appreciate the power of the protests. He stuck to his agenda as prime minister, while ignoring the tempest raging outside. It is only in the last few days that he has begun fighting back online.

In response to a campaign by elite military figures who refuse to do their reserve duty, Netanyahu shot a video of himself meeting with new recruits at the Induction Center. “Military service is a supreme value. We have no state without an army,” he told them. The message was then distributed across every possible platform, including relevant WhatsApp groups.

Actually, Netanyahu has been sharing a lot of film clips recently, along with content opposing him, which he thinks proves his claim that he and his family are the victims of incitement and that their lives are in danger. This is a very powerful tactic. It consolidates his supporters around him by making them feel as if the attacks against Netanyahu are targeting them as well.

So, will Netanyahu win the war over social networks, or will the protesters? In previous election campaigns, Netanyahu dominated and controlled social media, using it to determine the national agenda. Today, however, he seems to be lagging behind. The leaders of the protests include top figures from high tech, including experts in using the internet to get their message across. Netanyahu may be a communications wizard, but he is now facing the kind of tough and wily rival who can beat him on his home turf.

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