Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly known for savvy social media skills and use of digital forums to reach out to his electorate, and he’s using these methods to attract and maintain a base of support among Israeli youth.
The prime minister's Twitter account has more than 1.5 million followers, and his Facebook page has 2.4 million. By the way, he has more than one Facebook page, and the 2.4 million refers only to the most popular one. Netanyahu also corresponds with world leaders on his Facebook account; thus, he received congratulations on his electoral victory from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi — in Hebrew. In addition to all of this, he has a popular Instagram account with 630,000 followers. These accounts were especially active during the elections, utilizing video clips, announcements, reports and an initiative called Likud TV, a supposedly private news network that was disseminated on the party’s Facebook page. Its avowed goal was to sideline all major media outlets — Netanyahu claims the media is hostile to him, his family and Israel’s entire right-wing public — and transmit messages directly to his constituency. For that purpose, TV emcee Eliraz Sadeh was enlisted to conduct well-orchestrated interviews with Netanyahu; these interviews attracted numerous viewers and were widely shared.
The team that operates the social networks of Netanyahu and the Likud is composed of young adults who are fluent in the digital language. They expertly target the main users of the networks: young adults who, according to the studies, get most of their information from these platforms.
Noa S. (a soldier whose name could not be cited for the interview) says she decided to vote for Netanyahu after she also spent much time viewing the videos of his rivals, mainly Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Labor chairman Avi Gabbay. Netanyahu sounded the most articulate and trustworthy of them all. She also accepted his assertion that the regular media is hostile to him.
“When you hear his interviews with most of the journalists on radio and TV, you understand how they try to attack him. By contrast, they are relatively kinder to the left-wing candidates,” she says.
When asked if she'd seen Likud TV on Facebook, Noa S. replies, “Yes, but not much. I preferred listening directly to the video clips; they were short, catchy and adapted to the cell phone. Netanyahu looked into my eyes the entire time.”
Ilan Avraham, a 24-year-old student from Modiin, says he became more politically involved by virtue of the social networks and always supported the right; this time, he had to decide between Netanyahu and the chairman of the New Right, Naftali Bennett. “Netanyahu talked to me using language that was direct, clear and with a strong message. I didn’t always believe everything he said. I’m not naive. But he was the one to catch my attention,” says Avraham.
For 18-year-old Ilanit Nechemia, tthis was the first time she voted. “I’m not crazy about politics, but in Israel we must be involved, also because of security issues. I’m going to serve in the army in a combat role, and that’s important to me personally — and also the economic issues,” she explains, adding, “Therefore, I followed when I had time. I saw some news on the internet, but many times I didn’t like the interpretations they gave. So, I followed the Facebook [pages] of Netanyahu and Gantz. True, Gantz was chief of staff and he’s tall and looks good, but Netanyahu spoke to me personally. I felt that he was really talking to me.”
Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has much to say about the political involvement of Israeli youths on digital channels. She found fundamental differences between young Israelis and Americans regarding political involvement on Facebook. Israelis exhibit much greater interest in politics and want political discussions on Facebook more than Americans. The Americans tend to consider these kinds of Facebook discussions to be illegitimate or at least ill-mannered. One of the reasons for this is that the Israelis understand there are opposing political opinions in their divided society and that Facebook discussions are legitimate for convincing others or receiving support from those who hold similar opinions to your own. Another essential difference is that Israel exists in an ongoing political-military confrontation with the Palestinians and with other countries around it; this arouses a higher level of political involvement among Israelis. According to Kligler-Vilenchik's studies, Americans prefer to avoid political involvement on social networks.
Yossi Levnoni of Ramat Gan, a 22-year-old computer science student, says, “I emerged from my study bubble for a month before the elections, and I followed a lot. I’m not a real left-winger, but I’m sick and tired of what the outgoing government did to the rule of law and order. I wanted to hear, maybe I hoped to hear, Netanyahu change direction. That’s why I preferred his direct messages on the video clips he disseminated on Facebook and his tweets on Twitter. I became convinced he has some kind of paranoid persecution complex, so I voted for the person who had some chance of beating him — Gantz.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Yael Edri from Jerusalem says she followed Netanyahu’s video clips for two reasons: First, she believed the media did not reflect what he wanted to say but only attacked him; second, she wanted to be sure about his views. “In the newspaper interviews, they focused almost solely on the investigations and didn’t ask about the Palestinians, about the economy, the crowding in the hospitals and the other problems. I was disappointed at how Netanyahu presented things, as if everything is wonderful, when I had hoped that he’d give solutions. So I voted for Blue and White because they at least talked about change.”
Twenty-five-year-old Eli Tzioni from Tel Aviv is a Meretz adherent and “freak” of social networks. “Netanyahu invested a fortune to promote his messages on the networks. I followed him on all the platforms; he simply took control of them. He knows how to deliver short, catchy messages, but you can’t always believe him. Someone like me doesn’t believe him at all. But he creates the impression of talking to you personally, and when his face talks to you from the screen of your cell phone, you feel that the prime minister is with you and he cares about you — [even] I was almost convinced,” Tzioni says.
Netanyahu speaks amicably and simply but does not use “low” language like US President Donald Trump. The Israeli prime minister does not curse or use swearwords even when he attacks others sharply; his texts are polished, focused and organized. They are not spontaneous like many of Trump’s messages on Twitter or in video clips. Netanyahu reacts quickly to events or to what other people say, including responses to the publications, posts and tweets of his rivals. His presence on social networks is many times more effective than those of his contenders. Here, too, lies the secret of his success in convincing young voters — the main digital consumers of the media — to vote for him.
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