The Rise of the Militarized Selfie: Notes from Israel

Rebecca L. Stein (with Adi Kuntsman)

Two Israeli soldiers taking picture with a selfie stick in military training zone, Israel, 2014. Photo credit: Alex Lerner /
November 2012 marked the first Israeli military operation in which large numbers of soldiers went into service with smartphones in their uniform pockets, updating their social media accounts from army installations as they waited to be deployed for a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. During these days of waiting, they uploaded a series of selfies to their personal Instagram accounts. In most respects, it was a standard catalogue of smartphone portraiture, with an emphasis on beautified snapshots of everyday life in the military, featuring uniformed men and women riding on a bus, posing for an elevator self-portrait, relaxing in the sun, embracing near a tank. Framed and filtered through conventional retro filters, with their familiar aesthetics of the out-of-time and -place, these mobile portraits produced an exquisite and highly sanitized visual archive of soldiering. As such, they offered a digital twist on the long history of Israeli nationalist iconography, in which war is simultaneously heroized and aestheticized while disassociated from resultant violence. On Instagram, this iconography was mobilized to serve the needs of selfbranding, with war employed as a tool of personal self-promotion. These were images of militarism but not of battle, beautified bodies free of dirt or blood, at a considerable remove from the carnage of the concurrent military operation. The accompanying hashtag strings gestured towards the violence that the images had cleansed—“#kill#sexy#nevergiveup#sleep #m16#instalove#happy”—generating an unsettling conjunction of patriotism and intimacy, lethal violence and play.

“IDF Women,” 2013. Photo by Flickr user Danielle, via Flickr Commons.

At work was an instance of what we have termed “selfie militarism.” In selfie militarism, violence often takes surprising forms, emerging in and through the banal and beautified terms of mobile self-portraiture. The militarized selfie is a hybrid genre that links commonplace selfie conventions with militarized political sensibilities. What results, we have argued, is the normalization of violent, racist, and/ or militant nationalist projects by means of very standard social media conventions.

Over the course of the last five years, we’ve watched the militarized selfie gradually grow and spread in Israel as a networked political form. Early instances of the phenomenon emerged in 2010, before the massive global proliferation of the selfie, and included Facebook photographs of soldiers posing in Palestinian homes during routine raids, or in front of blindfolded and cuffed detainees at checkpoints. In these early years, such viral images were framed in Israeli popular discourse as social aberrations, exceptions to Israel’s “moral army” and the national ethos of “purity of arms.” The phenomena would grow and spread in subsequent years, a measure of both the growing right-wing tendencies of the Israeli public and the increasing proliferation of mobile technologies and social media literacy in Israel. Today, selfie militarism no longer surprises Israeli publics. This coupling of militarism and the everyday tools of social media expression has become normalized.

“Guarding Israel,” 2014. Photo by Flickr user Danielle, via Flickr Commons
Such processes of normalization are part of a broader phenomenon that we call “digital militarism.” Our book of the same name explores the ways that social media tools, technologies, and practices are increasingly employed in the service of militant projects by state and civilian Internet users. While this is undoubtedly a global phenomenon—a phenomenon we have come to know quite intimately in Trump’s America—our study focuses on its emergence in the context of Israel’s occupation, with an emphasis on ways that fervent and often militant nationalism is taking shape through mundane networking practices and modes of online engagement. Digital militarism in the Israeli context is not what we typically associate with Israel’s repressive rule in the Palestinian territories. This kind of militarism takes shape through everyday Facebook status updates, through “likes” and shares, and in the hues of the Instagram retro-filter.

When we began researching this book in 2009, “digital militarism” was in its infancy, in both Israeli and broader global contexts. But over the course of our research, we watched it grow and spread. Today, it need hardly be remarked, the phenomenon is no less than commonplace in political theaters across the globe. We are no longer surprised to learn about the integration of social networking into military arsenals; about the presence of smartphones on battlefields; about social networking from scenes of atrocity, by both victims and perpetrators; or the ways that popular platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube both function as wartime archives and constitute critical tools for human rights and activist documentation projects—even as they might, many hope, eventually aid in bringing perpetrators to justice. The reach of contemporary warfare and armed conflicts into digital arenas has both enlarged theatres of military operation and changed our understanding of the political function and ends of digital technologies.

What does this mean for the Israeli case? Return, again, to selfie militarism. Our focus on this hybrid form—which couples the conventional genres and norms governing mobile self-portraiture with military contexts and sensibilities— is an attempt to study the ways that Israelis are living intimately with their military occupation in the course of their everyday digital lives. Selfie militarism is one way to highlight the very mundane and banal ways in which Israelis live with, and perpetuate, the occupation through standard networking practices. Today, we argue, social media functions as a crucial domain of everyday complicity with military rule—complicity evident not only in the actions of the Israeli soldier deployed in the West Bank, armed with both weapon and networked smartphone, but also in the networking practices of the Israeli resident of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, for whom the occupation might seem to exist at something of a distance from her comfortable life. Liking and sharing from the relative comfort of Tel Aviv can also, we propose, constitute a form of digital complicity.

This text is adapted from the introduction to Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford University Press, 2015).