Hezbollah's Tech-Savvy, Platform-Agnostic Guerrilla Marketing Campaign
There’s a setting in Special Force 2 that lets you kill as many Israeli soldiers as you want, no matter how many times you get blown up. This would be called “God mode” in a typical first-person shooter video game. But the developers behind Special Force 2 belong to Hezbollah, “the party of God” in Arabic, and follow the Islamic tenet that there is no god except God. So the setting is named shahid—martyr—mode.
Such adaptability is a hallmark of Hezbollah, the militant group and political party in Lebanon that the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. Games are just one platform from which they rally support for their anti-Israel, socially conservative Islamist agenda. The effort began more than two decades ago with radio and local television and now encompasses apps for Apple and Android devices, social media, and more than 20 websites in seven languages. Its satellite-TV network, Al-Manar, gives the group global reach in news and entertainment, supplemented by a YouTube channel. The network’s latest innovation is to use WhatsApp instant messaging to deliver headlines and solicit viewer feedback.
Another site, moqawama.org, has stories about Hezbollah’s community activities, including a literacy program and sports clubs for women. It also has simple Flash Player games that let kids throw darts at a Star of David or free prisoners from Israeli jails and “kill the largest possible number of soldiers of the Zionist enemy.”
“For good or evil, it’s about reaching individuals, and individuals today are using a variety of digital platforms,” says Patrick Stack, a marketing specialist in Chicago who advises corporate clients on digital organization. He makes clear that he isn’t endorsing Hezbollah, just commenting on its methods. “They are definitely addressing things in a multiplatform way, and that’s what we would recommend.”
Founded by Shiite clerics in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah aims to fight what it calls Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and promote an Islamic way of life. With funding from Iran, it’s built popular support by providing social services. It holds seats in Parliament.
Much of the digital effort is run from the Hezbollah Electronic Media Office in Beirut. It developed Special Force 2 and runs Al-Ahed News, a site that covers a broad range of subjects. To find Israel news, click the tab labeled Zionist Entity. It has sections devoted to profiles of suicide bombers and Arab soccer teams. A mobile version can be downloaded on Apple’s iTunes Store and on Google Play. Reached by phone, Husayn Rahal, the head of the Electronic Media Office, declined to detail Hezbollah’s digital strategy.
Released in 2007, Special Force 2 is one of Hezbollah’s most ambitious digital efforts. The scenarios are based on the 2006 war with Israel, which Hezbollah says it won. “As game development cycles go, that’s very quick,” says Derek Gildea, a games designer and Middle East specialist with the U.S. Institute of Peace. On his own time, Gildea dissected Special Force 2’s code and found it was built by hacking Ubisoft Entertainment’s Far Cry games and adding scowling Israelis as the enemy. First sold on CD, the game can be downloaded via the Pirate Bay file sharing site and is installed in Beirut Internet cafes. Kids appreciate a game where the bad guys aren’t Arabs. “They were pretty darn savvy with this game,” Gildea says.
Apple and Google have pulled Al-Manar TV apps from their stores, only to see them resurface in other ways. In March an app showed up on iTunes labeled just LCG, the initials of the Lebanese Communication Group, which is controlled and run by Hezbollah members. It appears to have been taken down. Al-Manar also published how-to workarounds for user downloads of its earlier, banned apps.
Against that backdrop, U.S. tech companies continue to remove content that they say violates their own rules. Within hours of Bloomberg Businessweek inquiring about Hezbollah pages, including those for Al-Manar, Al-Ahed, and the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon—a charity associated with Hezbollah—Facebook took them all down. Al-Manar quickly reappeared; the others will certainly follow.