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Social media and the Gaza conflict

Issue 7, Winter 2009

By Will Ward

Glassman (far right) fields questions in Second Life

Glassman (far right) fields questions in Second Life

Israel’s assault on Gaza in response to Hamas rocket fire has returned social media to the forefront of Middle East politics.  More than any previous round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Israel is using its military might to control media on the battlefield, while partisans of both sides strive to influence public opinion using social media.

As its air campaign ramped up in late December, the Israeli military debuted its own YouTube channel to broadcast clips of surveillance and airstrikes, eager to portray its weapons as precise and show off its technological command of the battlespace.  Hamas has also sought to use the media.  In Gaza, a group of Hamas fighters allowed Algerian journalist Zouheir Alnajjar to videotape the inside of their homemade rocket factory.  In a gripping clip making the rounds in the blogosphere, we see the camera jerk suddenly as a masked man casually flicks a lighter to ignite a test spoonful of homemade rocket fuel.

While belligerents sought to telegraph their strength, groups supporting both Israel and the Palestinians also used social media to do just the opposite, inviting supporters to advertise their side’s plight on the social networking site Facebook.  Users were asked to “donate their status,” that would automatically display an up-to-the-minute tally of the rockets hitting southern Israel or a running count of the Palestinian dead and wounded.  When logging in to Facebook, friends and acquaintances of a ‘status donor’ would see a gripping reminder of the conflict, such as “9:25pm: 3 additional Hamas rockets hit Israel.  Total today: 33.  Total since the year 2000: 8706,” in place of a mundane update like, “Jim is at the movies.”  The Jerusalem Post reported that 10,000 users signed up to display the “Qassam Count” in the conflict’s first three days.

In a similar vein, one Israeli university set up what amounted to a social media rapid response team.  The group called “Help Us Win” collected student volunteers at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, armed them with computers and talking points, and dispatched them to tell Israel’s story in cyberspace.  At the time of writing, however, their website and Twitter account seem to have been taken offline.

Government officials also got into the act.  New immigrants were recruited by the Absorption Ministry to flood blogs in their native languages with “positive” talking points, while Israeli officials held an online press conference using Twitter, a “microblog” service where all messages must adhere to a strict 140 character limit.

Gaza also intruded into a long-planned press conference held in the virtual world Second Life.  During the event, Egyptian bloggers pitched questions about America’s stance on the crisis at outgoing U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman, or rather at his avatar, digitally rendered in an impossibly well-tailored suit and pixilated pocket square.

Media blackout

Social media are playing a growing role in the current conflict for several reasons.  There is a natural increase in use of the technologies, especially in the Arab World as internet penetration rates continue to grow.  The decades-festering Arab-Israeli conflict has built and galvanized large constituencies around the world who are eager to lend their side a hand in the media battle.

But above all, social media have advanced to the fore in this round of fighting because of Israel’s decision to impose a media blackout on Gaza.  Days before the beginning of operation “Cast Lead,” foreign correspondents were barred from entering the territory.  The government even prohibited Israeli soldiers from bringing in mobile phones – by now the medium of choice for leaks of embarrassing information the world over.

This throttling of the information supply was clearly designed to leave more space for Israel’s government and media to supply the facts of the conflict.  Also, no journalists means no journalist casualties, and thus one fewer pressure group arrayed against Israel in the court of world public opinion.  In addition, holding reporters at bay just over the borders would leave them positioned to report stories favorable to Israeli framing – the smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border and the steady stream of rockets falling on southern Israel.

Analysis on the role of new media in the Middle East has largely centered on how “citizen journalists” can now set the agenda for news outlets, and how social media users repackage, comment on, and distribute content in innovative ways.  But with foreign press shut out, scarce electricity, and little internet infrastructure, the media dynamics in Gaza centered on a handful of Palestinian journalists who worked across a range of media formats to provide footage and primary reporting necessary for traditional and new media alike. 

One journalist typifying this trend is Sameh Akram Habeeb.  An employee of the Gaza branch of the Ramattah News Agency, Habeeb did stand-up reports for television syndication and was interviewed by a range of international media outlets.  He complemented these with updates on his Gaza Today blog, which included a written summary of the day’s news, photos uploaded to his Flickr account, and links to his video features on a sidebar.

Such convergence is not new, particularly in the Arab World, where journalists are less often barred from maintaining personal websites in the name of impartiality.  What is different, is how the ban on journalists entering Gaza forced outsiders to rely almost exclusively on free agents like Habeeb who crisscross traditional and social media formats without a second thought.

Another important development has been decisions by TV outlets to make their raw footage available online for free.  The Ramattan News Agency, for several days of the conflict, streamed an unedited video feed live on its website and Al Jazeera released a collection of tapes from Gaza online under a Creative Commons license.  Al Jazeera’s choice of a Creative Commons 3.0 license, which encourages editing, sharing and commercial and non-commercial distribution of the content, is a clear signal that the network hopes the material would find its widest possible audience via social media.  Indeed, Creative Commons licensing was designed largely to encourage sharing of content over social media; it was hoped that giving producers more control over how their work is used online would prompt them to share more of it instead of applying the usual “all rights reserved.”

But ultimately, social media could not replace the depth and breadth of coverage that would have been produced had Gaza been open to scores of international journalists in full crisis mode.  What it did do, however, was provide new ways to amplify and distribute the trickle of information that escaped the blockade.  These images and videos, depicting gruesome scenes of dead and wounded civilians, conveyed a reality of war not present in the sanitized smart bomb strikes on the Israeli YouTube channel.

Hits and misses

Not all of the attempts at using social media in this conflict were quite so successful.  Individuals’ use of Facebook to broadcast their support for either side has garnered a considerable amount of media attention, but David Faris points out how Facebook’s low barriers to group formation tend to attract the support of individuals with relatively low commitment levels:

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