The decades-long struggle between Israel and Palestine is one of the most discussed and least understood conflicts in the world today. The irony (ironic in a sad, not a funny way) is that while Israelis are the most hated people group in the Middle East, Palestinians are the second most hated people group. The conflict is familial, generational, and almost emblazoned in the psyche of the children growing up in the region.
When the conflict rose to surface again on Wednesday, it was no surprise. A suicide bombing or a single missile fired into opposing territory is generally enough impetus for the region to spiral into days or weeks of conflict.
What was surprising, however, was the role that social media played, and is still playing, in the conflict. We witnessed the power of social media during the Arab Spring, when this most democratic form of communication was harnessed by young people in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya to overthrow the totalitarian regimes hindering economic and political development.
If the Arab Spring was the high-point for the use of social media in positive geo-political change, this may be the low-point. It started Wednesday morning when the official account of the Israeli Defense Forces tweeted “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” They named the offensive #PillarofDefense – probably the first time a military offensive has ever been given a hashtag – and commenced the offensive, live-tweeting it along the way.
Shortly thereafter, the Twitter feed representing Al Qassam – the military wing of Hamas – responded in kind, using #Gazaunderattack to “rally social-media supporters.” They tweeted in response to the IDF Spokesman, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves.”
The Israeli Defense Forces then tweeted a video of a strike that killed Ahmed al Jabari, a military leader of Hamas, to which Hamas responded “Assassination of the great leader Ahmed al Jabari is the beginning of liberation war and ominous harbinger on sons of Zion.”
What followed, and still continues now, was a constant back and forth between the two forces’ Twitter accounts. It’s part threats, part play-by-play, part propaganda, but entirely real. As NBC’s Wilson Rothman writes, “The IDF, for its part, has turned propaganda postering into a real-time affair. In its stream of Twitter images — along with a press shot of army officers departing from a helicopter — are a full-color illustration of a family in the crosshairs (‘Israeli civilians are Hamas’ target’) and an all-caps ‘ALERT’ saying that ‘rockets were fired into Israel.’”
This series of events reflects, I think, both the changing nature of war and the changing nature of social media, as well as a renewed sense of sadness at the constant state of discord in the West Bank.
As a Democratic form of communication, we’ve seen that social media can unite people and be a tool for positive change. Now, however, we see that since it is unedited and unfiltered, it is the best and easiest means of disseminating propaganda. While I don’t think this necessarily discounts the benefits of Twitter and other social media, I think it does, however, tarnish its reputation as a democratizing force in the world. Manipulation through propaganda diminishes the efficacy of the entire medium.
Some on Twitter yesterday were asking the question of whether threats like those delivered from both the IDF and Hamas violated Twitter’s guidelines. I think this misses the point. Shouldn’t live-tweeting a military offensive violate guidelines far superior to Twitter’s? Doesn’t it violate guidelines of basic human decency and morality?
War is always hell, but the use of Twitter and other social media gives off the impression that the two sides are relishing this moment. If this is the future of war and the requisite misuse of social media, it is further reflection of the depressing barbarism of 21st century warfare.