Saturday, September 23, 2017

The war of words during Operation Protective Edge


By Lynda Franken - December 01, 2014
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags:

The following report analyzes the growing usage of, and focus on, social media during Israel's Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. 
 
 
“If I were Mr. Muscles, I would break all the rockets, tanks, warplanes and warships and throw them away #GazaUnderAttack,” reads one of Farah Baker’s popular posts on Twitter. Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl from the Gaza Strip, received worldwide media exposure for her tweets describing ordinary life in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, a 50-day campaign that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians. By the end of the war, Baker’s Twitter followers had jumped from a mere 800 to more than 200,000. 
 
Baker’s case is only one illustration of the increasing importance of social media during the latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip. Apart from heavy air strikes and a partial ground invasion, Israel’s military assault on the coastal enclave this summer was also characterized by a virtual fight on social media. With Twitter and Facebook blossoming as innovative, real-time news sources, and hundreds of journalists reporting live from Gaza, Operation Protective Edge was followed from wifi-connected living rooms across the world. Both the Israeli government and Gaza’s Hamas government anticipated this new trend and chose their words carefully on social media, eager to maintain and project a partial self-flattering image. 
 
Propaganda warfare on social media
 
The (increasing) use of social media platforms by governments has introduced the world to a new phenomenon: social media propaganda. Governments are using social media platforms to spread information which aims to persuade an audience towards a particular, often partial, point of view. And while the act of spreading propaganda itself is not new, the way of disseminating it is. The main social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which emerged in 2006 and 2004 respectively, differ from 'classic’ propaganda means like newspapers, public speeches, television and radio broadcasts on several essential points.  
 
First of all, social media propaganda requires the direct and greater involvement of the masses to be successful. Sharing thoughts on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube is easy, but effectively reaching a large audience is significantly more difficult. It requires active participation by the target audience—liking, following, retweeting, sharing, etc. In addition, it is significantly more difficult for governments to control the content of social media in comparison to that of newspapers or television. Governments might be able to restrict particular pages or even block websites that contradict their views but their ability to ubiquitously screen and censor dissenting opinions are limited. This is because of the “cute cat theory,” as Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, calls it. This theory holds that when and if governments shut down pages on popular sites, initial supporters may become angry and eventually turn against the powers that be. 
 
In regard to Operation Protective Edge, it is unlikely that the Israeli government would try to shut down the Twitter page of an innocent 16-year-old like Farah Baker. Such an act would make it difficult for Israel to continue its attempt to portray itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and would probably cause great turmoil among its supporters, possibly causing the government to lose both international and domestic support. At the same time these seemingly innocent pages can and do influence the overall coverage of the conflict.  During Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Baker mainly tweeted about her own life as a teen in a war zone. Her followers could keep track of her situation through her regular twitter updates, almost as if she was a friend fighting to stay alive in Gaza. Her emotional and often personal tweets differed from the bland broadcasts spread by mainstream outlets. Her audience on Twitter must have felt empathy, anger and even helplessness. This emotional connection changes the nature of, and feelings toward, events global audiences often only fleetingly hear about. 
 
Baker’s success also illustrates another important aspect of this new propaganda: engaging in a conversation with supporters and opponents. Connecting to the audience creates empathy. One of the explanations for Baker’s popularity is her continuous retweets of, and replies to, her followers, which allowed her to create a strong connection with her audience and establish that she is someone to whom people can relate. At the same time, empathy can be created through conversing with opponents. Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli human rights activist, corrected some grammar mistakes in Hamas’ Hebrew tweets. To her surprise they responded in a kind way, thanking her for her help. “To be honest (…) I had a burst of kind of empathy to the person writing it. I thought, 'He is a person just like me.’ […] I mean, he’s more polite than I am,” she told American radio collective NPR.
 
Social media propaganda is also characterized by the fast pace in which new information is posted and shared. An increasing amount of tweets contain photos or graphic images, one would not find on prime-time television. During the 50-day Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military tweeted an average of 20 tweets a day on their English account, according to research of Tomer Simon from Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The information tweeted was mostly real time information: constant updates on the number of rockets fired, targets hit and tunnels discovered. These numbers were often incorporated in graphics to make the info more easily accessible to the public. 
 
 
 
In theory, having money allows one to create better content that is able to reach a larger audience. The graphics of the Israeli military illustrate what can be done with a budget of 50 million USD a day (The Israeli government recently stated its military forces spent 2.5 billion USD on Operation Protective Edge). In practice however, money does not equal success. In the end, it is the audience that decides to retweet or to share content. Because sharing content on social media is free of charge and can be done by anyone with internet access, this new form of propaganda is often characterized by an improved position of the underdog. A quick analysis of the use of the Twitter hashtags #IsraelUnderFire and #GazaUnderAttack during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge provides a clear demonstration of this phenomenon. 
 
Both hashtags were introduced during Israel’s 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense assault on Gaza, and were re-used throughout the 2014 operation. While #IsraelUnderFire was extensively promoted by the Israeli government, through paid and non-paid means, #GazaUnderAttack emerged from the Twitter public and was only sporadically used by official Hamas Twitter channels. Nonetheless, nearly one month into the violence, #GazaUnderAttack had been used more than 4 million times, whereas #IsraelUnderFire had been used only 200,000 times, according to statistics compiled by Al Jazeera. 
 
Yet, the issue with Twitter content, and social media content in general, is that it is difficult to check the reliability of what is posted. A small survey by the BBC in July 2014 concluded that some images tweeted under #GazaUnderAttack were actually images from previous Israeli military operations in Gaza, or from war scenes in Syria and Libya. While indirectly blaming pro-Palestinian Twitter users for their ignorance, the BBC-survey failed to look into the use of the corresponding Israeli hashtag. 
 
A quick analysis by Palestine Monitor shows, unsurprisingly, that there were also problematic images tweeted under #IsraelUnderFire. One example is the following image of a Muslim girl holding two signs during a demonstration. One sign reads “Stop Hamas Terrorism on Israel,” while the other reads, “Free Gaza from Hamas.” Several people – pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian – retweeted the picture as to emphasize that the people in Gaza do not support the Hamas regime and should be helped in ousting the organization. It appears however, that the original picture was made on 20 November 2012 in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, and the girl was holding signs that said: “Stop Israeli Terrorism” and “Free Gaza,” – a totally different message.
 
 
Even though there are no vetting processes to fact check postings on social media, it does matter who posts what. In general, people are more likely to believe the content that is posted when they deem the person who posted it to be reliable and professional. The so-called frame resonance – a term coined by Benford and Snow in 1988 –thus depends more on the authority of the person than on the actual content. It is therefore particularly interesting to look into content that is posted by, or in the name of, the Israeli and Hamas governments.  
 
Social media codes
 
Both the Israeli and Hamas governments seem to be aware of the importance of social media content and are actively involved in creating social media codes designed to instruct their supporters on how to behave on social media platforms. The Hamas government in Gaza presented a short YouTube video in Arabic on 10 July, urging citizens in Gaza to refer to “anyone killed or martyred (as) a civilian from Gaza or Palestine before talk(ing) about his status in jihad or his military rank. Don’t forget to always add 'innocent civilian’ or 'innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.” 
 
International Humanitarian Law “requires that parties to a conflict take precautions in any attack to minimize civilian deaths and injuries.” A high number of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip exposes the Israeli government as an aggressor and potential violator of international law. It also weakens the argument of the Israeli government that it is acting out of self-defense. Simultaneously, a high civilian death toll can strengthen Hamas’ claim to self-defense and create more sympathy for their attacks. After 50 days of fighting, however, Hamas’ video seems superfluous; over 70 per cent of the 2,104 Palestinian recorded deaths during the Israeli military operation were in fact civilians, according to UN statistics. 
 
The Israeli government, on the other hand, has been less upfront in supporting a social media code. Yet, in 2003, an American organization called The Israel Project (TIP) instructed the pro-Israeli, Jewish-American pollster Frank Luntz to write a Global Language Dictionary. The media guide was not to be published, but a revised version was leaked shortly after completion in 2009. The guide is meant for “leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel,” stated Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, TIP-director at the time, in one of the first pages of the report. 
 
The Israel Project, which was founded in 2003, states on its website to be “dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel and the Middle East. […] TIP does not lobby and is not connected to any government.”  Closer examination, however, shows that several of the organization’s staff are, or were, directly linked to the American or Israeli government. CEO and TIP president Joshua S. Block is the former US State Department USAID spokesperson, while Chief of Staff Adam Cutler is an IDF veteran. Most prominently, Executive Director Marcus Sheff “was a prominent spokesperson for the IDF during the Second Intifada and Lebanon War, trains IDF officers in media skills and holds the rank of Major in the unit,” according to the TIP website.
 
The comprehensive 116-page report instructs readers on how to effectively debate issues like settlements, Jerusalem, the Right of Return and Gaza. It urges readers that “no matter what you are asked – bridge to a productive pro-Israel message. […] Remember, your goal in doing interviews is not only to answer questions – it is to bring persuadable members of the audience to Israel’s side in the conflict.” 
 
One of the mechanisms put forward in the report is the “If…If…If…Then” approach, meant to “put the burden on Hamas to make the first move for peace (and) to show Israel is a willing peace partner.” Luntz uses the following example: “If Hamas reforms … If Hamas recognize our right to exist … If Hamas renounces terrorism ... If Hamas supports international peace agreements … then we are willing to make peace today.” (p. 20)
 
Another section of the report urges readers to “never talk about 'giving’ the Palestinians something […] Giving reminds people that you’re in the stronger position and that creates more sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.” Luntz proposes to use the word “building” instead. This, he explains, “suggests a step-by-step, layer-by-layer improvement of conditions.” (p.29)
 
Moreover, using the word “giving” is problematic because it implies that someone 'took’ something, in turn rendering Israel the most liable perpetrator. “Giving” the Palestinian people access to a larger fishing area in Gaza raises the question of who “took” away their permission to fish in the area in the first place. Yet, “building” better fishing infrastructure implies a helping hand from the Israelis, and an improvement of the situation. 
 
A good example of the TIP excerpts in practice is the following quote by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he expresses his willingness to “build thousands of jobs in the Palestinian Authority” but burdens Hamas with taking the first steps to Palestinian prosperity. He said these words in 2008 during a conference call with right-wing security analyst Dan Rabkin focused on the “threat of Iran.” Interestingly enough, the call was sponsored by The Israel Project, which is not mentioned in the TIP-report. 
 
“If you build thousands of jobs in the Palestinian Authority, real jobs, and people bring food to the table, wages are rising, and investments are made, it is worth a thousand international conferences and a thousand shelf agreements. 
 
So that’s what we must do, and Israel is ready to be a partner. But it’s also time for someone to ask Hamas: What exactly are YOU doing to bring prosperity to your people?” 
– Netanyahu as quoted in the Global Language Dictionary (p.28)
 
The importance of labeling 
 
As the excerpts from the Global Language Dictionary indicate, the way a statement or idea is worded goes a long way in constructing meaning. Names, as images, hold a certain value, particularly when used during conflicts. Words do not merely describe things; they do things. And it is generally understood that war-time language can serve two goals. The first is to mobilize constituents through the creation of an us vs. them dichotomy. Second, it can legitimize violent behavior. Both are equally important and directly related to one another. 
 
Drawing a clear division between us (the good-guys) and them (the bad-guys) makes the danger inherent in war feel more real. Such a division creates a frightening image of them, while softening the image of us. A good way to illustrate this theory is by looking into the naming of the latest Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. The English name issued by the Israeli government is “Protective Edge.” This is a very loose translation from the Hebrew name “Tzuk Eitan”, which means “Steadfast Cliff” or “Firm Cliff” when literally translated. The Arabic translation of “Tzuk Eitan” resembles its Hebrew equivalent and roughly translates into “Resolute Cliff.” 
War-time language mobilizes constituents through the creation of an us vs. them dichotomy, and can also legitimize violent behavior. 
 
Avichay Adraee, the Israeli military spokesperson for Arab Media, admitted that the translations were not chosen at random. “The name of this operation (Protective Edge) was modified in English to give it a more defensive connotation,” he told the Turkish Anadolu Agency on 8 July. “I chose 'Resolute Cliff’ in Arabic because it (…) is a message to our enemies who are targeting us.  […] The name is also appropriate in Hebrew (because) it calls on the Israeli people to stand firm,” he added. 
 
The words of Adraee fit into the larger narrative of the Israeli government. Naming the operation “Protective Edge” emphasizes the idea that this operation is a way to protect Israeli territory close to Gaza – the “edge.” It takes away the connotation that the Israeli government is actually attacking the Strip itself. The Arabic and Hebrew names, on the other hand, are designed to resemble and remind one of the steadfastness of the Israeli government and people. These names are designed to show the enemy and the Israeli public that defeat is not an option. 
 
It is important to note that all three names refer to nature, whether it is the Hebrew name or its Arab or English translations. This reference is a recurring one in the names of Israeli military campaigns. Nearly 35 per cent of all operations conducted since the state’s independence in 1948 refer to nature, according to a study published in 2008 by Israeli academic Dr. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri. Gavriely-Nuri emphasizes in her study that references to nature can serve different goals. It can turn military operations into common phenomena, which she calls naturalization. “The name Operation First Rain gives the impression that this operation is part of the regular cycle of seasons,” she writes. It is also a way to both euphemize and legitimize the situation because nature’s events are uncontrollable and unavoidable. It removes any blame on the Israeli government, which is actually carrying out the operation. 
 
Apart from references to nature, Gavriely-Nuri’s study addresses biblical names, to which around 35 per cent of all Israeli military operations refer. References to Biblical heroes or enemies serve as euphemisms, she argues, because they refer to a higher, divine purpose. The enemy is no longer a chosen enemy but rather a historic foe that was “destined” to be the enemy. At the same time, biblical names legitimize the right of the Jewish people to fight for their land and conduct military operations because they give the impression that the battles were ordered by a higher power.
 
A prime example of such a biblical name is that of the 2008-2009 Israeli offensive in Gaza labeled Operation Cast Lead, which referred to the festivities of Chanukah. More specifically, the name refers to a poem by the famous Jewish poet Chaim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), who wrote about a dreidel made of cast lead. The story  goes that during the Maccabean revolt (167-160 BC) Jewish children would pretend to play with the dreidel – a spinning top – to cover up their studies of the Torah, which was forbidden at the time. The tradition of playing with the dreidel is linked to the courage of those children and the reference to cast lead seems to call upon the Israeli people to stay strong. 
 
The fact that Operation Cast Lead was partly fought during Chanukah is, however, the only similarity between the Maccabean revolt and Operation Cast Lead. There was no suppression of the Jewish people in 2008-2009, nor could the Israeli army be seen as the underdog. On the contrary: the residents of the Gaza Strip were trapped during the 22-day Israeli military operation, which resulted in approximately 1,400 Palestinian deaths compared to four Israeli casualties. Naming the operation “Cast Lead” gives the impression that the Israeli military was responding to restrictions imposed by a more powerful opponent, crediting them the underdog position. The death toll however, suggests that it is more accurate to appoint this position to the residents of the Gaza Strip.
Naming the operation “Cast Lead” gives the impression that the Israeli military was responding to restrictions imposed by a more powerful opponent, crediting them the underdog position. 
But it is not just the Israeli government that uses biblical and natural references to name its military operations. The Hamas leadership referred to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead as “the Battle of al-Furqan.” Furqan, which means “criterion” in Arabic, refers to the ability to divide between good and evil, as is mentioned in the 25th sura of the Quran. The day on which Mohammad and his believers won the Badr-battle against the Meccans is referred to as Yawm al-Furq. The Meccans, whose army was led by a much stronger but unfaithful leader, were defeated because of the holy distinction between good and evil.  
 
The coincidence is striking. Like Mohammad, the Hamas leadership faced a much stronger and better-organized enemy during Cast Lead. Again, there seems to be holy justification for their battle, as if it was the will of God rather than the decision of the Hamas leadership to fight the battle. 
 
Addressing a larger audience
 
While the Israeli government tried to frighten the Gazan public by naming its operation “Resolute Cliff,” the Hamas government addressed its Hebrew public with a music video. The clip in Hebrew (along with Arabic subtitles) was published on YouTube on 8 July, and is a remake of an Arabic song released during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.  The video, entitled “Shake Israel’s Security,” re-uses a song that was popular in the 1970s and shows Hamas militants firing rockets at Israel. 
 
The video aims to rally the Arab public, while simultaneously frightening the Israeli public with shocking images and fearful Hebrew lyrics. “In my childhood, we heard these songs and Hamas now is using them to rally a national spirit from people and gain acceptance,” argued Saleh Masharaqa, a Palestinian lecturer at Bir Zeit University.  The Israeli public however, did not seem moved by the song. Israeli military historian Yagil Henkin called the song “hilariously silly,” and claimed it to be a big hit amongst Israeli military officers, some of whom purportedly used it as their cell phone tune during Operation Protective Edge. Henkin said he was unable to take the video too seriously because the diction and accent of the Hebrew is “extremely bad.” “They shout in the middle of the song, 'vulcanim.’ Vulcans, volcanoes, what? No one has any understand[ing of] what they say.”
 
A vast part of the video’s lyrics are, however, explicitly and directly aimed at the Israeli military forces. “Set fire to the heart of Israel like spider-webs. Undermine Israel to her foundations, exterminate the nest of cockroaches,” is sung in the chorus. Further on,  the song also compares Israeli soldiers with apes and rats. The use of animal metaphors is striking and can be used as a technique to create a clear us and them division: us being the human beings and them being the frightening beasts. 
 
The use of animal metaphors can also serve to legitimize violent behavior. If all Israelis are regarded cockroaches, then it is easier to condone using violence against them. While the killing of a cockroach is not considered a crime, killing a human being is. Animal metaphors therefore also serve as a way to soften the context of conflict. It is a way to categorize the Israelis as one people that are inherently the same and one common enemy. Using names such as rats, apes and cockroaches is a way to dehumanize the enemy and makes it easier for people to relate to the enemy as evil and appalling.
 
Dehumanization is a technique that is also used by the Israeli government. Immediately after the murder of the three settler youth in June 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the killers “human animals,” instantly accusing Hamas of having a hand in the incident, despite the fact that up until this day there is no evidence of involvement by the Hamas leadership. In a short speech made at the start of the Israeli Security Cabinet meeting on 30 June, Netanyahu spoke in clear us/them language. Them being the “human animals,” who “Hamas is responsible (for) and Hamas will pay (for).” Us being the “entire Jewish People,” that is saddened by the death of “our three abducted youths.” Interestingly enough, Netanyahu equated the Israeli nation with the Jewish people, although more than 20% of the nation consists of non-Jewish people and not all Jewish people are Israeli.
 
Ayelet Shaked, a member of a right-wing party in the Israeli Parliament, went even further by reposting an article from Uri Elitzur on Facebook on 1 July in which Elitzur refers to the entire Palestinian population as terrorists and “snakes.” “They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there,” the post read. The reference to snakes is as troubling as Hamas’ references to apes, rats and cockroaches because it similarly dehumanizes the Palestinian population as a whole. 
 
Interestingly enough, Elitzur also refers to destroying Palestinian houses, even though a house as such does not pose a threat to Israel. He basically calls for a widespread bombardment of the occupied Palestinian territories without any limitations on who or what is being hit. Shaked was widely criticized for her post by the international media, but did not face any legal sanctions for incitement to hatred, regardless of her position as a Knesset member and the fact that Arab Israeli members of Knesset were sanctioned for mild critiques of Operation Protective Edge.
 
Rallying third parties to convey our message 
 
Apart from directly targeting the enemy, another important technique of propaganda warfare is to strengthen the image of us. This serves to justify the actions undertaken to defeat the enemy, and can be done directly by governments through social media. A stronger way to do so, however, is by using third parties to convey the same message. The advantage of third party-propaganda is again related to resonance. It is more reliable to have others claim that you are a good person than it is to claim to be a good person yourself. 
 
An example during Operation Protective Edge is the Student Union of the private university of Herzliya (IDC Herzliya), which rallied students to help in the hasbara campaign. Literally, hasbara means “explaining” in Hebrew, but the term is more commonly used to refer to overseas propaganda issued by the Israeli government. In 2012, it was shown that the National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS) offered Israeli students $2000 (USD) each if they would spread pro-Israeli propaganda online for a total of 240 hours. NUIS, which represents over 300,000 Israeli students, received $47,000 from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2011-2012 (out of their total budget of over $1,5 million). “This is our opportunity (…) to provide hasbara that is correct and balanced, to help the struggle against the delegitimization of the State of Israel and against hatred of Jews in the world,” a Hebrew language document issued by NUIS on the subject reads, a translation of which was provided by Dena Shunra at The Electronic Intifada. 
 
The online war room, founded during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 for the sole purpose of spreading online propaganda, operated for thirty days during Operation Protective Edge. Through the use of the hashtag #IsraelUnderFire, more than 600 students posted comments, videos and images on social media that are both pro-Israeli and anti-Hamas. Their website, Israel Under Fire, is available in 30 different languages, and the organization claims it reached forty million people worldwide during its days of operation this summer.
 
The translation of information to the native language of the proposed audience holds significant advantages. In general, it is easier to reach people when they are approached in their own language. In addition, information provision can be adapted to the receiving country’s values and therefore hit closer to home, increasing the overall impact of the propaganda. The Israel Under Fire website for instance, changes its tone and range of images according to the language used, giving the impression that it takes into account what the country’s stance is towards the Israeli government. 
 
The images on the English and French version present the Israeli case as one of self-defense and focus on imagining the reality of Hamas rockets on British, American or French soil. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew website presents images in English which are not published on the English website. These images contain stronger language which, as Luntz argued in his TIP-report, could turn off the (English-speaking) largely American audience that “fail(s) to see why it is necessary for armored tanks to shoot at unarmed kids or why Israel needs to level homes or (…) why a Palestinian state is a threat to Israel’s existence.” 
 
For people whose native tongue is not available on the Israel Under Fire website, there is an option on the home page to enter their hometown into a virtual map, which gives an impression of the threat posed by Hamas rockets. When New York City is typed into the box, the following image is provided:
 
 
The red circle depicts the area under threat if an M-302 rocket were to be fired from New York City – which in this instance represents the Gaza Strip. M-302 rockets have a range of 160 kilometers, which is roughly translated by the circle on the map. The website however does not mention that the majority of Hamas rockets do not reach that far, and that there has been only one report of a M-302 landing over 100 kilometers from Gaza (on 8 July in Hadera south of Haifa). 
 
In the first two weeks of Operation Protective Edge, 93 per cent of all rockets fired by Hamas landed within a range of 40 kilometers from the coastal enclave, according to a study conducted by American think tank GlobalSecurity. The group, founded by notable American political scientist John E. Pike, in fact claims that the majority (61%) of these rockets did not stretch further than 10 kilometers. It can therefore be said that, without justifying Hamas rocket fire, the map presented on the Israel Under Fire hasbara website greatly exaggerates the threat posed to Israeli citizens.
 
Even Israeli military officials have expressed their doubts about the threat of Hamas rockets. Avichay Adraee, the Israeli military spokesperson for Arab media, tweeted to the Arab public on 26 July that “as usual, rockets fired by Hamas exploded in the sky.” In another tweet, he called Hamas rockets “counterproductive,” illustrating his statement with a picture depicting a Hamas militant firing a rocket that is bound to hit Gaza rather than Israel. 
 
The English Twitter account of the IDF gives a different impression. Of a total of 32 tweets sent on 26 July, one-third referred to rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza. One of these tweets was a striking picture of Israeli mothers sheltering with their newborn babies “from a Hamas rocket salvo this morning.”  
 
The differences of the two Twitter accounts illustrate the two narratives of the Israeli government. The Arab public has to be discouraged in their fight against Israel, whereas the English speaking audience has to be convinced of the imminent danger posed to Israel. Like the hasbara initiative, which was liked over 90,000 times on Facebook and has 10,800 followers on Twitter, the message to the international public is that Israel has the right to defend itself. 
 
It goes without saying that the bigger the threat, the easier it is to convince others of the right and necessity of self-defense. State violence is required by international law to be necessary and proportionate when conducted in the name of self-defense, according to an article written by William Youmans, an American assistant professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. In addition, the threat “must be imminent rather than hypothetical, distant, possible or immaterial.” In regard to Operation Protective Edge, Youmans argues that “Israeli officialdom has been far too selective and inconsistent about threats from Gaza to justify the cost in human life and the further destruction of Gaza.” 
 
The influence of social media companies
 
The Israel Under Fire website demonstrates that it is possible to reach a worldwide audience through social media outlets. Nonetheless, there are certain limitations to what can be posted on social media and let’s be honest, the social media playing field is not entirely fair. The two major social media platforms – Twitter and Facebook – are both American companies and therefore follow American law. Because the United States State Department classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization, Hamas is not allowed to access American commercial products like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As a result, several official Hamas channels have been suspended. 
 
Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, saw its official Arabic, Hebrew and English accounts suspended in July 2014, at the start of Operation Protective Edge. According to a Twitter spokesperson, the suspension was justified because the company states in its terms of service  “you may use the Services only if you (…) are not a person barred from receiving services under the law of the United States.” In addition, Twitter’s policy allows governments, companies and individuals to request the ban of particular accounts if they feel these pages incite hatred. Due to “privacy and security reasons,” the individual or entity that requests the ban of a particular user remains anonymous, and the reason of suspension of specific accounts is not made public, making it a rather opaque procedure.  
 
Reporting users or pages on Facebook works via a similar procedure. “We don’t allow terrorist groups to be on Facebook,” said Israel Hernandez, a Facebook-representative, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, claiming that there are no official Hamas pages on Facebook. Among the removed pages are the fan page of Hamas premier Ismail Haniya and the official page of Hamas’ main media outlet Al-Aqsa TV. 
 
Yet Facebook’s policy seems arbitrary or even biased at instances. The earlier mentioned post by Ayalet Shaked did not push Facebook to delete her account – she deleted it herself after the turmoil – even though it called for the killing of Palestinians. Facebook also received several complaints about a Hebrew page that was created and similarly called for the killing of Arabs. The page, titled “until the boys are back, every hour we shoot a terrorist,” was created after the three Israeli settler youth went missing on 12 June 2014 and quickly gained thousands of likes. Users that reported the page received a message from Facebook stating that the page did “not violate our community standards.” Only on 7 August, almost two months later, did the company revise its decision and remove the page.
 
Efforts to suspend Twitter and Facebook accounts are only partly successful. Because social media is easily accessible and free of charge, new pages arise as soon as old ones are taken down. In addition, the shutdown of pages can cause new pages to be created that argue censorship is taking place. One Facebook-page, entitled “Boycott Facebook over censorship concerning Gaza,” rallied more than 1,100 people to boycott Facebook for a day. “Round 2” set to take place in March 2015.
 
And the winner is… 
 
When governments spread propaganda they aim to persuade an audience and direct them towards a particular stance. On the one hand, social media are new platforms from which governments can work towards the same goal. Social media makes it easier to engage in a conversation with the target audience and to provide live, real-time updates on day-to-day events. On the other hand, social media have given the people access to an immense amount of resources that are easily accessible. This allows them to question the information that reaches them through traditional channels and to put it into context. The public largely decides what appeals to them and therefore what goes viral. The variety of posts and users on social media makes it difficult for governments to control the content and makes it even more difficult to manipulate its audience. 
The use of social media during Operation Protective Edge illustrates that creating empathy and interacting with your audience is key to winning the hearts of the public. 
The use of social media during Operation Protective Edge illustrates that creating empathy and interacting with your audience is key to winning the hearts of the public. Music videos or graphic images cannot compare to seeing real suffering on camera. A prime example of the successful use of social media is, of course, Farah Baker’s Twitter account, which now has more followers than the Twitter of the Israel Under Fire website, even though the latter received government support for its promotion. In this case, professional and expensive propaganda material could not measure up to the horrible pictures coming out of Gaza, and Israel’s argument of self-defense was effectively rendered wanting. Live updates on the overall death toll, which showed a significantly larger number of civilian deaths on the Palestinian side, could not be denied. Of the 2,104 Palestinians killed in the coastal enclave during the 50-day operation, 70 per cent were civilians. In comparison: 69 Israelis were killed, 7 per cent of which were civilians. 
 
Social media has allowed ordinary Palestinians of Gaza, like Baker, to globally broadcast the extensive suffering during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, even if they are short on money or material. Arguably, their influence was greater than official Hamas propaganda, which did more harm than good by directly insulting Israelis. Overall, however, the Hamas government benefited more from the increased global media exposure than critiques could harm their public image, as they are already designated as a terrorist organization by most Western countries. At the same time, the heavily documented scenes of destruction in Gaza negatively affected the image of the Israel as a 'Western, democratic and moral’ country. Israel drew worldwide criticism precisely because the horrific images coming out of Gaza could not be dismissed as Hamas propaganda, but came from the people who were caught in the middle of the conflict.
 
The growing sympathy for the Palestinian people in Gaza resulted in worldwide demonstrations against the Israeli military assault and a louder international call to boycott Israeli products. Several of these demonstrations were organized through social media networks, like a march to the UN headquarters in New York on 9 August, which was attended by more than 10,000 people.  These demonstrations were not the result of successful Hamas propaganda, which was severely limited because of social media company codes, nor was it due to the failure of Israeli propaganda (the Israel Under Fire website still reached thousands). Rather, it was due to the unprecedented possibility for the Palestinian people in Gaza to capture and share their suffering. Arguably, for the first time, the practical consequences of the imbalance between both parties became visible on a global scale. 
 
 

 

Back to Top

Related Articles

Israel moves to forcibly transfer entire Palestinian community in the West Bank
September 19, 2017

Eviction of East Jerusalem family reignites the struggle for Sheikh Jarrah
September 12, 2017

Formalising apartheid in Hebron
September 10, 2017

Most Popular Articles

Israelís puppet war unmasks apartheid regime
The El-Hakawati theatre was colorfully adorned to host its annual International

Israel Avoids Hard-Right Shift: No Benefit for Palestinians
With many commentators predicting big wins for the settler movement in

Rushdi Tamimi becomes second victim of Israeli army in Nabi Saleh
On Tuesday November 21st, the body of 31 year old Rushdi Tamimi was

Designed & Developed by: Pixel Co