Israel vs. Hamas: The first social-media war

Posted: November 17, 2012

The past two years have seen social-media revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere. They've seen social-media elections such as the U.S. presidential race just past.

And now, in this week's eruption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, we may be seeing a new kind of war.

It's missiles and air attacks, bomb blasts, gunfire, and screams of agony. It's also tweets on Twitter and videos on YouTube.

"Call it the first social media war," says Lawrence Husick, co-chairman for the Center on the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "It's a real war, as terrible as any real war. But now, perhaps for the first time, social media are being used as a tactical asset in the waging of war."

Both the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian political group Hamas have taken to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to report their moves, explain their reasons, cry the crimes of the other side, and call for support.

It may be the first such conflict in which each opponent narrated its side of things and attacked the other side, in real time, as bombs fell, buildings collapsed, and lives ended.

It's almost certainly the first military action announced on Twitter. On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched Pillars of Defense by killing Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari, hitting his car with an aerial bomb as he drove down a Gaza street. In a stunning three-part opening salvo, the IDF posted a tweet announcing its campaign, then posted a video ( http://bit.ly/UGEEri) of the kill on YouTube, and followed with a warning on Twitter account @IDFSpokesperson: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead." An IDF Facebook page soon appeared.

From @alQassamBrigade, named for the military wing of Hamas, a chilling tweet fired back: "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)." @alQassamBrigade posts such tweets as "#Israeli air force strike unknown target in Jabaliya refugee camp north of #Gaza #GazaUnderAttack #Hamas #WarCriminals #Humanrights." Note the hashtags - they encourage other Twitter users to join in discussions of Gaza, the attacks, and issues of war crimes and human rights.

These tweets, videos and Facebook posts are more than just woofing. They are the media counterpart to the flesh and blood war. Each side runs rocket totals and targets hit. Hamas: "19:30 Al Qassam Brigades shelling Nitifot military base with with 2 Grad missiles #Gaza #Israel #GazaUnderAttack #Resistance #occupation." IDFSpokesperson: "Update: 97 rockets fired from Gaza hit #Israel today (388 since Nov. 14), and Iron Dome intercepted 99 rockets . . . ."

Updates, taunts, slogans, curses. These extend beyond propaganda; they are weapons.

"They are, of course, attempts to get sympathy from their global supporters. They're propaganda," says Husick. "But they're also an attempt to constrain the other guy, to get them to hold their hand as the whole world watches."

"You call this public diplomacy," says James G. McGann, James G. McGann, assistant director of the International Relations Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "It shows the power of these media in reach and instantaneousness. They know they have to respond quickly, do this in real time, because they can't let the other side define the situation."

There's a difference between the sophisticated IDF social-media campaign, and that of Hamas, which has less of a YouTube presence, and a much more diverse group of pro-Palestinian activists. An especially active hashtag so far has been #Gazaunderattack.

Hamas has been brilliant in exploiting Israel's clear military superiority, leveraging the "asymmetricality" of the conflict to garner world sympathy. "They're playing a kind of brinksmanship," Husick says. "In an effort to keep Israel from striking back with devastating force, which they know Israel doesn't want to do anyway, they're firing missiles into Israel and leveraging world pressure to keep a lid on [Israel's] response."

The IDF effort is the product of its new Interactive Media Branch, a 30-person multimedia outfit headed by Lt. Col. Avital Leibovitch, who calls herself a Twitter "addict." A visit to the IDFspokesperson YouTube site shows that Israel is very mindful of being seen as Goliath to Gaza's David, sensitive to charges of war crimes. Aerial videos of pinpoint bombing stand beside slickly produced segments such as "How Does the IDF Minimize Harm to Palestinian Civilians?" On Twitter, IDFSpokesperson tweets posters such as "What Would You Do?," depicting missiles raining on Paris and London - leaving the obvious unstated.

Omar Al-Ghazzi, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School of Communication at Penn, says that both sides are engaged in a branding campaign.

"We've seen nation-branding for a long time," says Al-Ghazzi, "but this is the first time we've seen an attempt to brand an army, or a military operation." The IDF page is "an effort to brand a war, treating war as a product to be sold, almost like an advertisement. On the Hamas side, you see mostly activists and nonstate actors versus a sophisticated campaign that was from the beginning an instrinsic part of the war plan."

The social-media war is a decided risk for both sides - and for the world.

Al-Ghazzi says that "if Hamas exaggerates its capabilities, say, to seem strong or to seem tough, it could hurt its efforts." Israel has already seen some of its campaign backfire. Pro-Palestinian activists have seized on government-sponsored hashtags and affixed them to attacks on Israel and its policies, making them serve Hamas rather than Israel.

"During the Arab Spring," Al-Ghazzi says, "we saw romantic stories of private people becoming political activists. This social-media campaign is all government- or institution-sponsored. It feels very different."

YouTube and Twitter are faced with changing their rules, which now forbid depictions of or incitements to violence. "It's going to be hard," Al-Ghazzi said, "to design new policies to fit all the governments and groups who now will want to use these media for such purposes." Good luck.

And for the world? McGann worries that "at a time when you need cooler heads to prevail, this use of social media could inflame the situation."

Not only can tweets get people angry - they can also forestall traditional means of talking out disputes. "Already," McGrath says, "social media have changed what diplomats do. They greatly influence formal channels, make it difficult to have reasoned discussions or diplomacy. Governments and diplomats are watching the effect of these media on popular opinion, and letting that determine what position they take."


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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