The social-media side of war

A Palestinian after a shelling. One expert says 24/7 media scrutiny affects how this conflict is run.
A Palestinian after a shelling. One expert says 24/7 media scrutiny affects how this conflict is run. (LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / AP)
Posted: July 20, 2014

Red Alert Israel is an app, and it is harrowing.

Tied into Israel's early-warning system, it sends an alert to your phone whenever a rocket is fired into Israel. With the current Israel-Hamas conflict, it goes off all the time.

Lawrence Husick, senior fellow and codirector of the center for the study of terrorism at the Foreign Research Policy Institute, calls Red Alert Israel "a punch in the gut" that "gives a dramatic sense of what it's like to live in a state of threat."

Welcome to the social-media war-within-the-war. Media campaigns have gone with war since before the Sumerians. But the Israel-Hamas conflict shows how social media and war shape each other in new ways.

In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense - on Twitter. It thereby became the first nation to initiate hostilities by social media. Starting with a YouTube video of the aerial assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari, Pillar of Defense escalated the social-media war. The Israeli Defense Force (Twitter following: 292,000) tweeted times and places of rocket strikes against Israel. A rag-tag bunch of pro-Hamas Twitter feeds (such as the oft-shut-down @alqassam, with 11,000-plus followers), Facebook pages, and YouTube videos published images of torn bodies and bombed schools.

As of 2014, "both sides," says Husick, "have become remarkably more sophisticated in how they use social media to engage with the rest of the world."

That's what they're doing. They're not speaking to their own people. As Christopher Harper, professor of journalism at Temple University, says, social media "inflame people from both sides about what they already believe - whether they are Jews or Palestinians." Nor are they speaking to each other. This is a social-media war for world opinion.

Thus, @IDF posts the blog "What if Terrorists Could Shoot This Rocket in Your Country," in which you enter your zip code and learn that Hamas rockets could reach from Philadelphia to York, or New York. Thus, Hamas sends a text message - warning or frightening - to half a million Israelis, telling of rocket attacks.

Michael Serazio, associate professor of communications at Fairfield University in Connecticut, says that, from Matthew Brady's photos of Civil War battlefields to the Vietnam War in U.S. living rooms via the nightly news, media accounts of war "collapse the time and space of experiencing distant events," making war ever more immediate and accessible. "And each time a new technology emerges," he says, "it seems to bring us closer and closer to the front." Since anyone can publish a tweet or post, Israel, Hamas, and their supporters can push professional journalists out of the way and shape the story.

Husick says 24/7 media scrutiny affects how this conflict is run. "There's no doubt each side crafts its war strategy based on global reaction," he says. "And that's how new media bring pressure to bear. If you'd had 24/7 coverage of this type back in 1914, the First World War could never have been fought."

Plus, there's a psychological affect on all of us, says Serazio: "Our orientation to these conflicts undoubtedly changes, because the way we know something (and what we value about it) is dependent on the means by which it is communicated to us."

Each campaign has a theme. Israel's is "We are under threat, but we are showing patience and restraint, using only pinpoint-accurate strikes" - a theme Husick calls "totally lacking in emotional resonance." The Hamas message is far more visceral. The now-familiar (and much-questioned) pictures of bloody corpses and smoking neighborhoods, Husick says, "paints the Israelis as an unfeeling, inhuman, slaughtering occupation force." A YouTube video by the Palestinian National Authority tells supporters how best to use social media. (For example: Always use the phrase innocent civilians.)

Smaller, outgunned, hemmed-in Hamas leverages sympathy for the underdog. "Gaza has an especially willing ear in Europe," says Husick, and it has had success in getting hashtags like #SaveGaza and #GazaUnderAttack to trend worldwide. Meanwhile, with overwhelming tech and personpower superiority, Israel is at a permanent PR disadvantage. Thus, the pings and pushes of Red Alert Israel.

The real war is of steel and fire, flesh and blood. But with an eye on the outside world, Israel and Hamas fight a painfully self-conscious war for control of the story on social media. In that war, too, so far there are no winners.

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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