HAMAS VS. IDF 2.0

Over the past few years, the use of social media by ordinary people exploded and spilled over to media organizations in search of a renewed business model, in the face of their apparent decline. Today, most journalists have a Facebook and a Twitter account which they use to help spread the news they are producing. It seems inevitable, then, that this trend would influence governments who recognized the potential power of such tools to shape public opinion. There is one very appealing aspect to social media, especially during war times, from the perspective of a government: it diminishes the government’s reliance on traditional news outlets to communicate with the world. Social media gives them direct access to audiences without passing through the filter of a professional journalist’s critical eye (who may have conflicting views, or even opposed ideologies). This new technique, as practical a propaganda tool as it is, only further polarizes the opposing sides and their supporters, mobilizes unnecessary resources of the press which will obviously write about this as it happens, and deflects attention from more objective, balanced journalistic content which may serve to give context and depth in the analysis of a crisis.

The most recent example of “social media warfare”, as it has been dubbed in the mainstream media, is that of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and Hamas intensely using Twitter, Facebook and Youtube in a near play-by-play manner during the latest escalation of the violence in Gaza. On Novermber 14 2012, the IDF assassinated Ahmad Jabari, a senior Hamas commander. On the very same day, a propaganda poster framing Mr. Jabari in an extremely hostile manner was posted on Twitter and Facebook with a stamp over his picture that said “Eliminated”

(https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/268795866784075776) and a video of the operation was posted on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6U2ZQ0EhN4) accompanied by heavily incriminating narrative directed at the recently deceased Hamas leader.  Almost instantaneously, Hamas, through its Alqassam Brigades Twitter account, posted a response: “Occupation opned hell gates on itself”#hamas #gaza#israel”  (https://twitter.com/AlqassamBrigade). What followed, and lasted for several days, was a tit for tat social media war made of name calling, threats and victimization. This was, by any standards, hardly what anyone could call news.

If the intention of the audience is not to seek objective news they can draw their own opinions from, then the main audiences are people with an already made opinion seeking to reinforce it. One has to ask himself important questions, though: Who follows tweets by the IDF and Hamas? What effect, if any, do these modern-day, unmediated (in the sense that they do not have to rely on journalists) press releases have on public opinion?IDF has over 200’000 followers on Twitter, whereas Al Qassam’s account has just more than 40’000. Interestingly, neither is following the other, even though the posts almost resembled a conversation at the height of their activity. A superficial look at the followers of each account quickly points out to idea that the followers are either newsmen looking to create a story out of the ‘Twitter war’ or sympathizers who will only have their resentment for the opposing side reinforced. It is conceivable that, in order to stay informed, one would follow the statements of the side opposing his own, but the cognitive dissonance it produces is so strong that it makes it unlikely. On each side, the ‘sphere of consensus’ (The Media at War, p148) is preserved and closely groomed by over-emphasizing the potential danger looming on the other side of the border. As long as the conflict stays symbolic of national unity and security, the governments ensure that both their stance and their actions are not put under its people’s critical scrutiny.

It seems increasingly clear that the use of social media by governments, in times of war, only serves to deflect attention from the important facts and contextual elements that might mitigate public support at home. Much like propaganda in any era of communications technology. The amount of information produced and circulated is enough to saturate people’s news intake, to the detriment of meaningful content such as historical context, geo-political implications for other nations (and their subsequent official position on the situation) or the long-term effects on whole populations.

Modern communication technologies are pushing audiences to equate news with instantaneous relaying of facts. Much to the detriment of context, in-depth analysis, investigation and commentarywhich see an ever diminishing amount of resources allocated to them. 

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