Commentary, Digital Life, Human Rights

The atrocities will be tweeted

Why social media may be the great equalizer in the Arab-Israeli propaganda war.

A version of this article was originally published on Now Lebanon on 25 July 2014.

Rihanna is no stranger to controversy. The singer is notorious for her outspoken social media presence, and has more than once been suspended from Instagram for posting racy content. There was one message, however, that proved too contentious even for the most uninhibited of celebrities: #FreePalestine.

The post in question, which was retweeted nearly 7000 times, disappeared after only eight minutes. Two days earlier, Dwight Howard’s #FreePalestine message was promptly deleted fifteen minutes after it was posted. “I apologize if I offended anyone with my previous tweet, it was a mistake!” the NBA star offered up as an explanation.

Social media is the most instantaneous of mediums, allowing information to spread at unprecedented rates. It has fundamentally disrupted the flow of media, and drastically transformed the ways that we receive, consume, and interpret the news – especially in the coverage of international conflicts.

During Operation Cast Lead in 2008, there were only two international journalists on the ground in Gaza, both reporting for Al Jazeera English. Israeli soldiers were banned from bringing mobile phones into the Strip. This meant that the 2008-9 conflict, a 22-day operation, went un-witnessed and virtually unreported.

Fast-forward to Operation Protective Edge, and nearly every major news agency has correspondents on the ground on both sides of the conflict. Not only are journalists broadcasting footage of civilian deaths, but most are also live-tweeting events on the ground. Reports filed to major news agencies are heavily edited; tailored to align with a given network’s agenda. Live tweets, on the other hand, are instantaneous, and raw, often rife with the emotion of recently witnessed horrors. As such, Western observers of the conflict have been increasingly exposed to a humanized representation of life in Gaza, in stark contrast to the whitewashed version so often presented by mainstream media.

Israel has long been aware that support for its operations is highly dependent on maintaining a favorable standing in the court of international public opinion. Since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which was condemned by the international community, Israel has dedicated significant resources to monitoring and controlling the media messages surrounding its military operations.

Recognizing the importance of social media in controlling the message, Israel has wholeheartedly embraced the medium. The 2012 siege of Gaza was the first conflict not announced by a journalist or government, but via the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter account. Today, the handle continues to provide minute-to-minute updates about current operations, including a constant stream of footage, photos, and infographics. The tweets have a propagandistic feel to them – the amount of effort to frame the issue feeling somehow slightly too contrived. They also seem directly targeted at a foreign audience. One image shows London being hit by missiles, with the ominous caption “What would you do?” Israel has also pursued aggressive tactics such as purchasing promoted tweets to flood Twitter timelines, and offering grants to students who promote pro-Israel messages on their social networks.

The American media has long been in line with the Israeli narrative – a trend that many have been quick to point out online. Social media has provided everyday people with a direct connection to mainstream outlets, making it all the more difficult for biased reporting to fly under the radar. When Diane Sawyer made a major gaffe on live TV, misidentifying Palestinian victims of a rocket attack as “an Israeli family trying to salvage whatever they can,” viewers on Twitter were quick to call out the error and demand an apology from ABC. They then channeled their outrage into satire with the #TweetLikeABC hashtag. “Palestinian terrorist houses attacking peaceful Israeli Bulldozers,” read one tweet. ABC later apologized on Facebook, but the hashtag had already been shared over 7500 times, drawing attention to the major deficiency in American coverage of events on the ground.

Similarly, when the New York Times engaged in some impressive semantic acrobatics to avoid identifying the Israeli government as the perpetrator of a rocket attack that killed four Palestinian children on a Gazan beach, the hashtag #NYThistory was launched, mocking the dehumanizing and misleading headline. “Joan of Arc drawn to stake, and into center of large fire,” reads one tweet. “New York Times Drawn to Middle East, and Into Center of Partisan and Dehumanized Headline Writing” shared another user. 

As journalists are given a direct line of communication with their audiences, one that is not being streamed through their network’s filters, it has become increasingly difficult for networks to micro-manage the spread of information. Censorship of journalists who refuse to toe the party line has sparked major backlash. NBC’s decision to pull senior correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin out of Gaza sparked nothing short of outrage on social media, prompting the hashtag #LetAymanReport. Mohyeldin, arguably the most seasoned veteran of reporting conflict in Gaza, was one of the two foreign journalists in the Strip during Israel’s 2008 operations, and has even produced an award-winning documentaryabout the war. Mohyeldin had providing harrowing reports of Israeli attacks on Gaza, and tweeted that he had been playing soccer with the four boys killed on Gaza’s beach by an Israeli air strike moments before they died. NBC pulled him out citing “security concerns,” but replaced him with senior political correspondent Richard Engel. While Richard Engel speaks Arabic, his producer does not. Following the backlash, which had many accusing NBC of obstructing freedom of the press, Mohyeldin was allowed to re-enter the Gaza strip, and has since continued reporting from the ground.

The second instance of social media censorship came when CNN journalist Diana Magnay tweeted “Israelis on hill above Sderot cheer as bombs land on #gaza; threaten to ‘destroy our car if I say a word wrong’. Scum.” The tweet was removed within minutes, but the damage was done. Magnay has apparently been reassigned to Moscow.

Most recently, Rula Jebreal, a journalist and political commentator onMSNBC, called out her network’s coverage, saying “we are disgustingly biased on this issue.” Jebreal later tweeted that her upcoming TV appearances had been cancelled, and openly questioned whether this was related to her controversial remarks. Jebreal was later invited to continue the debate, however had her title demoted from “MSNBC Contributor” to “Palestinian journalist,” a move by MSNBC that she has condemned.

The problem with censorship is that it often has the opposite effect than what is desired. In the same way that banned books fly off the shelves, Mohyeldin’s past social media activity likely received exponentially more views after his removal from Gaza. Similarly, more people probably heard of the deleted Rihanna and Dwight Howard tweets (#DwightCoward even briefly trended on Twitter) than people who would have seen them had they not disappeared. In the age of the screenshot, nothing is temporary.

Despite the ways that social media is disrupting the way that traditional media is covering the conflict, it is important not to overestimate the extent to which it can inform public opinion. The downside of the medium is that it has the tendency to create feedback loops, by which people follow others that hold the same opinions as them, retweet content that them and their followers agree with, and ultimately achieve nothing besides preaching to the virtual choir, without being exposed to the content being spread by the other side. It is important to note that western viewers who consume predominantly traditional media sources are likely to be solely exposed to the two strains of Israeli thinking: 1) that the Israeli affront on Gaza is self-defense and 2) that Hamas employs Palestinian civilians as human shields, rendering it impossible for Israel to defend itself without incurring civilian casualties.

This is what makes having broadcast journalists like Mohyeldin and Jebreal, both with far-reaching television audiences, such a potential game-changer in coverage of the conflict. Channel 4’s Jon Snow provided a grim, hard-hitting report from Gaza’s Al-Shifa hospital, in which he asks: “is this a war on children?”  Dan Rivers of ITV also filed an emotional, disturbing report about an attack on a UN school, in which 16 Palestinians, including a number of children, died. (Warning: both reports contain highly graphic images.)

The most groundbreaking part of social media may not be its reach, but the way in which it humanizes the thousands who use it. The emotional pull of the IDF’s sleek infographics pale in comparison to the terrified tweets of besieged Gazans, or this photo, taken by a Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, which is likely to become the defining picture of Operation Protective Edge. I followed the ground invasion live on Twitter from the comfort of a downtown café, unable to draw my eyes away from the horror unfolding on my screen. Perhaps that is the defining aspect of social media – creating the impression that we are a part of something larger, and that by virtually bearing witness, we can somehow honor the sufferings of those whose pain is often not considered worthy of our airtime.

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