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Gaza War of Hashtags, #IDF vs #Hamas November 18, 2012

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Civic Media, Journalism, News, Social Media, Trends.
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 by Joanne KY Teoh
Is social media the new weapon of mass destruction? It sure looks that way as Israel and Hamas take their battle to the micro-blogging world in the most explicit example yet of how Twitterblogs, Facebook, FlickrPinterest and YouTube can be used as weapons of war. And we’re not talking about flame wars.

Waging its war on the streets and online, the Israeli Defense Force is bombing “terror targets” in Gaza and Webcasting details of its attack with hashtags, online taunts and multimedia claims of destruction. Here is that first tweet announcing the operation:

Bragging next about killing the head of the military wing of Hamas, Ahmed Al-Jabari via its live-blog, Twitter  and Youtube,  the IDF then literally warned the enemy to run and hide via a tweet that has been retweeted 2000 times: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

Then it gets surreal. In their usual florid prose, Al Qassam Brigades the military wing of Hamas tweeted about martyrdom and  fires of hell.: “Assassination of the great leader Ahmed al Jabari is the beginning of liberation war and ominous harbinger on sons of Zion”:

The IDF also created an official Tumblr, uploading graphics that highlight attacks on Israeli citizens by militant Palestinians. To be sure, war always has its propaganda machine. But this coordinated cacophony in the midst of battle opens a new front.

Never before has spin on military action been touted like this on social media, in real time. Even the hashtags created by both groups to document the violence are spun to milk public sympathy – the IDF tweeting with #PillarOfDefense and Hamas using #GazaUnderAttack.

War is not a game, but gaming features let visitors to the IDF war blog to earn “points” and win badges for sharing as the blog tracks the progress of the conflict. An ID Youtube clip  introduces game dynamics, remixing war footage with a music score that could have come from a video game. Other videos sport motion graphics, complete with gaming sound effects:

It’s not clear who’s running the Al Qassam Brigades twitter feed, but in Israel, the IDF social media operation is run by a 26-year-old immigrant from Belgium named Sacha Dratwa. Social networking sites have been used to energize political campaigns, raise awareness and galvanize the popular revolutions of the Arab Spring. This may be the first war declared via Twitter. It remains to be seen whether Twitter intervenes.

The use of Twitter to announce and comment on military operations is a significant departure for the social networking platform. It potentially brings the feuding groups into conflict with Twitter’s own rules, which state: “Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.” That did not stop the IDF.

The IDF Twitter account invites followers to “read up” on Jabari to understand why the Israeli military killed him and is sending out links to video and articles about Hamas’s past attacks on Israel. It also uploaded the military intelligence it used for targeting to its blog, including photos of sites targeted and video allegedly showing Hamas hiding rockets at one of the sites.

There are merits to this level of transparency. The video (below) of the killing of Jabari shows Israeli forces took care to minimize casualties—and also  made it next to impossible for Hamas to deny his death:

Apparently, the IDF want to save Wikileaks the trouble of digging the footage up and ensure that the news will come straight from the government’s mouth, without the interference of the fourth estate. Time will tell if other nations will adopt similar approaches and boast of assasinations via Twitter, but Gaza is a conflict ideal for social media:

On both sides there’s significant knowledge of English, so this is something that can really be played out in front of the world’s media and on the world stage. … This is an issue that is very visible, an issue where there are significant supporters for both sides all over the world, and it can be explained to a world audience in a language they’ll understand so it’s probably quite likely to be taken up by lots of people via social media.

Axel Bruns, Queensland University of Technology

Israel also finds itself  in a singular position, geopolitically. Its most consistent ally in the region, the Mubarak regime in Cairo, was overthrown last year and replaced by an Islamist government. Relations with Jerusalem’s most important partner, the United States, were tested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s all-but-open support of Barack Obama’s rival Mitt Romney in the recent American presidential elections. The need to shape international opinion and rally supporters internationally is acute.

Noah Shachtman at Wired

Unlike the usual war propaganda tactics of leaflets, state-sponsored radio, press conferences and spokesmen, social media campaigns embed themselves into the media that audiences are already consuming. Users are implicitly participating in the cross-fire by retweeting, liking and sharing the social media content.

Gaza is a modern conflict with significant supporters on both sides who are digital natives and who understand English. It is a war ripe for playing out on the global virtual stage with social media and the new ubiquitous online vernacular – video. Audiences are ready.

One week into this war of words, which side is winning the clash of tweets? As crass as it is to measure the unfolding violence in terms of hashtags, the IDF’s stream of ultra-shareable posts, with more multimedia and calls for retweets than a 2.0 best-practice class appears to be getting heard wider. But Gaza’s more muted plaintive cause appears to sound louder.

Related reads

#IDF vs# Hamas: the new Gaza war in 140 characters or less
Military strikes go viral: Israel is live-tweeting its own offensive into Gaza
Operation Pillar of Defense: The First Social Media War
The Kids Behind IDF’s Media

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