War of words: social media activists in Operation ‘Pillar of Defence’

What advocates of both sides share, however, is a desire to present the truth as they see it and a mistrust of the mainstream media.

I am perched on a plastic chair on the beachfront on an unlikely patch of green grass. The backdrop is one of bombed-out buildings and still-smoking rubble. This is a Gaza “Tweet-up” organised by Diwan Ghazza, a network of activists who describe themselves as “a community of knowledge lovers and seekers [who] aim at pumping positive energy and hope into Gaza”. It will take more than a bit of rain to move this lot.

The event gives Twitter activists the opportunity of meeting face to face. This is their first get-together following Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence and despite the evident devastation, the atmosphere is one of jubilation as young bloggers celebrate their survival and swap notes on what they consider a victorious social media campaign.

These young people are the foot-soldiers or, more accurately, the Internet infantry, in what was widely dubbed the first “Social Media War.” In itself, a media onslaught is nothing new. Governments have long orchestrated “communication” campaigns to promote their own side and instil fear into their enemies. Propaganda is as old as war.

But this was certainly the first war declared on Twitter. The Israeli army spokesperson’s office (@IDFSpokesperson) heralded their military campaign against Gaza in the succinct style that social media requires. “The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets.” Social media elevated the conflict into a minute-by-minute visual assault of destruction, dead babies, and info-graphics. The picture of BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi weeping, holding his dead eleven-month-old son in his arms was re-tweeted all over the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded with a Twitter picture of his own, this time of an Israeli baby injured in a rocket attack.

Neither the IDF nor Hamas were satisfied with an aerial bombardment; this was a war of rockets, bombs and Tweets. Not long after launching their attack, the IDF issued a warning to members of Hamas via Twitter. "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead".

An answer promptly followed from the Hamas Al-Kassam Brigade via its own Twitter account, @AlQassamBrigade. "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."

The world watched on, amazed, as Israel and Hamas live tweeted the conflict, mixing military updates with threats, YouTube videos, and made-for-Twitter data-charts. As the IDF streamed images of drone cameras to Twitter and posted pictures of rockets raining down on the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, and the Eiffel tower asking, “WHAT WOULD YOU DO?” Hamas retaliated with a post showing Benjamin Netanyahu hoisted in the air by a Qassam rocket.

Despite the best efforts of both parties, this virtual war was not one of equally matched sides. From the beginning, the Israeli government actively recruited a team of hundreds of volunteers to advocate for Israel, organizing groups on Twitter and Facebook under #IsraelUnderFire. In contrast, Palestinians in Gaza had to rely on themselves, reporting the bombings with #GazaUnderAttack, dealing with daily electricity shortages and barricaded into their homes by night, when any attempt to leave could prompt an attack from the Israeli military.

During the frequent power cuts, all updates to social media came from smartphones, something of a challenge when Palestinian mobile companies cannot provide 3G connections because of Israel's restriction on high-frequency mobile signals in Gaza and the West Bank. This did not deter the Palestinian activists I met, who sent as many Tweets as possible sometimes reaching 1000 Tweets a day, the maximum that Twitter will permit.

What advocates of both sides share, however, is a desire to present the truth as they see it and a mistrust of the mainstream media. This is the Facebook generation, weaned on MySpace, schooled in the artful status update and practiced in the pithy Tweet. Tally Eyal is a case in point. I met the 26-year-old, who has just graduated with a Masters in the Politics of Conflict from Ben Gurion University, in the jumbled madness of the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). The conflict is at its zenith but Tally retains her cool, making sure the phones are staffed at all times and ensuring up-to-the minute Facebook updates from an army of eager new recruits. She is too busy to talk but later, over email, she tells me why she chose to get involved.

“[I wanted to volunteer] because of the international media bias against Israel and use every opportunity I have  (also in my private time) to try to create a fair representation of the conflict and a balanced dialogue”.

For Tally, social media is at the heart of this. “I believe social media is becoming the chief news source for many people worldwide. Moreover, social media enables you to engage with millions of people in a quick and efficient way”.

She does not see her goal as one of promoting Israel but rather “tell[ing] the often untold side of the story as well as exposing lies and deception by both the international media and different Palestinian organizations”. 

This desire to tell the “untold story” and present a critical look at the mainstream media is shared by the Gazan activists I talk to. Rana Baker, in addition to studying for a degree in business administration, is a regular blogger with over 15,000 Twitter followers to her name. As bombs fell in Gaza, she provided live-updates of Israeli attacks. On speaking to the 21-year-old it is clear why so many want to hear what she has to say.

“My role is to speak up and tell the world that there are Palestinian civilians here [in Gaza], to tell them that we are not terrorists and that resistance fighters are not terrorists”.

Rana is scathing about western media outlets. “The only thing they say about the people of Gaza is that we are a bunch of terrorists who fire rockets into Israel. When actually not all Gazans are supporters of Hamas”.

She too, wants to give the personal accounts of Palestinians, “I wanted to humanise the story, to give the names of people who were killed. I wanted to voice our opinions as young people”. She recognises the vital role that social media plays in “informing people [and] making them aware of things that nobody reports on” but has the nous to realize that social media’s impact is, in large part, determined by its influence on the CNN’s and BBC’s of this world.

“We are not only voicing our opinions on Twitter, on social media, we are also being picked up by mainstream media and we are reaching millions of people around the world with our experiences and opinions”.

Talking to Rana, and other bloggers I meet, I am struck by their fluency in a language that is not their own.  They are media savvy yet media cynical.  It is not an accident that the majority of social media activists I meet are women. I am reminded of the infamous cartoon that says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. The same is true for women. The Internet is a great leveler. The doctrine “might is right” does not count for much on social media. Shouting down your opponents will not win you fans.

The same can be said for the Israeli blockade. Israel may exert its dominion over land, air and sea but when it comes to the internet, it is fighting a war on a million fronts, on a million smartphone screens. Israel has the monopoly on militaristic might but it is yet to have a monopoly on ideas.

Falastin Altanany is proof of this. The 23-year old computer and communication engineering student grew up, and still lives, in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, a place where, in addition to the privations of the blockade, “Women can’t talk, can’t travel, can’t, can’t, can’t”. Falastin’s family tried to stop her blogging, without success. “I said, ‘I don’t care, I want to share my ideas. I have my rights and I want to do this, for myself, and for Palestine’”.

This defiance is shared by two young women with very different life experiences. Sarrica Fink and Deeny Rosenblatt are two 18 year-olds from Los Angeles and Boston, Massachusetts respectively. They are living in Israel as part of a nine-month GAP year programme before starting college. When Operation Pillar of Defence started, one of their teachers suggested they volunteer at the GPO, knowing their passion for social media.

For Sarrica there was no question of returning to her family. “Instead of packing my bags and going home, I wanted to know everything. Instead of getting scared by a siren going off and hiding in my room I wanted to know where did the rocket go off, where did it land? This is what people go through every day and it would be naïve of me just to sit here and do nothing”.

Deeny too, was keen to be part of Israel’s war effort. “Israel has the right to defend itself. It is fighting the social media battle [against] Hamas and their propaganda. It is part of the war. This is our side of the story”.

It is significant that at no point in my conversations with any of the bloggers I spoke to did they discuss or consider a genuine dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians feasible or even desirable. As Rana told me, “If I want to interact with an Israeli, for me as a Palestinian, I must be aware of normalisation. But I am always very happy to debate.” And Tally admits that there was no direct interaction (other than attack and counter-attack) between her #IsraelUnderFire advocates and the proponents of #GazaUnderAttack.

In the context of war, this is unsurprising. But if things are to change we must hope that “the war of the words” is replaced with a treaty of Tweets for peace.

About the author

Rebecca Greig is a freelance journalist currently based in the West Bank. She previously worked for BBC and Al Jazeera English in London.  You can find her on Twitter @bloodsweattweet and read her poetry here