Israel, Hamas conflict over Gaza expands social media battlefield


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on November 19, 2012 at 7:41 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 19 at 8:01 PM

AUSTIN -- The grainy, black and white video taken from an Israeli aircraft shows the moment a missile struck the vehicle of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, killing him.

Rather than televised reports, most who saw the video did so first after it was posted on the official Twitter feed of the Israeli Defense Forces, @IDFSpokesperson. The IDF followed up the video with the tweet: "Ahmed Jabari: Eliminated."

As Hamas retaliated with its own rocket strikes, its own official English-language twitter feed, @AlqassamBrigade, tweeted: "@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)."

Since then, both sides have tweeted photos, video and rhetorical shots amid a real battle. The tweets have been a combination of military updates, propaganda statements and calls for global support, with each side often directly addressing or responding to the other through their respective feeds.

"This is the first I've heard of a military actually 'live-tweeting' an operation as they go," said Robert Quigley, senior lecturer at the University of Texas School of Journalism and former social media editor for the Austin-American Statesman.

"The Israelis and the Palestinians are not necessarily speaking even to their own people or to each other. They're speaking to the world community," Quigley told KVUE at his office in the university's Belo Center for New Media. "They're trying to affect world opinion, and so that's why they were posting the combat live tweets in English."

"Even from the stairwells, I have friends that are saying, 'In the bomb shelter right now, everything's okay,'" said University of Texas student Tracy Frydberg.

A student activist with Texas Hillel, Frydberg has family in Israel, including a cousin in the Israeli Defense Force. Like many, she told KVUE she'd been following the conflict through the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter feed as well as English news services such as the Times of Israel, civilian blogs and the social media accounts of friends and family members.

"My family, my friends are in the army, are serving the country, are in bomb shelters right now, and we want to be able to have the news instantly of what's happening there," said Frydberg. "So Twitter, Facebook, online, it's been fantastic to stay connected."

Frydberg acknowledges that the speed and accessability of social media has revolutionized the information age, but at the same time isn't impressed with its use by organizations such as Hamas.

"It's very upsetting to see Hamas on Twitter," said Frydberg. "This is a terrorist organization. They are targeting innocent civilians in Israel, innocent Gazans who are now under fire because of Hamas."

"I'm just tired of the news sources, I want to hear from the people," said Sarah Alfadda with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a student group that staged a vocal demonstration on campus Monday against the Israeli military actions.

Disappointed with the coverage of more conventional news sources, Alfadda turned to blogs such as The Electronic Intifada and social media for updates on the fighting and casualties. While some have credited social media with allowing both sides a voice in the conflict over the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Alfadda is less optimistic when it comes to those already invested in the conflict.

"I thought that it would stimulate dialogue. What I've personally found is that it's basically the opposite of that," said Alfadda, expressing disappointment that much of the conversation has devolved into angry exchanges between Israeli and Palestinian partisans. On the other hand, Alfadda acknowledges that social media has arrested the attention of people from outside the region, particularly in the United States.

"A lot of people are really taking an interest and a lot of people are making a point to repost things or retweet things," said Alfadda.

By taking control of social media themselves, Quigley says governments can "cut out the middle man" and send messages that reinforce their strategic narrative directly to the public. In that way a Twitter account can become a useful tool for governments, yet Quigley explains the mass accessability of social media also makes contradictory accounts much more difficult to silence.

"If you have a smartphone and an Internet connection, you can tell part of the story," explained Quigley. "So as much as any government wants to make the narrative, they can only control so much."

As the conflict continues, the world is watching.