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Social media warfare

Hazem Balousha, Naomi Conrad / cdNovember 21, 2012

Social media has elevated the Gaza conflict into a minute-by-minute tickertape of dead children, destruction and misinformation. Both sides are engaged. Yet Israeli tweets might also help Hamas aim its rockets.

A screen shot with tweets from Israeli Defense Forces and the Hamas Al Qassam brigade
Image: DW/A.Tauqueer

When Ebaa Rezeq sits down in her room to tweet, she first opens up the window. Wryly, she explains her reasoning. If a rocket hits somewhere near her house or a bomb explodes, she explains, then she won't be cut by shards of glass.

Even with the windows closed, the gunshots are unmistakeable. "We're living in hell here and I want the world to experience some of it," she said.

The student twitters the entire day - about explosions, deaths and damaged buildings. Before leaving home she checks Twitter to see where the latest shots were heard. Often, Ebaa says, Israelis whom she calls "extreme Zionists" send her digital threats. "The way they insult me is just awful," she said. In spite of those threats - or perhaps because of them - she tweets on.

A war of propaganda

On the battlefield of social media, a war of propaganda and interpretation is underway. It is a battle in which both sides employ images of rubble fields and dead children - something like the picture of the crying BBC journalist Jihad Misharawi as he held the wrapped body of his eleven-month-old son in his arms. The picture was re-tweeted throughout the world before landing on the covers of international newspapers.

A medic in a green uniform walks away from the site of an explosion. (Photo: Andrey Stenin/RIA Novosti)
Attacks are first tweeted by eye-witnesses - and then later by those responsibleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The Israeli army and Palestinians are trying to get worldwide support through social media," said Ula Papajak from Berlin's Technical University. It is therefore no surprise that so many tweets are in English.

Even the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) first announced their attack on Gaza through their Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson, prior to holding a traditional press conference. Not long thereafter a warning was issued 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," the message said.

An answer followed promptly. It came 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)."

Minute-to-minute war updates

As both sides twitter officially without interruption, so, too, do hundreds of Palestinian and Israelis citzens. Their war is 'updated' every minute from Gaza. It is also made vivid from Tel Aviv bunkers, where entire families sequester themselves and stream their worries live on Youtube.

A Facebook page shows three Israeli soldiers running up a beach as fighter planes buzz them overhead. (Photo: dpa)
The Israeli Defense Force gives updates on its Facebook pageImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The extent of the coverage has even reached a point where the IDF has warned the Israeli populace against exact descriptions of rocket attacks from Gaza. "Ultimately that's information that could end up helping Hamas," said Gabriel Weinmann, a media expert at the University of Haifa. Hamas could use that information, for example, to improve the hit-rate of its rockets.

Support from worldwide hackers

The virtual war, however, is not a level playing field. "The Israelis are more organized, they have a real propaganda machine and full-time employees and anything they need," said Asaad Thebian, a Lebanese media expert. Palestinians, by comparison, have to rely on themselves.

Every eight hours, Ebaa explains, the power goes out in Palestine. During that time all updates come from smartphones and Twitter. "Cell phone connections are so slow, it isn't easy." Still, they manage to send as many tweets as possible - some days upwards of a hundred, the student and social activist said.

While the Palestinian power grid is down, others take over the fight. According to Gabriel Weinmann, that means hackers from Saudi Arabia or Lebanon. As recently as Monday (November 19) hackers attempted to break into his university's network, the professor explained. He is used to it. "As soon as there's war here there are always a huge number of attempts by hackers to infiltrate websites or disseminate false information."

Palestinian youths check their facebook accounts at an internet cafe (Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI)
Access to social media is far more limited in the Palestinian territoriesImage: Getty Images

False information via Twitter

False information about the current war is also being spread via Twitter and Facebook - pictures of dead children, for example, that are actually from Syria. That angers Ebaa. "We have to stick to the truth, or no one is going to believe us any more." Ulla Papajak also believes that pictures and information need to be verified for accuracy - even if he also understands that there is no time to do so.

Through the explosions, gunshots and the flood of Twitter updates, it is not always easy to find the truth, Ebaa admits. "Nobody actually knows for certain what really happened." That, however, is not going to stop the tweets.