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Dublin: 22 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

Column: How social media became a very real battleground

The conflict in Gaza is the latest to show the power of social networking – but online platforms need to examine the role they play, writes Jillian York.

Jillian C York

NEARLY FOUR YEARS ago, Operation Cast Lead – the offensive Israel launched in Gaza in December 2008, which cost an estimated 1,400 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives - marked one of the first attempts by a government to use social media in an effort to influence public opinion. As Israel’s military conducted air raids on Gaza, its diplomatic elements were busy setting up YouTube channels and conducting “press conferences” on Twitter. Meanwhile, the attack spurred unprecedented uses of social media by individuals and groups looking to show their support of Palestine. From campaigns to “donate” your Facebook status to the cause to coordinated attempts to make the hash tag #Gaza trend on Twitter.

Many of the tactics developed during that brief period in 2008 stuck. Activists have made #Gaza trend on each anniversary of the attack, and their techniques are used by activists elsewhere, from Egypt to the Philippines. More importantly, that these techniques were developed amidst Israel’s media blackout on Gaza demonstrated to individuals in other restrictive environments the power of social media activism.

New tools of discourse

Palestine Centre’s Yousef Munayyer recently told Al Jazeera, “… In 2008-2009, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, it was very difficult to get images out at the time and the way that we can see conflict being recorded and transmitted instantaneously today with tools like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube… the biggest effect has been that ordinary people are now able to have a voice in the greater discourse by participating through these tools.”

Back in 2008, individuals the world over took to social media to comment on the attacks and the politics behind them.  Twitter, still a young platform at the time, served as the locus for debate, while other platforms including YouTube were used by state and non-state actors alike. Even the Israeli Consulate of New York managed to get in on the action, hosting a press conference on Twitter.  All of this occurred amidst an Israeli media blackout on Gaza.

Four years later, the world — and the Internet — has changed.  The events of 2011 that took place in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere have demonstrated the extent to which governments can control the Internet, as well as the challenges posed by relying on citizen reporting.  Now, amidst the recent air strikes, social media has once again become a secondary battlefield.

Social media platfoms

One point of discussion has been the relationship between state actors and social media platforms.  As Global Voices’ co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon has written, privately-owned platforms control much of our online speech, making decisions as to what is or is not appropriate based on their own proprietary guidelines.  The subject has been discussed in relation to content posted by the Israeli Defence Forces, both on Twitter and YouTube. @Mike_Orcutt:

The issue has arisen on Twitter as well; as the @IDFSpokesperson tweeted what, by all accounts, appears to be a threat, some have asked whether that violates the microblogging platform’s terms of service. Nigâr Hacızade tweets:

While Israel clearly has the military upper hand, many see them as losing online. Another concern is that of Gaza’s telecommunications infrastructure, which is inextricably linked to Israel’s and is therefore vulnerable. The Crypt0nymous News Network frequently tweets about the current Internet, telecommunication and death toll situation in Gaza.  At the time of the conflict, their website marked Gaza’s telecom status as:

Broadband: Limited, Intermittent
PBX Lines: DOWN
Mobile: UP
Ham Radio: DOWN
Satellite: Unkown
Electricity: DOWN, Current electricity by Generators

This time around, Reddit is also playing an important role in conflict.  At a time when finding reliable information from the ground is complicated, Al Jazeera correspondent Nadim Baba has taken to the platform for an “AMA” or “Ask Me Anything,” during which the subject is publicly questioned by Reddit users and can answer as they like. Baba has been asked—and has answered—dozens of questions about the ongoing attacks.

There is therefore still a role to be played by arbiters such as the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a group that works to provide journalists with access to Palestinian sources and information on Palestine and has created a Twitter list of individuals in Gaza. Similarly, organisations like Global Voices (full disclosure: I’m on the board of directors) – which served a vital role in relaying citizen journalism during Egypt’s Internet blackout – sometimes serve as vetting mechanisms, verifying the identities of bloggers and social media users.

As these digital battles continue to play out in parallel to those on the ground, vigilance is needed to ensure that non-state actors voices are heard. It is vital now more than ever to seek out humanity in the never-ending flow of social media traffic.

Jillian York is a writer, activist, researcher, and blogger based in San Francisco, California. She is the Director of International Freedom of Expression Electronic Frontier Foundation and writes for several platforms, including Al Jazeera English and The Guardian. She is also a volunteer representative for the Global Voices Board of Directors.

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