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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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The virtual war of words, Part 1

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It was the tweet heard around the world. On Nov. 14, the Israel Defence Forces killed Ahmed Jabari, head of Hamas’ military wing, and delivered the news via Twitter – along with a YouTube video of Jabari’s car exploding.

Since then, the video, IDF Pinpoint Strike on Ahmed Jabari, has garnered more than 4.6 million views. [http://bit.ly/yrfgoe]

As violence escalated between Israel and Gaza, a parallel, virtual war was taking place on computers, phone and tablets around the globe. Both sides were turning to social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to get their message across. The rockets and bombings may have subsided, but the use of social media by the combatants continues.

Another widely reported tweet from the @IDFSpokesperson carried this none-too-subtle message: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” And in a fascinating use of social media, the Alqassam Brigades Twitter account actually retweeted the IDF message and then responded with one of its own, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).” [http://bit.ly/istweet1]

The use of these networking tools did not start in November. Rebecca Stein, a professor of anthropology at Duke University, has researched how Israeli military officials have been using social media. She told Reuters’ Gerry Shih that in 2008 “Operation Cast Lead marked the first time the Israelis ‘weaponized’ social media. But back then it was very improvisational.” And then in 2010, the Israeli government seemed to be caught off guard when activists on a humanitarian convoy bound for the Gaza Strip stirred up sympathy by tweeting and webcasting from their boats after they were boarded by Israeli troops. Shih writes, “That year, the Israeli foreign ministry invested more than $15 million to better grasp how the government could use social media in a broader campaign to burnish the nation’s image.” [http://bit.ly/istweet2]

Not all tweets are designed to trumpet its side’s strength. Will Ward, writing for ArabMediaSociety.com, points out that “groups supporting both Israel and the Palestinians also used social media to do just the opposite, inviting supporters to advertise their side’s plight on the social networking site Facebook.” Ward explains that “users were asked to ‘donate their status,’ that would automatically display an up-to-the-minute tally of the rockets hitting southern Israel or a running count of the Palestinian dead and wounded… The Jerusalem Post reported that 10,000 users signed up to display the ‘Qassam count’ in the conflict’s first three days.” [http://bit.ly/istweet3]

Ironically, sometimes information can do more harm than good. Several days into the conflict, a graphic credited to an Israel civilian named Evyatar Tabib was circulated via Twitter. In black print on a blood red background, the note warns Israelis not to divulge the location where missiles landed. It concludes, “The enemy is not stupid. The enemy is listening.” The message was reminiscent of the World War II warning, “Loose lips sink ships” updated for the social-media age. [http://bit.ly/istweet4]

Next time, the people behind the social-media war and a look at its effectiveness.

Highway@rogers.com

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