Social War: A ‘Like’ and a Prayer

Social media mingles with war in the 21st century, and social media and war are just beginning to realize just how bizarre that is. This is an account of the 8-day conflict between Israel and Palestine in November 2012 that saw more than 150 casualties. It is the first Social War, a war centered on followers and flashy pics.

Story and illustration by Tim Worden.

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A ‘Like’ and a Prayer

“We will destroy our enemies.” Like. “Our missile has assassinated their general.” Retweet. “Mission accomplished.” Share.

“Sirens in Jerusalem #IsraelUnderAttack” demands attention. “Scared. Bomb blasts shaking my windows #GazaUnderFire” gets 300 retweets.

Eyewitness Instagram pics spread like wildfire, death counts are updated to the minute and two opposing military forces chatted with each other via Twitter.

On Nov. 14, 2012, for the first time in world history, a war was declared via Twitter. The eight-day conflict between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas involved drone and missile strikes. Dubbed Operation Pillar of Cloud by Israel, the IDF began by targeting Hamas’ military commander.

Churchill had his “Get ‘em in the trenches!” speech, FDR had his fireside chats and now the Israeli and Hamas armies have their retweets. This is war, broadcast in real-time through tweets and grainy drone cams.

This is Social War.

And in Social War, armies don’t just fight with assault rifles and rockets; they launch viral hashtags and drop in flashy infographics. The IDF armors up with a YouTube, Facebook and blog. But Twitter, which lets a nation, from Haifa to Tel Aviv, collectively watch a war unfold, is the secret weapon.

“We were able to stay ahead of the game, allowing us to counter the onslaught of misinformation and rumors that are generally part of the arsenal of terrorist organizations we face,” said Eytan Buchman, head of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit North American Desk, the IDF’s communications arm dealing with North American press.

Twitter helps the IDF rapidly share accurate and reliable information through an ad-hoc movement, says Buchman, who has 3,500 followers.

“Twitter can create a dialogue, giving us a feel for what information is getting out there and how we can take steps to correct it,” Buchman says.

Social War comes from the top, too. On a Facebook post a few days into the war, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country is engaged on four fronts. The first three—the military, home and diplomatic fronts—are all obvious. But the fourth front, now that’s interesting: “the information front,” where citizens combat misinformation.

“What you are doing provides us with serious reinforcement on the information front, we have to battle for the truth,” Netanyahu stated in the 19,000-like post.

The IDF publicly began the war with a tweet. A press conference came later.

“The IDF has begun a widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets,” the IDF Spokeperson’s Unit (@IDFspokesperson) declared at 6:29 a.m. on Nov. 14, getting 418 retweets.

Hours later, the IDF tweeted: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

Twitter sees some bizarre stuff, but nothing like what came next.

Alqassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, replied to the tweet, the first time warring enemies have conversed in a public fashion online.

“@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves),” Hamas responded.

Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger, on the ground in northern Israel, was among the first to publicly note this as the first declared war on Twitter.

As a history professor at the University of Haifa who studies Israeli-German relations and political thought, she knows a thing or two about the development of war. She was amused at this, really.

“My first thought was: ‘Those young geeks in uniform at @IDFspokesperson are a step ahead of their slow, snail-paced commanders,’” she said.

Social media allows things to spread easily, from uninformed tweets to incorrect propaganda that is fact-checked in real time, she said.

“Governments and military spokespeople will have to become far more cautious and savvy when making any public statement,” Oz-Salzberger said.

Jon Mitchell, a writer for tech blog ReadWrite, sees social media fusing with war as inevitable thing, no more surprising than the use of any other propaganda channel historically. But that didn’t stop his initial reaction at watching the IDF tweet the war: “Wow. It’s a new world.”

By tightly controlling the message through tweets and live images, the Israeli army framed the military campaign just the way it wanted. As the first military social media use, it certainly set the bar high, he said.

“It’s brilliant in its way,” he blogged on ReadWrite.

Social War likes it fast and dirty.

A simple look at the IDF’s Twitter followers over time shows this. The account went from 52,000 to 61,000 followers from mid-August to Nov. 13, the day before the war began. This number more than tripled in only 10 days. They nabbed 20,000 new followers several days during the war and had 205,000 by Nov. 23, two days after the cease fire.

Hamas fared even better. The group’s account, @AlQassamBrigades, started the war with a measly 9,000 followers. By war’s end, it had 41,000—a full quadruple.

Social War grants the outside world access to the inner workings of a war-torn country.

In Israel’s last military operation in Gaza in 2008-2009, communications and Internet line were cut and journalists were barred from entering Gaza. This time, Palestinians maintained Internet access and journalists were allowed entry, resulting in an unprecedented amount of first hand accounts from citizens living in Gaza, according to Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which tracks human rights issues and civilian and journalist casualties in Gaza.

“The spreading of eyewitness accounts of ordinary citizens of the Gaza Strip has been especially valuable in countering the mainstream narrative of the conflict, which lacks a rights based approach and factual reporting,” said Sourani.

He sees this openness as a step in the right direction. The world watched as Anderson Cooper, reporting live in Gaza City, flinched and staggered as a rocket blast erupted behind him one night. “That was a rather large explosion,” he said.

Palestinian citizens and bloggers took the world stage, too. Some photographed the destruction of office buildings and others wrote poems seeking peace.

Shahd Abusalama, a Palestinian student and blogger in Gaza City, was exhausted after six days of continuous bombings on the city. She rested under her blankets, but at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, a missile zoomed into her neighborhood, she wrote on her blog.

“I remember exactly how I heard the missile falling, like a whistle,” she wrote.

The rocket hit meters away from her house and the neighborhood gathered together to investigate. A loudspeaker from the mosque advised the crowd to spread apart in case of another missile. The victim was torn to pieces, spread across the street. His blood stained the street, she wrote.

In addition to posting the news to Facebook and Twitter, she keeps an updated list of every Palestinian killed in the conflict on her blog.

Social media shares the good news, too.

In 2010, three former Israeli soldiers created a website to combat negative misconceptions of Israel and the army. Called Friend a Soldier, the program pairs users with an Israeli soldier. It promotes hasbara, the Hebrew word for public relations, since users see the soldier behind the uniform.

Hasbara has a bad rap, akin to propaganda in English. While some, like Oz-Salzberger and Mitchell, see Social War as incorporating propaganda, Lirut Nave, a Friend a Soldier member, said said hasbara informs the public and explains reasons behind actions taken.

“We reached a time where presence in social media is a must, and there is no better and more efficient way to inform the public of your actions and motives,” said Lirut, a retired IDF soldier who served in an operational command center in the Jordan Valley.

There is much incentive for militaries and governments to enlist social media. You tell the story, you frame it as you like and bam! the story bombards Twitter.

A popular Vietnam anti-war slogan was: “What if they gave a war and nobody came.” In Social War, they not only come; they “like” it.

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