A couple of weeks ago I met Matt Abud, who has worked in media development in Asia for the past few years, and is now studying at Monash University. He was telling me about the use of social media to report from Gaza, where, as we all know, mainstream media have been largely excluded. (As Max Uechtriz delights in telling me, Al Jazeera has been there from the beginning.)

I asked Abud to write a guest post. It follows:

All readers here, I imagine, will have followed the Gaza conflict fairly closely; and almost all will have seen at least some of the coverage focusing on the use of social media for public information / diplomacy / propaganda purposes. Stories about the Israeli Defense Force establishing its own You Tube channel, or Al Jazeera’s use of twitter and its special War on Gaza section, have been carried by many media outlets.

Even though it’s an old story now by conventional news cycles, readers might be interested in some of the debates and discussions that follow this issue in more detail, and with this in mind, Margaret kindly asked if I’d write a few short notes. I’m not claiming expertise in the area but have an increasing interest in it, and found some of the commentary and discussion on a range of blogs illuminating.

Gaurav Mishra , a Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University, has put together a thorough and illuminating discussion of the use of social media in Gaza’s conflict on his blog, drawing on his own and others’ insights. This is an excellent overview which I came across through a couple of sites, and has great links throughout. I’ve chosen to condense a few points he’s collated, but those with the time and interest will be rewarded by reading the whole thing.

The range of channels set up especially by the Israeli Defense Force and Israel’s government for the conflict is impressive, including Facebook, Twitter, and others, and as Mishra notes, indicates systematic planning beforehand. He cites the Jerusalem Post, in which Israel’s Foreign Press Branch head defines new media as ‘another war zone’ with which they must engage. Katrin Verclas from MobileActive says that, although some have dubbed the conflict as the first ‘social war’, few affected citizens in Gaza were actually heard through social media platforms; propaganda is what dominated. Bloomberg’s Gwen Ackerman, also linked and cited by Mishra, points out the function of Israel’s new media strategies is to ‘buy time’ in world public opinion for the military campaign. (Much of this discussion focuses on Israel as Hamas was far less successful in its own social media efforts, because of the conditions under which it was operating.)

This leads to some obvious questions, especially relevant to Gaza’s conflict but perhaps more generally as well. The first of these is the grey area around the emphasis on the ‘democratising’ impetus of ICT technology, which some governments attempt to counter through filtering and censorship, in defense of their own definition of ‘national interest’. While this has been explored in considerable depth and is often self-evident, the use of social media in this conflict shows that a state doesn’t necessarily need to censor the net for its purposes. Instead it can mobilise and manage it in different ways. This might not hold over the long-term, but for a short campaign like Gaza, a state can gain significant strategic advantage. Ivan Sigal (a former colleague) has documented some similar strategies in Georgia; more states are catching up to social media’s potential for their own goals.

Much of the coverage I came across on social media in Gaza’s war emphasised that Israel in particular was using these platforms to ‘get its point of view across’. But the interactive qualities of social media makes this description inadequate. Social media also allows the mobilization supporters, and gets them active in a way that conventional media techniques cannot. Social media platforms add further qualities to propaganda methods, and the ability to manage – as opposed to simply censor or propagate – the information arena strategically.

Some commentators question whether Israel’s efforts at propaganda were effective (John Cole and the BBC, again linked by Mishra). The BBC story covers a clear stuff-up; yet I’d love to read more detailed analyses that placed these efforts in the conflict’s own strategic context – what, for example, might be aimed at mobilizing Israel’s domestic and diaspora audience, and what is aimed at general international audiences (and if it’s on YouTube, does that distinction make any sense at all)? If one side can mobilize a greater level of support amongst relevant civilian groups for long enough then censorship and shutdowns may be less useful, as combating sides focus on ensuring essential constituencies stay firmly behind them.

This is has long been one of the core goals of propaganda efforts generally. Just as web 2.0 platforms lower the bar for ordinary citizens to participate in media, it’s possible they also allow states greater targeted mobilization of core supporters who can swamp alternative views and criticism, at least for a period of time. (Of course, it also helps if journalists from ‘legacy’ or conventional media are also kept out of the conflict zone, by which the coverage in the mainstream media of ally nations such as the US can be influenced).

The Gaza conflict is a telling case study in the strategic complexities of social media and citizen journalism under extreme stress. If readers have links that explore these issues more, please post them up!

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