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Online war of words: To amplify message, Israel and Hamas fire up social media

August 3, 2014 at 3:48 PM EDT
Temporary cease-fires have come and gone between Israel and Hamas, but the online battle between the two sides has been fought non-stop, as both turn to social media in an attempt to control the message behind the fighting. NewsHour's P.J. Tobia has the story.

P.J. TOBIA: As fighting in Gaza moves into a fourth week, a parallel battle is taking place on a different front — waged online through social media. Both Hamas and Israel are seeking to control the message behind the fighting, and are taking to Twitter, Facebook and other online platforms to influence the public’s perception.

ADEL ISKANDAR: It is a competition for likes, recommends, tweets, retweets

P.J. TOBIA: Adel Iskandar is a professor of global communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He says both sides of the conflict are pursuing similar objectives with online content.

ADEL ISKANDAR: They realize that their footprint can be much wider, and they can reach sort of the deep crevices and far-out places in online if they’re able to build platforms that are solely their own, that they can control exclusively and send their messages out.

P.J. TOBIA: Iskandar points to Facebook pages created by Hamas and Israel. 

ADEL ISKANDAR: So pages dedicated to this particular conflict, or in the case of the Israeli Defense Forces, the operation itself, or specific aspects of the operation, specific spokespersons’ offices that derive from the Israeli Defense Forces.

The same goes with Hamas. Hamas has a very, very integrated system, communications system, not just in terms of a satellite network which broadcasts 24 hours a day, but they also have Facebook pages, dedicated Facebook pages, for each of their brigades as well.

P.J. TOBIA: Earlier this week, the headquarters of Hamas-run Al-Aqsa Satellite TV network was hit by Israeli airstrikes. Israel defense forces posted video of the strike soon after.

Throughout the conflict, IDF’s Twitter feed has featured a number of photos and videos taken during Israeli military operations. The page has more than 350,000 followers. Recent uploads include a clip showing the destruction of Hamas’ network of underground tunnels.

Another video claims to show soldiers uncovering hidden rocket launchers in Gaza. Hamas’s Twitter page — in Arabic — has more than 80,00 followers. Many tweets link to articles and releases from its information office.

Hamas’ military wing has also released videos online of its efforts in Gaza. The recordings have shown armed fighters winding their way through elaborate underground passageways. Another showed militants emerging from one tunnel to attack an Israeli border outpost.

Hamas’ English-language Twitter account has been suspended. They’ve also posted many taunting videos in Hebrew on YouTube, but they’ve been removed by the company under its hate speech policy.

Iskandar says the goal with social media campaigns shouldn’t be quantity, but traction.

ADEL ISKANDAR: If you have a single posting from let’s say an IDF page, or a Hamas page, if it doesn’t get any more than 200, 300 Likes, it probably is – it’s had little to no impact whatsoever, and hasn’t circulated.

If it gets retweeted by someone who has 20,000 or 100,000 followers, then all of a sudden your message has been amplified. If you can’t amplify your message, then you have little to no impact.

P.J. TOBIA: Those retweets and shares may be more important than the original messages created by the Israeli government and Hamas.

PHILIP SEIB: Well there’s a contest for world opinion on, on numerous levels. Certainly, the governments are waging that contest.

P.J. TOBIA: Philip Seib is Vice Dean and professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. I spoke with him via Skype.

PHILIP SEIB: Social media provide a very comfortable home for unofficial voices. And also voices that tend to be more trusted by the audience. I’m not really concerned with what Hamas and the government of Israel say, but I am concerned about what my friends say. My friends in the Arab world. My friends who live in Israel.

P.J. TOBIA: He says the real test of these antagonists’ social media strategies might be how much offline action they create.

PHILIP SEIB: What we still don’t know is the extent to which getting information on social media translates into political participation. In other words, are people who are hearing things on social media writing to their members of Congress saying give Israel more aid or cut off aid to Israel.

P.J. TOBIA: In the meantime, the online war of words burns hotter by the day.