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How Social Media is leveling the playing field between governments, militants, and ordinary people

Part 2

The 2014 war between Israel and Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip was perhaps the first war in which social media was successfully employed as a radical levelling force by the weaker party. In previous wars between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s ability to manage access to the battlefield allowed it to help shape the narrative of the war, portraying it the way that it preferred — as a fight against terrorism. But with the proliferation of smartphones and social media accounts in Gaza over the past several years, this conflict wound up being viewed very differently by a variety of observers.

As bombs rained down on Gaza neighborhoods, following a pattern that included the killing and maiming of many ordinary people, Palestinians rushed to social media to share their own narrative of the war. Young men and women living in the Strip shared photos of apparent atrocities committed against civilians, alongside often emotional updates about their own experiences trying to survive the Israeli military onslaught. In previous conflicts most of these voices would never have been heard. Broadcast directly onto the global public spheres of Twitter and Facebook, however, accounts of Palestinian suffering and resistance became impossible for the world to ignore.

Writing in Middle East Eye on social media’s role in the conflict, Yousef al-Helou reflected:

           Even when the power was out, citizen journalists managed to post pictures of dead bodies, destroyed neighborhoods and injured people to the outside world. Photography has always been a powerful force, but the Gaza conflict was one of the first wars to be photographed mainly by amateurs and social media platforms, allowing those images to spread far and wide at the click of a button, helping the people of Gaza win hearts and minds, and subsequently causing unprecedented outrage against Israel. In demonstrations around the world, such photos were enlarged and carried by demonstrators, demanding that their respective governments take action to halt Israel’s onslaught.

As the public outcry over the war grew, even establishment media outlets in the U.S. were forced to take note of the Palestinian experience of the conflict. In response to the growing public relations disaster caused by images of dead Gazan civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Hamas government in the territory of using “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause” — a statement that did little to quell rising international outrage over the civilian deaths.

In military terms, there was no real parity between the two sides. By the time the conflict ended, more than 2,100 Palestinians had been killed, compared with just 66 Israelis. The physical infrastructure of the besieged territory suffered devastating damage, with Israeli attacks crippling water and power sources to Gaza residents. Despite their advantage in brute strength, the lopsided death toll, and destruction of only one party’s territory, it’s not clear that the Israelis won the conflict. In the battle over the narrative of the war — vitally important in a conflict whose power dynamics are strongly impacted by outside actors — the Palestinians managed to win significant traction for their cause.

Instead of another case of the Israeli military attacking an amorphous group of Islamist terrorists, a counter-narrative of the conflict spread globally. In this version of events, Israel was not a democratic state waging a war of self-defense against terrorists, but a U.S.-backed military behemoth pummeling the people of an impoverished territory. The death toll seemingly proved to the world that disproportionate force was being inflicted on a weak and isolated territory.

During Protective Edge” — the name the Israeli military gave to the campaign — “the people who suffered most were Palestinians, under siege from Israel’s superior military force,” Patrikarikos writes in his book. “This is the democratization of the wartime narrative in action, and it benefitted only one side: the Palestinians.

During the war, no one was more emblematic of the changing power dynamics than Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl who came to international attention for her social media updates about life in Gaza. Baker was not tied to any political group and her perspective on the war was a personal one. Yet her social media presence catapulted her to global attention and told the Palestinian story to the world in a way that resonated emotionally. It also empowered Baker as a political actor, something that she had never expected and that could never have occurred in any previous conflict.

Normally, a young teenage girl living under aerial bombardment would have been considered a bystander, at best, or a victim, at worst. But thanks to her Twitter feed, where she shared both her fears as well as her attempts to maintain a normal life amid the war, Farah became an important part of the Palestinian effort to sway global opinion on the conflict.

At only sixteen, Farah understood, even if only instinctively, the importance of social media in wartime, especially to a perpetual underdog like the Palestinians,” Patrikarikos wrote. “She understood the power that it gave to a single individual and to networks of individuals, power that previously would have been impossible.

In Gaza, like in Syria and Ukraine, there have been instances of alleged faked suffering and atrocity spread for propaganda purposes. Here, too, social media has changed the way the conflict is perceived. Through social media’s ability to give accounts from multiple separate sources on the ground, to verify information, and to share evidence, outside observers can better evaluate the credibility of reports from the ground.

During the Gaza conflict, the Israeli Defense Forces attempted to rebut the onslaught of Palestinian citizen journalism with their own information war, disseminating infographics and videos intended to show the Israeli side of the story. Ultimately, the Israelis were at a disadvantage. The personal authenticity of Gaza’s tech-savvy young people resonated more naturally with observing audiences than the official statements and flashy messaging released by Israeli military officials, messages that were indelibly stamped with the alienating face of a bureaucracy.

The impact of this disparity was notable. In a column in Foreign Policy following the war, entitled “On Israel’s Defeat in Gaza,” international relations scholar David Rothkopf reflected on the global impact of the scenes of mayhem that had ensued in Gaza, including images of young children being killed on a beach by Israeli military forces. “There is no Iron Dome” — a sophisticated and expensive Israeli missile defense system — “that can undo the images of suffering and destruction burned into our memories or justify away the damage to Israel’s legitimacy that comes from such wanton slaughter,” Rothkopf wrote.

While Barack Obama’s presidential administration stood by Israel during the conflict, calling for restraint from both sides, two years later, as he prepared to leave office, the U.S. took the significant step of distancing itself from Israel at the United Nations by allowing an anti-settlement resolution to pass — a rare instance of the U.S. acceding to public censure of Israeli actions. While far from a sea-change in America’s stance on the conflict, the move reflected growing dissatisfaction with Israeli actions in the United States, which, though not shared by the Trump administration, continue to be echoed by high-ranking former officials.

In her own small way, with her tweets and updates during the war, Farah Baker had played a role in shifting the narrative and forcing the world to grapple with the Palestinian narrative of the conflict.

I don’t have the ability to carry a weapon and I would never kill anyone, so my only weapon was to broadcast the truth and to let people know what was happening here,” Baker told Patrikarakos in an interview at her Gaza home. “I was more effective than I ever imagined, because of the amount of followers I got and because so many people told me I had changed their minds [about the war] and opened their eyes.

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