As Palestinians and Israelis have endured nonstop missile strikes, air raid sirens and collapsing peace talks, outside observers have watched supporters of both sides increase their rhetoric on social media and in headlines.
If the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamic militant efforts in Iraq, and Russia’s recent intervention in Crimea are any indication, international conflicts unfold online as much as they do on the ground. The endless stream of news and opinion created in the information age has enabled warring factions to step up their propaganda efforts and, if all goes according to plan, sway public opinion.
The trolling began almost immediately with the Twitter hashtag #GazaUnderAttack going viral just hours after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Palestinian territory July 8. Clicking the hashtag would expose users to horrific images depicting bloody Palestinians emerging from rubble and much worse. For all of their emotional impact, though, many of the images were recycled from earlier conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians or re-posted months after they were taken in Syria.
“I didn’t expect to get over 1,800 retweets, I didn’t actually know that the picture was recycled,” one teenage Twitter user told the BBC. “People don’t need to take it as a literal account. If you think of bombs going off, that’s pretty much what it looks like.”
The #GazaUnderAttack conversation frequently intersected with #FreePalestine, a hashtag used by thousands of Palestinian supporters to check the latest news about the conflict, which has left nearly 200 Palestinians dead so far and countless others injured. Instead of acting as a support group or reliable news source, though, the link is dominated by misinformation and erroneous images used to try to convince Twitter users to believe things that are untrue.
The tweet reproduced below, for instance, was posted by user Zaid Ali, who describes himself as a YouTube filmmaker based in Canada. Along with a slew of other pro-Palestinian tweets, Ali attracted 13,000 retweets with an image that purportedly showed two Israelis preparing to produce their own propaganda.
â€” Zaid Ali (@Za1d) July 12, 2014
The divisive image quickly perked up Twitter investigators, who attacked Zaid Ali for intentionally misleading people with a picture that originated before the current crisis began. It was posted in early 2013, in fact, by a Vietnamese site that curated a photo spread of female Israeli soldiers training for combat (a translated version of the site can be found here). The image in question appears to have been taken while the two women were preparing to simulate a trauma scenario, and is accompanied by the roughly translated: “The beauty of military forces in an ambulance, hours of practice.”
â€” Eric Avital (@EricAvital) July 13, 2014
â€” Eric Avital (@EricAvital) July 13, 2014
The Israeli side of the message may be invisible in certain corners of the Web, but the country is just as dedicated to shaping the message as the Palestinians. YNet, the online outlet for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, reported Monday Israeli college students have combed through social media and community-based websites to correct, as they see it, the impression readers have about what’s happening now on the Gaza Strip.
“The goal is to deliver a message very clearly: Israel has a right to defend itself,” Iido Bar-David, a student at IDC Herzliya, told YNet in a rough translation. “We want to make people who live abroad know the reality today. … People do not understand what’s going on here.”
The Israeli prime minister’s office announced in 2013 it would reward university students with full or partial scholarships if they agreed to help combat anti-Semitism and calls to boycott Israel online. Hundreds of young people were employed by the government to edit the message during the 2012 unrest, with the prime minister’s administration telling the Associated Press in 2013 it would prepare for future conflicts ahead of time.
“This is a groundbreaking project aimed at strengthening Israeli national diplomacy and adapting it to changes in information consumption,” a statement said, with a government official adding the budget allotted for a sizable effort online. “Everyone who believes in the cause, and wants to join, can join.”