July 29, 2014

The War Over Gaza: A Battlefield Report from the Facebook Front

This title may seem snarky, but it is deadly serious. What the Israeli Defense Forces call Operation Protective Edge, the deadly assault on the population of Gaza, is the most important war so far in the social media era. And this is being forcefully brought to our attention in ways that are both political and personal, but in any case increasingly difficult to avoid.

And the part about a report from the battlefront? That's because I don't pretend this is a definitive or even a deep analysis. It is a quick battlefield bulletin that I hope will get other people to think about this and chip in their own thoughts and experiences.

From the personal

I have been in half a dozen conversations, actual voice to voice conversations, over the last two plus weeks which all centered around a single shared experience. Some friend--an old and dear comrade, or a high school classmate rediscovered in recent years through the magic of the intertubes, an in-law or maybe just some amusing Facebook "friend"--suddenly, unexpectedly, turns out to be a zionist, or perhaps an I’m-not-really-a-zionist equivocator who tut-tuts po-faced over Israel's slaughter of the innocents and suggests that it's really all Hamas's fault.

And how did we learn this? By a news story these friends share, a status report, a comment on a contentious thread. It's jarring, in some instances actually chilling, to find this deep difference. If we explore it, even tentatively, in an online thread or exchange of posts, we can feel the barriers going up. They may not be 20 feet high and made of concrete poured over rebar but they are real barriers, as real as bannings and unfriendings.

To the political

And these lost or damaged friendships, online or IRL, are, in one sense, casualties in one front in the war in Gaza. This not a front restricted to the Raleigh, NC-size, battered hellhole of a ghetto that is both home and prison camp to 1.8 million Palestinian men, women and children. It is a global battlefront, one in which many of us are, willy-nilly, combatants.

At the time Barack Obama took office and moved to ramp down the unjust and unjustifiable occupation of Iraq, there were about 50 million users registered on Facebook globally. Today there are a billion and a third! Twitter use wasn't even on the map.

Blogs, with few exceptions, have been correspondingly diminished as a locale for exchange of news and ideas, while Twitter seems less a replacement for and more of a compliment to Facebook-style social media. As for old skool broadcast news and dead-tree newspapers, they are pale shadows of their former selves. Breaking news comes to more and more people first through social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

I'm not saying this is the first war of the new era, Social media was how we tracked the Arab Spring. The continued catastrophic fighting on the Middle East and Ukraine are obvious recent examples.

But this war is one where the battle for public opinion is paramount. Israel is has been exceedingly nervous about social media for quite a while now and devotes considerable effort to promoting her foreign policy on it, though expending only a fraction of the total money it drops on other parts of its coordinated influence buying, lobbying and manifold other public relations (PR) efforts.

Still, those running Israeli social-media efforts, whether in the IDF, the foreign ministry or government-funded think tanks, are faced with a horrific problem. Israel's armed forces, among the largest and best equipped in the world, are engaged in a brutal assault on a poorly armed militia—and on everybody who lives in the same high-security prison camp with them. The photos of shattered children, mourning families, burning power plants, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble tell a story very different from the one Israel has been promoting.

My neck of the FBosphere

I spend too much time on Facebook and I have a mess of FB "friends." True, many rarely post or even remember they are on. Others have been steered out of my line of sight by restrictive FB algorithms. As a result, most of the people whose stuff I see regularly tend to be folks who share my politics to one degree or another.

And I have found an intense spontaneous response to the assault on Gaza. Comrades and friends around the country have taken up the question in large numbers, posting and linking frequently. In fact, there have been more pleasant surprises, folk I hadn't really expected to see jump in on something like this choosing to stand up, than the disappointing moments I mentioned above.

I certainly have ramped it up, and, in doing so, have tried to develop a more systematic approach, which I will detail in another piece. A couple of my links to articles on the origins of this attack have been shared by dozens of people. And naturally I've tried to promote demonstrations and other protests, and share reports on them.

Israel's strategy

I mentioned the importance the Israeli state and establishment and allied organizations globally place on this battle. The Hebrew term "hasbara" means explanation, but has come to have connotations of PR or propaganda. The IDF maintains a Hasbara War Room (and has for over a year) where college students fluent in a variety of languages sit at 400 computers pretending to be something other than paid advocates of the official Israeli line. Trolls, in other words. Some argue points. Some seek to disrupt threads with ad hominem attacks and nonsensical claims. Some are "concern trolls" who express sympathy for the Gazans and go on to urge capitulation to Israel as the only practical option.

Of course, most of the defenders of Israel one finds on the net are not necessarily paid or sitting in a "war room." Rather they are individual zionists who feel their cause passionately and put it forward with varying degrees of coherence. The arguments do have a certain sameness to them, though. This was masterfully summed up six years ago, by the anti-zionist website Jews sans frontieres who lay out a four point template for  pro-Israel argument:

1. We rock
2. They suck
3. You suck
4. Everything sucks

Besides being extremely funny, in the "If you see me laughing, well, I'm laughing just to keep from crying" sense, it touches on something very profound. Israel's minimum program is to get people to turn their heads away from the suffering of the Palestinian people. Israel holds the military whip hand. If global public opinion doesn't bring pressure to bear on their government and on the US government, Israel's main enabler, they can keep committing these crimes indefinitely.

The Palestinian side

So in a sense our job is to keep the suffering of the Palestinians front and center. Supporters globally have been doing this in recent weeks, but let's not forget that we are functioning as allies of those who live on the real life battlefront.

There are no 400-computer war rooms under central government direction in Gaza (or anyplace else) but there are people with cell phones who can take pictures and post reports, and they have truth on their side. I was reminded of this by a courageous young woman from Ramallah with whom I've had several on-line exchanges on Facebook, We'am Hamdan has been promoting the Palestinian cause on the internet since long before the assault on Gaza, "because the conflict affects my being as a Palestinian living in the occupied territories of the West Bank."

We'am works with an informal crew in Gaza and the West Bank who had a brilliant idea. They started a Facebook page entitled Humans of Palestine. The name tells the story—it was based on the hugely popular internet phenomenon Humans of New York, which couples a snapshot of a person or two and a comment about their life in their own words.
The idea of the page was to reflect the dreams of Palestinian people and their daily lives. But since the offensive started, the page aims at restoring the humanity that is often stripped away when Palestinians are reduced to calculative deaths, forgettable names, and burned and mutilated bodies, rather than people who shared loved ones, stories, dreams and aspirations.
This is a goal that I, for one, intend to learn from and to promote in my little section of the battle front.

Is it worth it?

We'am Hamdan can have moments of self-doubt about the value of her efforts. "Sometimes I feel that it's a stupid virtual battle and it won't change much. Sometimes I feel, No! It's very important to raise awareness within the international community."

Like her, like many of us, I sometimes wonder how much is being accomplished. But until I find a better way of tackling the job, I plan to continue, just as I plan to continue going to demonstrations that the media and the political establishment do their level best to ignore.

One way I hope to do that is with two follow-up pieces to this, one on how I am currently approaching the battlefield in practical terms and one on what happens when, inevitably, the IDF pulls back, leaving ruins in its wake, and Palestinian suffering continues while the world's gaze drifts elsewhere…

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

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