The Media Battle for Gaza

As the guns fall silent in Gaza, the Palestinians have emerged as winners in their recent heated media war with the Israelis.

Media and Society- Osama Al Sharif

Both sides in this summer’s bloody Gazan war have claimed victory. Like other Israeli incursions into the tiny sliver of land over recent years, the conflict was covered extensively by local, regional, and international media. In the Arab world, those who wanted live coverage of the onslaught were not disappointed. Al Jazeera and Sky News Arabia provided exceptional live coverage from the frontlines. They were followed by Al Mayadeen and Al Hadath, an offshoot of Al Arabiya, which both also relied on field correspondents. They were, in turn, joined by tens of international reporters from various media from all over the world.

Because of the unusual cruelty of the latest Israeli bombardment, resulting in over 2,000 Palestinian deaths—the majority of whom were civilians, including over 400 children—and more than 10,000 injured, the international, especially Western media, couldn’t ignore or downplay the event. The images of dead children being extracted from under the rubble or from the playgrounds of UNRWA schools or Gaza beaches spoke for themselves. As a result, even mainstream Western media had to admit that the Israeli bombardment was both indiscriminate and disproportionate. But they avoided showing the bloody and heart breaking images of dismembered bodies, which were transmitted live and without editing by Al Jazeera and Al Aqsa news channels, among others.

CNN and NBC had to withdraw correspondents, whose coverage was seen as too critical of Israel. The BBC was accused of siding with Israel, while even the New York Times and other normally pro Israel media had to acknowledge the heavy civilian cost among Palestinians in Gaza.

But there was another war going on elsewhere. It was taking place in the virtual world on social media outlets, mainly between supporters of Israel and defenders of the Palestinians. A report by Al Jazeera’s English-language service called it the “war of hashtags,” referring to the battle that was taking place on Twitter. It said that an information war was being waged online by journalists, individuals, and by the Israeli and Hamas media machines. But this time, it seemed that the pro-Palestinian side had the advantage. A segment on the channel revealed that the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack has been used in more than four million Twitter posts, compared to the nearly 200,000 for #IsraelUnderFire.

A similar battle was taking place on Facebook where tens of pages were created to cover the war and hundreds of thousands of posts on the conflict were shared every day. Even members who weren’t politicized started sharing articles, posts, and images associated with the atrocities that were committed in Gaza as a result of the Israeli incursion. A report by The Sydney Morning Herald described how 400 Israeli students, supported by the Israeli government and the army, volunteered at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a private university north of Tel Aviv, to wage their own propaganda war countering online anti-Israeli sentiment. The report goes on to say that the project, which goes by the name “Israel Under Fire,” claims to have succeeded in closing anti-Israeli pages on Facebook and challenging propaganda from Hamas.

On the other hand, the Chicago Tribune published a story on a Palestinian teenager in Gaza, Farah Baker, who sent out tweets “that capture the drama of the tumult and fear around her.” The story said that the 16-year-old’s prolific posts on Twitter have made her a social media sensation through the month-old conflict. “Once a little known high school athlete, Baker’s following on the website has jumped from a mere 800 to a whopping 166,000,” according to the newspaper., which covered many aspects of the war extensively, published a report in which it concluded that “in the age of social media, with abundant mobile technologies in the hands of Gaza Palestinians and their global supporters, the Israeli state-sponsored media strategy has failed … On the one hand, we have the staccato of familiar @IDFSpokesman talking-points: ‘human shields’ ‘ we warned them with leaflets.’  On the other, we have a deluge of viral images of Palestinian dead and wounded and minute-by-minute updates from the unfolding Gaza war fields. From the @IDFSpokesman, we get didactic infographics. From Palestinians in Gaza, we have viral jpegs from the ground.”

One of the direct results of the online media war was the apparent change in global public opinion in favor of the Palestinians. Tens of pro-Gaza demonstrations took place in various cities around the world; from London to Washington DC, and from Cape Town to Sydney. Public pressure forced western governments to adjust their position towards the Israeli onslaught; calling for an immediate end to hostilities and admonishing Israel for targeting civilians and UN schools.

But researcher Gilad Lotan, the chief data scientist for the venture capital firm Betaworks, who published charts on social media interaction on the war in Gaza has concluded that pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian partisans barely talk to each other on social media.

The pro-Palestine side appears to have won this round online, but changing the views of their opponent remains a distant goal.