Hamas and Israel step up cyber battle for hearts and minds
- 15 July 2014
- From the section Middle East
The latest surge in fighting between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip has seen both sides revive the intense social media battle that was seen during the last Israeli offensive on the coastal territory, "Operation Pillar of Defence", in November 2012.
Sites such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have been inundated with posts seeking to win the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
The Israeli military and the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza, have employed increasingly sophisticated methods and techniques to try to build their respective support bases.
War of numbers
Since launching "Operation Protective Edge" on 8 July, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has posted dozens of updates each day on its Twitter account, which it says provides "real-time information and updates".
This seems to serve a number of purposes, from live-blogging events on the ground to telling its side of the story.
The IDF provides updates on rocket fire from Gaza and the activity of Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system, with tweets such as: "BREAKING: Iron Dome just intercepted 7 rockets above Ashkelon".
It also posts what it calls the "Rocket Counter", giving the total number of rockets fired since the start of Operation Protective Edge.
The English-language Twitter account of Hamas' military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, provides updates on casualties resulting from Israeli air strikes and reports on its own rocket activity, mirroring the IDF's account.
The Qassam Brigades operate several Twitter accounts in different languages, including Arabic and Hebrew, some of which have, at times, been suspended.
Using the hashtags #GazaUnderAttack, #Gaza, #StopIsrael, and #PrayForGaza, the accounts defend the Qassam Brigades' actions and highlight the plight of Palestinian civilians. In a tweet that appeared to be aimed at the international community, the group said Palestinian casualties were "not just numbers".
Both sides have increasingly turned to graphics to demonstrate their version of events in numbers and, at times, they have actively engaged with one another in an attempt to disprove a claim.
In its tweets, the IDF asks hypothetical "what if" questions with accompanying graphics to try to broadcast its message to the international community.
The IDF has even created an app, available on its blog, asking people to "imagine" if Hamas lived in their country and fired rockets at their hometown.
It offers a series of maps that superimposes the Gaza Strip on other countries, including the US or UK, as a way to demonstrate the security threats it faces.
The IDF has also referred to popular international events to frame its version of events in the current conflict.
Ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, the IDF tweeted the number of Hamas rockets fired since the start of the tournament and urged people to "retweet so that all enjoying #GERvsARG will know".
The use of the football hashtag would have doubtless broadcast this message to a much wider Twitter audience.
Philip Howard, professor of communication at Central European University and University of Washington, says Hamas and the IDF both know that they have a wide audience, but that the bulk of their online followers come from overseas.
"The most strategically important part of the audience are the journalists who follow their accounts. They know that a well-placed tweet can help spin news coverage," he adds.
Hamas has become more sophisticated in its use of social media for two reasons, says Mr Howard.
They want to reach out to journalists and leaders in the West and also try to remain engaged with young Palestinian supporters who may no longer see Hamas or the Palestinian Authority "as their best or only option", he continues.
The IDF and Hamas both post images and videos of the destruction and casualties caused by latest violence.
Hamas tends to post more graphic images on its Twitter feed, including the bloodied corpses of children whom they say were killed in Israeli air strikes. Doubts have been cast over the accuracy of some images that went viral on Twitter under the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack .
Like Hamas, the IDF is active on several platforms, including the photo-sharing site Flickr. Recent images show Israeli civilians sheltering from rockets launched from Gaza, as well as military personnel.
Videos and counter videos have also surfaced, aimed at spinning the same events to each side's advantage.
One video posted by the IDF on its YouTube account, entitled 15 Seconds: Not Enough Time, compares the time it takes for athletes to run around a track and the time Israeli civilians have to take cover from incoming rocket fire.
The video caption reads: "During a rocket attack, Israelis living near Gaza only have 15 seconds to reach a bomb shelter. Even the world's fastest man wouldn't make it on time."
Hamas has meanwhile targeted the Israeli audience for the first time with the release of a music video sung in Hebrew and Arabic, the AFP news agency reports.
The video, Shake Israel's Security, shows Hamas militants making, transporting and firing rockets at Israel in a bid to turn Israelis against the government.
There are also reports that hackers belonging to Hamas took over control of the Facebook page of Israel's Domino Pizza and published warnings in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
The hackers wrote in one Facebook status: "Today will strike deep in Israel, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Ashdod more than 2000 rockets. We'll start at 7. Counting back towards the end of Israel…Be warned!"
The IDF has also frequently issued warnings to Gazans online.
In one recent tweet, it wrote: "To warn civilians of an impending strike, the IDF drops leaflets, makes personalized phone calls & sends SMSes. How many militaries do that?"
Meanwhile, Hamas officials have offered guidelines on social media use by civilians in Gaza in a video posted online.
In it, civilians are told not to publish images of rockets or missiles in central Gaza and to always mention "innocent civilians" when writing about casualties.
"There is nothing wrong with publishing images of the injured," it adds.