Shaping public opinion on the Gaza blockade, 140 characters at a time.
Just moments after the Israeli navy boarded the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship in the Mediterranean en route to Gaza, an explosive battle of another kind was playing out on the Facebook and Twitter fronts.
The phrases “Gaza flotilla” and “#freedomflotilla” were among the three highest “trending topics” on Twitter on Monday morning, Eastern Standard Time. By Tuesday morning, “flotilla” still remained among the top 10.
“Your blood reached the shores of Gaza before your aid,” tweeted user Sarabughazal, at 2:23 a.m. on Monday, a message that was re-tweeted by other users throughout the day. It was a gory note from a pro-Palestinian activist, and indicative of the early traffic on the social networking site.
Another popular tweet was directed at the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, from early on, and also reappeared re-tweeted by many users: “@IDFSpokesperson nobody believes you. You know?”
Experts observed that early in the day, the tweets and Facebook streams were overwhelmingly one-sided, tilted toward the so-called peace activists attempting to penetrate Israel’s naval blockade. Only 12 hours into the social media uproar did the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit release its own evidence from the events, perhaps testing the limits of how social media can shape perceptions of world crises.
When terrorists struck Mumbai, YouTube eyewitnesses were there. When students protested elections in Iran, rebellious youth tweeted a live play-by-play from the streets. In both cases, the social networking sites seemed to be driving the story, out in front of traditional media.
But as cloudy versions of the “flotilla” story spread virally through Twitter and Facebook pages Monday morning, social media experts felt that site users were getting a less-than-accurate picture of what was going on, with little response at the time from the Israeli government.
“It’s not a discussion, it’s an outrageous attack on Israel, on what Israel did. Only a very small percentage of people are using facts,” said David Saranga, former media consul at the Consulate General for Israel in New York, who is now on a leave of absence from the Foreign Ministry to teach social media and diplomacy at IDC Herzliya. “All the rest are just condemning the fact that Israel attacked these ‘peace activists’ and the fact that Israel did it in the international water, not close to Gaza. They’re not basing what they’re saying on facts, but still it’s something that really shapes the discussion and the overall image of the events.”
Israelis, in his opinion, also tend to have a much stronger presence on Facebook than they do on Twitter — creating an automatic lag in information flow over that outlet. For Saranga, however, the blame for this alleged spread of misinformation didn’t lie solely with the Twitter users, but also within Israel.
“Right now, there is still no footage coming from Israel,” he said on midday Monday, before the IDF footage was released. “Almost 12 hours since the event started, there was no footage and pictures coming from the boats. And therefore it’s very hard to contradict because people want to see something.”
David Abitbol, Israeli Web connoisseur and founder of the blog Jewlicious.com (which this reporter contributes to), agreed, adding, “We didn’t get a rebuttal from Israel for hours. It was very, very late. They needed to speed things up a bit there. The diplomatic fallout was terrible. Ambassadors recalled, Greece suspending military exercises, demonstrations. All that happened before Israel released its videos. What took so long? That’s why the Twitter traffic was so one-sided.”
Israel, the observers agreed, was far behind its enemies’ voices in the online PR battle. And in Abitbol’s opinion, this time, traditional media drove the story. Instead of seeing tweets that relayed news and facts, Abitbol felt that the Twitter presence was largely “just one side’s militants yelling at the other side’s militants.”
“The first images shown in Europe and the Middle East originated from within the boat,” Abitbol said. “The Israeli government videos showing the extent of the passenger violence were only released hours later. The first images came from an embedded Al Jazeera reporter.”
New media scholar Andre Oboler argues that information from the official Israeli sources was actually “out there,” but a user would have to “dig a little deeper” to actually find what they were looking for early Monday, unlike the pro-Palestinian information that was so readily available.
“The videos showing the activists on the boats initiating the violence are there and are slowly spreading. People have to want to see and share it though.” The perception that the people on the boat were peace activists “can’t be undone at a stroke,” Oboler said. “At least when it comes to the information war, Israel may well be the little guy in this fight.”
But in order to tell Israel’s side of the story — to spread word about the knives and pipes hurled at soldiers — the Jewish community needs to do its part on the social media front and stop hanging back, many of the experts agree.
“Most of the people right now who are on Twitter referring to the issue are Arabs from the diaspora. I see a high volume coming from these people, a high volume of noise that these people are making in the social networks, and this is something disturbing,” said Saranga who felt that about 95 percent of the tweets were anti-Israel. “I don’t see the Jews or people from the Jewish community or people from all over the world support Israel, I don’t see them — but maybe because it’s still morning in the United States and it’s Memorial Day.”
Despite the fact that the flotilla was clogging Twitter streams, Abitbol noted that the search phrase “Gaza Flotilla” was only No. 7 on Google’s popular search terms.
“’Costco hours’ is more searched. People in the U.S. seem to care more about Celine Dion’s babies,” Abitbol said. “But judging from the raging torrents of tweets, you would think the Gaza flotilla is all people care about.”
Once the IDF footage was released, however, and since American Jews have come home from their beach and barbecue dates, Jewish individuals and organizations have begun to get into the debate further, now able to cite evidence to back up their claims. On Facebook, “Gaza Flotilla - the world should know the truth” had over 33,000 members as of Tuesday afternoon, and a fan page created by Facebook member Dan Illouz called “The Truth About Israel’s Defensive Actions Against The Flotilla“ had over 22,300 followers.
Other efforts come from private individuals, who have been continuously tweeting and replying to strangers, in attempt to dispel what they view as false allegations against Israel.
“In addition to learning and praying today, I saw it as my duty, as a Jew, and as someone who lives in the Holy City of Jerusalem, to use hash tags [a way of identifying a tweet’s subject] on Twitter to disseminate and counter attack the negative spin being proliferated to the world at large,” said Rabbi Michael Green, overseas director at Bnot Torah in Jerusalem and branding expert on Torah and technology.
Larger Israel advocacy groups like StandWithUs are now making a concerted effort to get young Jews to help fight Israel’s PR battle through social media, even providing a Facebook page that provides pre-written Tweets in defense of Israel that users can just copy and paste into their accounts. To Avi Posnick, New York regional director at StandWithUs, social media has certainly been key in shaping the news around this event, whether or not the tweets and posts have actually been accurate.
“The flotilla organizers equipped their boats with the ability to live-stream 24/7 and orchestrated a campaign, featuring much misinformation, on Twitter,” Posnick said. “They attempted to ‘trend’ their key terms ‘#freegaza’ and ‘#flotilla.’ They turned their journey, which was beset by problems, into a story.”
His goal, along with that of so many others, is to succeed in unraveling this “story” that has already been written.
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