Since the beginning of modern warfare, propaganda has been almost as important as weaponry and strategy in determining the outcome.
But the current conflict between Israel and Hamas forces in Gaza has raised the use of propaganda to a new level. Thanks to an explosion in official and citizen messages moving on social media services, the war is being tweeted in real time.
For many who follow the avalanche of tweets, Facebook posts and YouTube videos it can seem almost like an episode from a new video game. But for those caught in the crossfire, the results are often deadly.
When Israel assassinated Hamas military commander Ahmed Ja’abari on Wednesday the world learned of his death while the car he had been travelling in was still burning.
A Twitter feed by the Israeli army spokesman announced the news of the “pinpoint strike” with a link to a YouTube video since viewed more than 2 million times showing Ja’abari’s car bursting into flames after an Israeli airstrike.
A few minutes later the same account posted another link, which featured a poster of the Hamas strongman washed in bright red and covered with the word ELIMINATED. It followed that up with a message issued over Twitter, warning all Hamas operatives to not “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
But if Israel thought that the Islamic fundamentalist fighter would cower in fear at their warning they were badly mistaken. Just as Hamas returned rocket fire in retaliation for the assassination of Ja’abari, it was quick to respond to Israel’s social media onslaught.
“Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are,” was the response from @Alqassam Brigades, the Twitter account used by the military wing of Hamas.
Since then hashtags like #Gazaunderattack and #PillarofDefense have seen the sides sling accusations at one another, together with videos, graphics and statistics designed to show their suffering and the justice of their case.
“What Would You Do?” asked one submission by the IDF spokesman which showed missiles raining down on Paris, London and New York. Palestinians and their supporters meanwhile posted pictures of a baby killed in an Israeli bombardment and comparisons between Israel’s high-tech weaponry and the home made rockets often used by Hamas.
Andy Carvin, the noted social media strategist for National Public Radio said in an interview Friday that the tweets and poss on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere marked a new development in psychological warfare. It’s the first time a military organization has “used Twitter for its own promotional and propaganda purposes during the time of an actual military engagement,” he said.
Lawrence Husick, co-chairman for the Centre on the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute called the conflict the “first social media war.”
“It’s a real war, as terrible as any real war. But now, perhaps for the first time, social media are being used as a tactical asset in the waging of war,” he told the Philadlphia Inquirer.
Others however have noted that the increased use of social media risks turning the war into little more than a massive real-time game for many of those following developments. Israel even seems to be promoting this aspect with tweets such as its Ja’abari poster and propaganda video of rockets being fired from Gaza, in which viewers are given the option of remixing the music.
The Israeli army blog now even awards badges to users based on their activity. “Israel has gamified war,” noted social media commentator Jon Mitchell on readwrite.com. “This is absolutely horrendous.”