“I am proud to be part of this army of tweeps,” says activist Ola Anan, as she addressed around 80 young Gazans in Shalehat resort, Gaza City. They had gathered to discuss their efforts in the social media war with Israel during Operation Pillar of Cloud – the recent eight-day Israeli offensive on the Palestinian territory.
As Israel pounded the Gaza Strip with F16 missiles, shells and drone strikes, and Palestinian fighters targeted Israeli cities with rockets, a parallel battle of information and narrative was taking place online.
It was fought with a barrage of personal experiences, photographs and links to footage shared across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and personal blogs.
Maram Humaid, 21, began tweeting in French during the offensive in order to directly convey what was happening in Gaza to the francophone world because few Gazans speak French. She prefers Twitter as a “more effective and open alternative to the mainstream media.” She had around 200 followers before the conflict, now she has over 2,000.
Humaid was forced to stay at home during the war as it was too dangerous to venture out, but she insists that “you can spread reality with a computer and be a journalist from your bedroom.” She had to contend with a daily cut in electricity for eight hours a day during the conflict and her lengthy Twitter silences caused her followers to send concerned messages.
The imbalance of the physical war intruded into the battle on cyberspace when social media activists from Gaza had to overcome problems that their Israeli counterparts did not face.
Some Gazans found ways of getting round the frequent electricity cuts by texting friends or family in the West Bank, who posted tweets on their behalf. Others were helped by their dirty and expensive diesel-fuelled generators that are used when the electricity fails.
Although many activists were trapped in their homes, many continued to work recording the sounds of explosions, smashing glass and sirens in their immediate neighbourhoods and posting them online via audioboo – a program that allows users to share audio files.
Sameeha Elwan, 24, recently returned to Gaza after completing a havemaster’s degree in Durham. She opted to primarily use Facebook during Pillar of Cloud in order to escape the limitations of Twitter’s 140 characters and build a coherent story. “I was trapped in my house,” she tells me, “so I had to write about my family, our fear, our aspirations and the horror of the situation.”
Internet use is very common amongst young people in Gaza and most people at the talk have been active online for a long time.
However, some began tweeting and blogging because of the conflict and others became more politicised. Ahmed Al-Farra switched from tweeting in Arabic about all aspects of his life to tweeting news about the violence in English. His followers rose from 200 to 1,600.
An 2006 report commissioned by BBC governors on the impartiality of BBC coverage of the occupation noted significant shortcomings including the “failure to adequately convey the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation.”
Research conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group – outlined by Greg Philo and Mike Berry in More Bad News from Israel – suggests that much of the mainstream media has reproduced sophisticated Israeli public relations information, often without offering an alternative Palestinian perspective.
Much of the motivation driving the social media activists from Gaza is a desire to redress the perceived imbalance in reporting on Gaza. There is widespread anger with the mainstream media among young Gazans who are demanding their right to be heard.
Few Palestinian voices emerged in the mainstream media’s coverage of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s previous large-scale offensive on the Gaza Strip, which lasted three weeks between late 2008 and early 2009.
In the latest round of violence, the use of social media in Gaza has become more prevalent and sophisticated – allowing Palestinians to project their narrative and experiences in their own words. Those clicking on the Twitter trending hashtags of #Gaza and #GazaUnderAttack could gain an insight into the personal experiences of ordinary people in Gaza under the offensive, in a way that was much more limited in previous conflicts.
Blogger and “tweep” Rana Baker spoke of her struggles with balanced reporting in a conflict that is inherently unequal. After initially being diplomatic and careful, she says that eventually she took the attitude that “OK, yes I support the resistance, and those who don’t like it, go bang your heads on the mountains.”
There was a consensus among the Gazan activists that they had been largely successful in conveying their messages and information during Pillar of Cloud but there were still significant problems.
Some activists were worried about tweets inadvertently helping the Israeli military identify targets. Others were concerned that the limited, fragmentary nature of Twitter was not enough to present a coherent story that goes beyond hard news. Sameeha Olwan urges activists “to write stories now about our personal experiences or it will be forgotten.”
As is often the case, information and speculation on social media provided false information. In some areas, local Palestinian radio reported incorrect information from Twitter – this led them to call for the wrong houses to be evacuated. In some instances photographs from the conflict in Syria were wrongly identified as being from Gaza.
Israel seizes on these mistakes and, as one activist put it, “we have plenty of photos from Palestine. It is stupid to make these mistakes as it allows Israel to debunk our narrative.”
Many of the activists recognised that Israel is more sophisticated in its use of social media and public relations and they need to reach its level. The official Twitter profile of Israeli military – @IDFspokesperson – has over 200,000 followers.
Some activists referred to the Israel Project‘s guide which advises how to effectively practice “hasbara” (explanation) – the Israeli term used when referring to their public diplomacy efforts to disseminate information about Israeli policies.
Palestinian activists are keen to develop their own guide to enhance the effectiveness of their message and attain Israeli levels of sophistication in their communication.
This Gazan “army of tweeps” had gathered in order to compare war notes, spark ideas and become more organised as a movement. As they leave the meeting, the mood was buoyant. “I have been to many of these events and never seen anything like this amount of people,” says activist Yousef Aljamal.
Social media users in Gaza are already preparing for the next war – which most people think is inevitable – in order to organise and fight Israel in an online battle for hearts and minds, truth and reality, and the right to be heard.