Gaza unplugged?

Looming over the shadow of a threat to disconnect the internet in Gaza, Israel is waging an outright propaganda war.

@idfspokesperson screengrab
As was the case during Operation Cast Lead almost four years ago, Israel has waged a propaganda war

Nearly four years ago, Operation Cast Lead – the Israeli attack on Gaza that killed as many as 740 civilians – marked one of the first attempts by a government to use social media in an effort to influence public opinion. As Israel’s military conducted air raids on Gaza, its diplomatic elements were busy setting up YouTube channels and conducting “press conferences” on Twitter. Meanwhile, the attack spurred unprecedented uses of social media by individuals and groups looking to show their support of Palestine: From campaigns to “donate” one’s Facebook status to the cause to coordinated attempts to make the hashtag #Gaza “trend” on Twitter.

Many of the tactics developed during that brief period in 2008 stuck. Activists have made #Gaza trend on each anniversary of the attack, and their techniques used by activists elsewhere, from Egypt to the Philippines. More importantly, that these techniques were developed amidst Israel’s media blackout on Gaza demonstrated to individuals in other restrictive environments the power of social media activism.

But now, four years later, the stakes have changed. As the Palestine Centre’s Yousef Munayyer recently told Al Jazeera, “… In 2008-2009, during the Israeli assault on Gaza, it was very difficult to get images out at the time and the way that we can see conflict being recorded and transmitted instantaneously today with tools like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube… the biggest effect has been that ordinary people are now able to have a voice in the greater discourse by participating through these tools.”

Interview: Mohammed Suliman –
blogger and activist from Gaza

From the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region emerged a plethora of new tactics – from government interference (or “man-in-the-middle attacks”) on social networks to Twitter “trolling” by pro-government forces and everything in between. The ongoing conflict in Syria has demonstrated the worst challenges of citizen reporting, seeding new mistrust in social media. Perhaps most notably, the emergence of Anonymous as a threatening spectre for governments has raised new concerns about “cyberwarfare”.

One question to emerge this week is what the responsibilities of social media companies are toward violent threats originating from government actors. Such companies have come under scrutiny for not protecting speech, despite the fact that they are private companies under no obligation to do so.

For example YouTube, which recently censored an anti-Islam video in Egypt and Libya despite the absence of a government request or legal order, recently refused to take down a video posted by the Israeli army depicting the assassination of Hamas’s military leader… despite the fact that the video violates the company’s written Terms of Service, which ban “graphic or gratuitous violence”.

Twitter, which is known for its strong protections on speech, has been questioned by the Atlantic‘s Brian Fung for allowing a threat from the @IDFSpokesperson Twitter account – “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead” – to remain on the site.

As Fung concludes, “… war by social media is only possible if the platforms over which it’s waged give their consent. This next evolution in armed conflict, in other words, could be ended by corporations even before it really begins.” 

That is, if it isn’t ended by governments themselves. Over the past few days, rumours have abounded of Israel shutting down Gaza’s telecommunications infrastructure a la Mubarak’s January 2011 shutdown. While mobile communications remain up, and those with generators may be able to connect, Gaza’s power grid has been pummelled, leaving thousands of citizens without electricity. In response to the potential threat of disconnection, groups such as Telecomix have begun to provide information on alternative means of accessing the internet.

But for now, with connections available to those who can afford them, the world is able to get a view into Gaza. Though there is no ban this time around, the meagre official reporting from the ground means that social media once again takes centre stage. Back in 2009, an article in the journal Arab Media & Society noted that the ban on journalists entering Gaza during 2008’s Operation Cast Lead “forced outsiders to rely almost exclusively on [free agents] who crisscross traditional and social media formats without a second thought”. In 2012, despite the difference in conditions, there remains truth to that statement. As Munayyer stated to Al Jazeera:

“We need to differentiate between the sort of official media mouthpieces on social media – whether it’s the Israeli government or any of the factions in Gaza – and the people. And I think what we’re able to do now that we didn’t have before is have instantaneous access to people on the ground who are not party to any of these factions or governments or groups and hear directly from them about what’s going on.”

Four years later, we may have more access, but we have also grown savvier, wisened by tales such as that of the Gay Girl in Damascus. There is therefore still a role to be played by arbiters such as the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a group that works to provide journalists with access to Palestinian sources and information on Palestine and has created a Twitter list of individuals in Gaza. Similarly, organisations like Global Voices (full disclosure: I’m on the board of directors) – which served a vital role in relaying citizen journalism during Egypt’s Internet blackout – sometimes serve as vetting mechanisms, verifying the identities of bloggers and social media users.

As these digital battles continue to play out in parallel to those on the ground, vigilance is needed to ensure that non-state actors voices are heard. While it is unlikely, in the face of global scrutiny, that Israel would “pull a Mubarak”, cutting off all telecommunications from Gaza, the state is waging an outright propaganda war, drowning out dissenting Israeli voices as well as Palestinian ones. It is therefore more vital than ever to seek out humanity in the never-ending flow of social media traffic.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork