As tension escalates between Israel and Gaza, more and more Gazans have turned to cyberspace to fight a battle of words as missiles fly overhead.
The Israelis are not far behind. They made history by becoming the first government to announce a military operation through social media as they declared the launch of #PillarofDefense through their Twitter account @IDFSpokesperson. Soon after the Israeli airstrike killed senior military leader of Hamas, Ahmad Jabari, on Wednesday, they posted a video of the attack on YouTube. In addition to the YouTube video, they also issued a warning on Twitter:
In response, Hamas tweeted:
Both sides are trying hard to get their voices heard and win public opinion, but the use of social media brings with it the risk of propaganda, inaccurate updates and relentless accusations.
Beside the governments’ public spat on social networks, there are countless young Palestinians living in Gaza who have launched their own social media campaigns to get their voice heard. Some of the common pro-Palestine hashtags trending on Twitter are #GazaUnderAttack, #PrayforGaza and #GazaUnderFire.
Yousef M. Aljamal is 23 year old social media activist and claims to tweet every few seconds about the happenings in Gaza. “I am addicted to Twitter and it has allowed us to form an alternative network of media, one which isn’t biased as the mainstream media and gets the truth out from every corner of Gaza.”
Aljamal consciously chooses to Tweet in English because he wants to grab the attention of the people living in the West. “After the 2008 war, a movement of young mostly female bloggers and writers emerged in Gaza. They all started writing in English because we want to tell the world about our suffering and living under occupation.”
According to a study conducted by the Dubai School of Government, there were 15,500 active users on Twitter from West Bank and Gaza in March 2012. In the period between September 2011 to March 2012, active Twitter users in West Bank and Gaza increased by 232.48 percent, which puts Palestine as the tenth most Twitter active country in the Arab world. And Palestinians are not only using Twitter - the number of Facebook users in Palestine had reached 975,780 in August 2012.
How do Gazans keep up with the online war?
These numbers clearly indicate that a social media revolution is underway in Gaza and the West Bank, but in a country where power cuts are routine, how do Gazans keep up with the online war?
Aljamal explains that every day he faces at least eight hours of power cuts and sometimes has to wait patiently till he can go online and start blogging or tweeting.
Nehal Marahiel also lives in Gaza and worked as a freelance photographer.She faces the same problems as Aljamal when it comes to updating her Twitter or Facebook without electricity. “ I started using blackberry service due to the electricity problem. Many of my friends have started using Twitter and Facebook on their phone which is extremely expensive but we can’t stop telling the stories,” she explained.
In situations like these, disseminating information is a challenge, but many Gazans have formed a network of citizen journalists to overcome it.
“Every person in every neighbourhood is tweeting now about the air strikes, the causalities and the destruction,” Marahiel said. “Social media is more effective than mainstream media because it gives you the minutest details. Due to a lack of time and space, new channels cannot cover everything but now we are able to provide the raw details.”
Aljamal talks about how he is monitoring his Twitter feed, Facebook updates, radio, TV and online newspapers all at the same time. “In one minute, there are so many air strikes all over Gaza and in order to get the news out instantaneously, all the citizen journalists work together on Facebook and Twitter.
News credibility in question
As the newsfeed and timelines get flooded with constant updates from Gaza and Israel, it is still important to view this information cautiously.
“I uploaded a picture on my twitter account and about 10 mintues later I found out that it is from Syria and not Gaza,” Aljamal said.
News organisations are now spending a great deal of time verifying updates on social media networks to ensure credibility by using tools like google image search, geo-location options on Twitter or by simply monitoring the user’s twitter feed.
“We are always advised not to disclose the location where the strike happened because the Israeli army can come behind us,” Marahiel said. “There are instances where people spread fear and panic by posting wrong information and one person’s opinion ends up spreading like news.”