July 29, 2014

Social media in conflict zones: Can you believe it?

The conflict between the Israelis and Hamas is on, with each side trying to breath down the neck of the other. Equally fierce is the war of hashtags in the social media world. 

With many western media organisations pulling their correspondents out of the war zone, not many bylined news stories are coming out of the Gaza strip. So, the Palestinian groups of various kinds are spreading rumours and half-truths about how the Israeli aggression is targeting civilians.  We are not saying that Israelis have been discreet about not hurting civilians. In fact, there have been numerous civilian casualties in the name of pounding the Hamas militia, and there must be bone-chilling, genuine, accounts of people suffering. But propagandists are not supposed to uncover the truth; they are there to spread untruth.

ISIS showed us how militia use social media to carry their tale. Hamas could not be an exception. On the other side, all governments use social media in a big way to garner support and sympathy to their cause. Israel is known to be using a huge army of social media users and professionals to bombard the social media with their messages and blunt the opposing view-points. But, being seen as brute, Israel is being outnumbered by Arab sympathizers, as of now.

Even journalists in today’s conflict zones do not seem to be discreet. There are many reports of journalists tweeting hearsays and unsubstantiated impressions of casualties, progress of conflict, damage etc.

Then there are a million social media propagators. They further disseminate whatever comes from the war zone, especially the Gaza side. Being agitated – and also believing that their actions will generate more support - they propagate the stories and statements far and wide. In social media, a message, especially when accompanied by a visual, gets instantly interpreted, commented upon, and disseminated. So, except for some peace-lovers and a bunch of cold analysts, every recipient of a message from the war zone participates in colouring and blowing it up. The more emotional a visual’s appeal, the more viral it gets. So, you can see many visuals of crying children, mutilated bodies and blood splattered clothes of the injured from both sides.

Twitter, as expected, is the main platform though activity is also seen on Facebook and minor social networks. There is a virtual war between hashtags such as #GazaUnderAttack,  #AJAGaza, #ICC4Israel and #FreeGaza on one side and #IsraelUnderFire on the other. These all have visuals showing how the other side is pounding homes and killing and seriously injuring innocents. 

The mainstream media is under pressure from the social media. In absence of enough verified reporting, it takes the course of using the social media route, sometimes using it in a crass manner and sometimes as a commentator on what social media is publishing.

There is a bloody war going on there, no doubt about that. Innocents are being killed and maimed - and you don't need proof for that. But we need to take with a pinch of salt, all that is being reported on the social media, even by supposed victims and journalists.