Political Conflicts and Social Media

Written by Dominique Diethelm

On the 15 May 2021 an Israeli bombing strike has destroyed press offices in Gaza City. These bombings were a response of the first attack launched by the Hamas, the group currently occupying Gaza.[1]

Without trying to fully assess the situation in all its complexity, the attack of press offices is an attack on a civilian object and therefore infringes the principle of distinction of humanitarian law as required by the Geneva Conventions. Although the attack of course also affected other civilian buildings, the bombing of a press building leaves something more than just physical destruction behind. The independent media is a foundation for a democratic society by being providers of information necessary for a rational (political) debate. It is imaginable that the destruction of journalistic infrastructure would lead to a lack of available information about the ongoing conflict.

However, there is less and less reliance on traditional media for access to information. As probably many of you, I was indeed informed about the attack but not initially through traditional media but through Instagram.[2] Social media seems to be a way of distributing information and images fast and independent from infrastructure. I was positively surprised by the constructive and informative content I could access on Instagram. But what role does social media play in political (armed) conflicts and is the information available to be trusted?

First, regarding the role of social media, it is a very interesting aspect that the information more liberally and easily provided through social media can shape or even start a conflict: Images of abuse can be shared easily to reach a multitude of possible respondents who are willing and able to start protests, even internationally.[3] The Black Lives Matter movement which has flared up again with the death of George Floyd last year is an example of how the wider distribution of information can lead to more protests.[4] It seems therefore very well possible that the conflict within Israel and Palestine has been fuelled by social media.

This potentially positive spreading of information to find allies and create awareness in the conflict has however been restricted with the Israeli efforts to censor Palestine voices.[5] It therefore needs to be considered that free access to social media is not necessarily a given in problematic political climates that could lead to (armed) conflicts. This censorship can of course have a similar effect as the bombing of a press building: information can effectively be withheld. Although information on Instagram might seem objective, it could very well be that we do not get to see the whole picture.

This touches on the second problematic aspect: Social media cannot only be used by victims or individuals with the purpose of spreading their own personal experience. It can also be used to strategically spread and justify radical ideologies because extremist information is more readily available.[6] Governments and elite forces are further known to use social media as a form of strategic communication. Even in the Israeli Palestine conflict in 2012, Twitter has been used by the Israeli to effectively start the war by posting a picture of a high level Hamas operator overlaid with the writing “eliminated” and later on, both powers have (ab)used Twitter to present their own version of the story.[7] The Tweets that were exchanged between Israel and the Hamas were in English, which is why it is likely that the international community was targeted and the two sides tried to gain sympathy.[8] This of course also shaped the journalistic coverage of the conflict.

This demonstrates that social media has been used to try to influence an international audience as well and it is not only used on a national level to spread information from leaders to citizens. All of us reading posts about the conflict are therefore undoubtedly targeted in some shape or form. When information is posted by other actors then the state maybe not directly, but possibly indirectly by the fact that information is withheld through censorship or other means of oppression. And more importantly: how do we know who actually posts the information we are accessing?

This should in no way completely discredit the information available on social media. In principle, it is an excellent tool, especially considering the few resources it takes to distribute information. It can step in when traditional media is physically targeted and it can reach an international audience and create an awareness the press in the offices in Gaza City could never have. Also, it needs to be clearly stated that accessing reliable information in the context of an armed conflict proves to be very difficult and to a certain degree a reliance on potentially biased information is inevitable. However, every useful tool can also be abused and this article therefore is a plea to stay critical about who is distributing the information on social media and to be aware of the means of manipulation it can be in a political conflict.

[1] For a comprehensive timeline see: https://www.dw.com/en/timeline-how-the-current-israel-hamas-conflict-has-expanded/a-57573511; For a short and useful overview over the conflict as a whole see: https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-44124396.
[2] See for example @eye.on.palestine on Instagram with 2.4 Million subscribers.
[3] Zeitzoff Thomas, How Social Media Is Changing Conflict, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 61(9) 2017, p. 1975.
[4] See Zeitzoff (Fn. 3), p. 1975.
[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/5/13/social-media-companies-are-trying-to-silence-palestinian-voices.
[6] Zeitzoff (Fn. 3), p. 1977 f.
[7] Zeitzoff (Fn. 3), p. 1979; More detailed: Zeitzoff Thomas, Does Social Media Influence Conflict? Evidence from the 2012 Gaza Conflict, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 62 Issue 2 2018, pp. 29-63.
[8] Zeitzoff (Fn. 3), p. 1979.

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