Israel vs Hamas…Now On Twitter

Two civilizations that write right-to-left (which I maintain is the correct way to write) fight each other in a language that goes left-to-right (which I maintain is not).

The conflict was dubbed “The First Social Media War”, precipitated by Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, as well as by Israel’s assassination of the chief of Hamas’ military wing Ahmed al-Jaabari.  While Palestinian leaders condemned the attack, Israel justified its action as one of self-defense, with Prime Minister Netanyahu claiming that a fifth of its population had been living under a constant barrage of Hamas rocket fire. Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense lasted a week, ending with a ceasefire, 158 casualties on the Palestinian side, and 6 Israeli casualties (numbers subject to updates).

While the kinetic aspect of the conflict was not significantly different from 2008 (see my book on the rise of non-kinetic warfare written aeons ago, sold on Amazon.  But why pay $13.99 plus shipping when you can download it off Air University Press for free), the key difference this time round was played out in the realm of social media, especially YouTube and Twitter.  The Israeli Defense Force fired the first virtual salvo, posting the strike on al-Jaabari’s moving car on YouTube immediately after the deed was done.  At the same time, they tweeted an ominous message to their Hamas adversaries:

 We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.

Videos put up by the IDF, Hamas and other parties started to populate YouTube from the day al-Jaabari was killed.  This, together with posts and images on Facebook and Twitter, generated much debate online.  In the days that followed, the IDF called up its entire arsenal of social media weapons; liveblogging, a Facebook page, Flickr feed, a Twitter stream, Tumblr and Instagram.  Hamas responded in kind on YouTube and Twitter.  What turned out was a full-blooded social media war taking place alongside the bombing and explosions in the physical world.  Both sides put up by-the-second updates of actions on the ground, providing their respective grisly numbers and pictures of the dead and wounded, exalted themselves, and hurled threats towards the other.  At times this degenerated into downright mudslinging that seemed less than dignified for establishment mouthpieces but at the same time not out of place in a social media environment.  A tweet by @AlqassamBrigade[1] read:

 @IDFSpokesperson Al Qassam Brigades is always ready to smash your arrogant heads.

What ensued was like nothing that has ever been witnessed before in armed conflict. It was the IDF versus Hamas on the battlefield, and @IDFSpokesperson versus @AlqassamBrigade on Twitter.  The latter conflict has continued even as a ceasefire was declared and rockets and bombs have died down.  In the days immediately following the conflict, @AlqassamBrigade was still tweeting about Hamas victory and alleged Israeli atrocities during the conflict, while @IDFSpokesperson was active with questions about why Hamas was celebrating.


[1] Al Qassam Brigades is the name of Hamas’ armed wing.

Final Research Paper: Social Media in War

In the latest conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, taking place even as I blog, more than 422 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza City, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).  Hamas gave conflicting information, tweeting that it had shot 527 rockets instead.  Wait, did I hear Hamas making a news release on its conflict with Israel through Twitter?  There is more.  IDF spokeswoman Avital Leibovich tweeted a photo of a baby bloodied from a Hamas rocket attack.  Hamas had a similar riposte, tweeting a screen shot of the mangled body of a child, presumably from heavy Israeli bombing.

This current conflict could be the one in which Twitter and other social media platforms play a most significant role in war.  Indeed, social media’s influence in armed conflict is set to grow.  Every physical, kinetic conflict has had an intangible non-kinetic side.  Of the latter, a considerable portion lies in the information realm.  From high-level strategic communications right down to tactical disinformation, information has been and will continue to be a critical instrument of power.  As the latest and most rapidly-growing propagator of information, it seems as though social media will be featured for a long time to come in war.

Thus far, much of the hype about social media has been about its democratizing effect, its ability to mobilize, to set off revolutions, and to overthrow governments.  However, not much has been discussed about its role in war.  What is its history thus far in war?  Why do warring factions appear to be employing this medium increasingly?  Has it been effective for those who use it?  What is unique about it that separates it from other forms of mass media?  How does it change the nature of information in warfare, or does it even change the nature of warfare itself? What are the other questions that need to be addressed, that are not yet addressed at this point in time?

The research paper will examine the trends in the use of social media in war, through a broad survey of the history of its use.  It will also look at the other areas in which social media has been active, and attempt to apply the discoveries and lessons of its use into the context of warfare, in order to predict the kind of influence it that is capable of having in war, as well as to examine the changes; possibly fundamental changes; that it could make to the very nature of warfare and how it is practiced.

Social Media and the Arab Spring

This post reviews the reading this week that covers social media and its role in the Arab Spring.  The article A “Cute” Facebook Revolution? by Basem Fathy posits that the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was neither one purely borne out of social media, nor one that was pre-meditated, pre-planned  and carefully pre-conceived.  It says instead that this revolution was ten years in the making, with offline actions and activism preceding the same online, and that the organization was loose and non-hierarchical.  Fathy also makes a seemingly innocuous-looking point in his conclusion that the pouring of people onto Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011 was the result of the Egyptian government clamping down on the internet and preventing people from viewing events unfold online.  This last point ties in with Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory, which says that social media sites are fertile places for dissident movements to start.  This is because when authoritarian regimes shut down sites like Youtube, the masses who use such sites to look at cute cats sit up and take notice.

A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History by Kirkpatrick and Sanger is an excellent summary of how the Mubarak government was brought down; owing in no small part to the roles played by Egyptian bloggers and Wael Ghonim’s activism on Facebook.  Tufekci’s article The #freemona Perfect Storm is an excellent anecdotal piece on how Twitter was used to mobilize action to release an Egyptian-American writer from Egyptian captivity.  Finally, The Net Delusion (afterword to the book here) is Evgeny Morozov’s argument about how those who think the Internet is the ultimate liberator are sorely mistaken.

There is absolutely no doubting the major role played by online social media in the series of dissident movements in the Arab Spring.  This is only the latest instance of the mobilizing power of the Internet and social networks.  The earliest internet-facilitated mobilization I can personally recall was just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  According to some estimates, a total of 36 million people were mobilized for protests against this war from January to April that year.  From these readings though, one moves away from the simplistic claims of social media as the harbinger of global democratization and liberation, to the more sober realization that there is so much more to just social media generating movements and liberating masses.

Consider the humble telephone.  A great piece of technology in its time, it connects people, enables them to communicate, and even though communication is point-to-point, it can, with repeated use, enable groups of like-minded people to gather at one place to partake of an activity of common interest.  Much like social media, it can be (and indeed has been) used for benevolent and malevolent ends, and is a useful—in times gone by, essential—tool for those who seek to organize.  It is plausible to imagine that with its invention and proliferation in the late 19th century, people might have been wildly optimistic about the good things it could bring to humankind.

Yet, more than 125 years after Alexander Graham Bell invented the apparatus to telegraphically transmit sound, it is inconceivable that one might hail the telephone as the technology to liberate longsuffering peoples and democratize societies.  This is because, having thoroughly understood what the telephone is about, we know what it is capable of achieving, what its role in life is, how it can be manipulated, and when over-grandiose claims about what it brings to our lives is just hot air.

And so it could prove to be with social media.  We have seen what it can do in democracy movements.  But just as one swallow makes not a summer, it is much more prudent to not just make conclusions from the information that is easily available (what I learn from Todd Rogers’ behavioral science class as the availability heuristic).  Rather, there is a need to synthesize as well the information that is not easily apparent, and that which is not available at all (meaning, we need to go search and research).

It has only been ten years since social media burst into the scene, and there is much about it that is not yet known and understood.  While I applaud the pivotal role social media has played in liberation movements and other mobilizations that make for a better world, I am nevertheless clear on two things about it: one, that it is a vehicle and a tool (or perhaps, weapon) that serves the intention of the one who wields it; two, 125 years from now, we would label it just as what it fundamentally is—a great piece of technology, no more, no less.

Article Review – Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0

What happens to the most successful online presidential campaign organization after its presidential candidate is elected?  President Obama decided to transform it into an organization geared primarily to support his policy agenda.  The idea seemed promising.  The grassroots structure and channels that had been forged, together with the volunteers that had been enlisted, would now be harnessed towards canvassing public support for the president’s policies.

However, some things will inevitably be different.  First, the personnel.  Many decided to move on, probably due to the very different nature of OFA’s work.  Second, the organization would be run from the Democratic Party rather than just a just-for-Obama vehicle.  Third, the nature of its work.  Instead of the more exciting, fast-paced work of political campaigning, it will be the more mundane, daily grind of soliciting public feedback and support for Obama’s policy initiatives.

There are supporters and detractors to OFA.  Those for the idea, not least some Republicans, say that it keeps Obama’s core constituency energized.  Some Democrats are not exactly enthused, concerned that the refreshed set-up will generate greater pressure on Democrat lawmakers.  Finally, it runs the risk of alienating supporters who will inevitably have different views from Obama’s policies on specific issues.

Surely such a successful grassroots organization is so valuable that it must be kept well for the next election in four years’ time, when online proliferation is set to be even more widespread, and the returns from a good online strategy and organization, even greater.  The question is how and in what form this organization should exist.  Obama for America was a unique organization with a very specific mission.  It is hard to just morph it into something else without it losing something in the process.  Given the larger objective of keeping its existence, I would suppose just getting it to do virtually anything just to keep its engine running, would be a good thing in itself.  But might as well make a virtue out of necessity, and let it serve some useful purpose in the meantime.

Obama has made OFA something quite close to the original OFA.  However, my opinion is that, judging from its results, it has not worked out that well.  A look at the Wikipedia page of OFA yields underwhelming reading—it has only ever done work pertinent to Obama’s healthcare reform, and not very significant work at that.  It has also come under criticism from some quarters (see one example from the Washington Post) for the way it has (or has not) worked.

In my home country Singapore, the government has its own structure to gather feedback and send out feelers on legislation and policies.  This is not conflated with partisan politics and elections.  I feel what Obama has done with OFA has served to confuse.  What originally started out as a clearly-partisan campaign platform, will find life difficult as a platform for government policy.  This is because of the fundamental difference in the target audience. In campaigning, it exists and is designed to reach out to Democrats and undecideds.  In policy, it cannot be the same audience, lest it alienates further those who did not vote for Obama, and receives feedback from those who are least likely to criticize it.

When so much of the debate over the last four years has been about bridging the partisan divide, the net effect of OFA is to exacerbate the problem.  Obama could have done this better by maintaining it as a just-for-Obama vehicle, rather than let it become an organ of the Democrat party.  Better still, keep the organization trained on campaigning and election business, and if he needed an organization for his policies, create a new, non-partisan one.  He should remember that he campaigns to his supporters, but devises policies for all Americans.

“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, by Clay Shirky

Doomsday!  Clay Shirky in this blog post predicts the end of newspapers as we know it.  He says that the “unthinkable”—a scenario in which copying is widespread and content is free—is already taking place, but the print media industry has still got its head in the sand, using their set old ways to try to overcome what is happening around them.  The result is that the industry is paralyzed, unable to plan its next move to respond to what is taking shape right before their very eyes.  This is nothing less than a revolution for print media, simply because it has ceased to be the solution to the now non-existent problem of making information available to the public.

Shirky recounts the revolution that the printing press itself created in the 1500s, and claims that the printing press is now itself under threat from a similar revolution brought about by digital media.  However the primary reason that newspapers are in trouble is the impending loss of their monopoly on the advertising dollar.  In the internet age, individuals and corporations are free to go directly online for their advertising needs, omitting the newspaper publishers in the process.  And what happens from here? Shirky himself does not profess to know what will replace the newspaper’s role, and how, when it is gone. What he does profess to know though, is that the entire domain of journalism will go through a period of experimentation to find the next big thing to replace newspapers.

In his deeply influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn postulates that science does not progress in a linear fashion, but undergoes periodic revolutions known as paradigm shifts, in which the nature of scientific inquiry is abruptly transformed. He explains that scientists within a specific paradigm tend to see things in a certain way, and this clouds their vision, making truly major scientific discoveries rare.  However, when paradigm shifts do occur, a new worldview is formed that is radically different from the old one, transforming scientists’ view of the world.  The classic example of such a revolution is the Copernican Revolution (incidentally also mentioned in Shirky’s blog post), in which the Ptolemaic theory of Earth at the center of the galaxy with the celestial bodies revolving around it, was displaced by Copernicus’ discovery of a heliocentric solar system.

What Shirky describes sounds extremely similar to a Kuhnian scientific revolution.  The last paradigm shift was the printing press in 1500, and the next paradigm shift taking place right now, with digital media the heir-very-apparent.  Those whom Shirky describes with their proverbial head in the sand are the “scientists” of the old paradigm, still steeped in their outdated assumptions and trapped in their confirmation biases.  If the analysis of scientific revolutions can be further applied to Shirky’s digital media revolution, Kuhn said that in the natural progression of paradigms, once the new framework is selected, there will be widespread consensus on the appropriate choice of methods, terminologies and experiments contributing to increased insights, and problems (“puzzles”) will begin to be solved in the context of the new paradigm.  Using Kuhn’s model, I would add to Shirky’s piece to say that, over and above experiments, the publishing world can expect to see new methods, innovations and terminologies generating new insights and “mini-discoveries” in the brave new world of online publishing.

I thought Shirky’s most impactful line in his post is “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”  May I be so bold as to suggest another amendment to Shirky’s post? What we need is good, honest journalism. Now if the profession of journalism is to go the way of Groundswell; that is, if people are going to get good, professional journalism from one another instead of from institutions, then how does the common person obtain the training in order for her to get to the level of professional journalism?  I became concerned that unlearned, fly-by-night journalists might soon be flooding the market.  My fears were allayed somewhat after some googling, in which I found some self-help guides to online journalism.  The content exists.  bighow.com for one is a huge resource for budding online journalists. With a coming tidal wave of journalists coming online in the foreseeable future, what the world needs is: first, professional training to keep them proficient; and second, ethical training to keep them honest.  The resources are there, will the online journalists consume them?