After announcing their intention to attack Hamas on Twitter, the Israeli Defense Force began military operations in Gaza yesterday. The Alqassam Brigades, Hamas’s military arm, also has a Twitter account, and the two have been engaging in a sparring match on the platform that elevates typically meaningless Twitter tiffs into the stuff of WWIII nightmares.
Aside from updating their followers on the death toll and the status of military strikes, both accounts have tweeted photos of children (warning: both links are graphic) injured or killed in the conflict. The IDF is letting no social media channel go untouched. They’ve been uploading photos of their operations to Flickr and Pinterest and publishing status updates to their official Facebook page. They also just started a Tumblr account that is littered with pro-Israel propaganda, including a photo showing a cartoon of an Israeli family in the crosshairs of a Hamas target with the message “Israeli civilians are Hamas’s target.”
Spreading information and even propaganda through social media channels in times of violent conflict is new territory for internet companies. The Arab Spring is often cited as Twitter’s defining moment. In that case, Middle Eastern citizens used the service to communicate with each other and the press in order to foment revolution against totalitarian governments.
But this time, it’s different. As Peter Kafka of AllThingsD noted, Israel is, in essence, “using the Internet as weapon,” employing the same tactics as dissidents in the Arab Spring to spread a message without a middleman. There is something grotesque and disturbing about two parties with a long history of conflict live-narrating the launching of bombs that kill civilians and destroy communities. There is no empowerment or revolution here: just a dark, sinking feeling as we watch the bloodshed unfold in real time.
And the platforms that are allowing both the IDF and Alqassam Brigades to spread their messages? Faced with a new frontier of social media manipulation, neither YouTube or Twitter really knows what to do.
It’s difficult to nail down whether or not the content disseminated by both the Hamas and IDF accounts violates Twitter’s terms of service. One Twitter rule explicitly bans the “direct, specific threats of violence against others,” which certain IDF tweets do seem to violate. The Daily Dot reports that the IDF Spokesperson Twitter account was temporarily suspended for about 40 minutes today, but was then reinstated. As Twitter doesn’t comment on the status of individual accounts, it’s difficult to suss out what the reasoning behind this was; perhaps it was automatically suspended after being flagged for removal by users. Whatever the case, it’s back up now, tweeting about the rockets flying between Tel Aviv and Gaza. (A fake account, @IDFSpokesman, has been suspended.)
YouTube, meanwhile, also temporarily banned a video uploaded by the IDF that shows a “pinpoint strike” that killed Ahmed Jabari, one of Hamas’s military leaders. The video was put back up after AllThingsD pointed it out. YouTube told them:
“With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.”
As one social media analyst told the BBC, the actions of both the IDF and Alqassam Brigades on Twitter put the service in a difficult position. “They want to preserve their position as a carrier service that doesn’t editorialize,” he said. “On the other hand, they have terms and conditions that must be adhered to.”
“This is not a decision a couple of hundred engineers in North California want to be making,” he added.
And yet, as hashtagged insults and news of bombs continue to fly across these services, it’s a decision social media platforms may have to make sooner or later.