The first Twitter non-war

The social web in the Gaza conflict

It is ironic how social media, a tool primarily of individuals, brands and businesses, has made its way into the latest armed conflict in Gaza. Especially when a social media command centre was used by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to mount their cyber-war. Since this is a war of narratives, words become central to the discourse.

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz left his magnum opus, On War, unfinished, when he died in 1831 at the age of 51. Militaries across the planet used his work as a textbook and even adversaries who usually lined up against one another, were ardent students. About 150 years later, Clausewitz entered the marketing arena, with the publication of Marketing Warfare: How to Use Military Principles to Develop Marketing Strategies. After this publication On War had a new set of disciples- businesses building brands, using the lexicon of the military to devise strategies to wrest market share. When social media arrived, big businesses borrowed another military term: Command Centre, to describe where and how brands waged marketing warfare in a new arena. Life, theories and lexicons do come full circle.

Armies and states in conflict have used propaganda for time immemorial. As newer forms of technology emerged, armies modified their messages to fit these channels. One can recall embedded journalism, the CNN war and the Second World War radio broadcasts from Berlin. Bengalis and Azad Hind Fauzis would remember the Aami Shubhash Bolchi broadcasts from Singapore; others can recall leaflets dropped from the air… larger than life condoms shipped by the USA to the then USSR. All of these were one way – from one state agent to their enemy. This has seen a significant change with social media. Propaganda is now a two-way, indeed a multi-channel affair.

The latest armed conflict in Gaza was the first Twitter non-war. Even though Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube were all vehicles, it was Twitter that earned the naming rights. Interestingly, each of these is a vehicle of messages as well as a discussion platform.

Let us take a quick look at the opposing forces in this war of words played out in real time. In one end, there was the IDF. On the other, the military arm of Hamas and the al-Qassem Brigade. Alongside, individuals on both sides of the conflict who got into the act and thereafter, the entire world along with the section of the neutrals. (In case you missed the action, here is a great collection of the most significant moments on Twitter.)

The IDF wrested the initiative (after all they fired the first salvo and declared the conflict open), the resources, the budget and some would say, the legitimacy of being an official channel. From a declaration of war (or non-war) made on Twitter, to blow by blow accounts of eliminated Hamas activists, complete with well-crafted posters and digital assets, the IDF playbook was pitch perfect. They created persuasive content, distributed it across social media channels, identified amplifiers for their content and responded to their enemies. And they were active every hour, as you would expect an army to be.

The IDF social media command center (The Atlantic and  Tablet) received a lot of media attention. The IDF has a large communication department, divided into four, which serve messages to the media across the globe. One must commend the IDF for opening the kimono and showcasing the people at the helm or on the trigger. This degree of transparency is unprecedented in the history of propaganda and warfare, which is usually cloaked in doublespeak and shadows. Much has been made of the ‘popular’ and ‘youthful’ characters at the Command Centre. The IDF Spokesperson called out the advantage that digital native soldiers exposed and adept at harnessing the social web conferred upon the IDF operations. In sharp contrast, the al-Qassem Brigade remained in the shadows. They engaged in an exchange with the IDF on Twitter. First, it was a tit-for-tat, chest beating affair. Then, the narrative changed, initially with subtlety and eventually with brazenness, when the fight came down to the hashtags- #GazaUnderAttack vs. #PillarOfDefense.  It is at that moment, when the social web came into its own. From being a war of narratives and angry words hurled at one another by combatants, Gaza and what was happening there became the focus of attention.

Sysomos, a social media monitoring service, have conducted an analysis of the buzz around the time of the conflict. Their findings are instructive. First, the social web was truly international. Almost every country was drawn into the conflict, either as interested parties or partisans. Second, re-tweets and amplifications accounted for almost two thirds of the tweet volume. It is an open question if these were a direct result of shareable digital assets (images and videos) being pushed out by the official channels. Finally and most telling, descriptions rather than emotions ruled the social web. Sysomos constructed a buzzgraph of words and associations and this is what they found:

“In the words that came up in both of these I found it interesting that most of the words were more descriptive of what was happening and not personal feelings stemming from either side of the conflict. But at the same time, I suppose that supports the fact that most tweets were people Retweeting information about what was happening in the Gaza Strip as opposed to getting into heated debates about which side they sided with.” Read the rest of the analysis here.

By conventional measures of ‘engagement’ (a military word used freely by marketers and business people), the IDF generated more column centimeters and minutes of TV coverage. Their operations were managed like a military ‘campaign’ (another word freely used by business people), resourced and operated with clockwork efficiency. Their messaging was customised by audience – within Israel and outside – right down to the name. #PillarofDefense was the word meant for international (non-Jewish audiences) while #PillarOfCloud, a Biblical reference, was used for its emotive content for Israelis  (and the Jewish).

If one were to go by boxing rules, where decisions are made on points and ways of tackling, the IDF was not a clear winner. They were forced to adapt their messaging strategy. It started off with an arrogant declaration of ‘war’, rising to a crescendo with the ‘eliminated’ poster, to an amateurish attempt to internationalise the trauma of rocket attacks, to pointing out the errors in the messages put out by the other side – they were also always having to modify their narrative. Finally, the minute the narrative shifted from Israel’s defence to the sufferings in Gaza, the IDF was on the backfoot. If you were far away in Japan, chances of your knowing the depth of the Israeli cause were probably remote; yet, the emotive content of a relentlessly pummeled Gaza drew in popular support. On the social web, it is the amplification and personal resonance, which makes all the difference.

“War is a continuation of politics by other means”, said Clausewitz. In the world he inhabited and fought in, politics was owned by states. In the brave and complex world of the social web, politics belongs to the individual and all the other individuals that person is connected to. Organisations with resources can set the ball rolling, it is the individuals who resonate, who will own the effects.

Photo: Riku Lu