Monday, January 12, 2009

Gaza and the Battle for Public Opinion

Seventeen days into Operation Cast Lead, Israel and Palestine are engaged in battle both on the ground and online. The Israeli Defense Force is the first national force to launch its own YouTube channel, complete with footage of attacks on Gaza, and the Consulate General of Israel in New York held a press conference in December via Twitter.

The Israeli military spokesman recently called new media a “new war zone” in which the battle over public opinion is a crucial component of military operations.

With that in mind, the Israeli military blocked foreign journalists’ access to Gaza in order to maintain some control over the flow of information out of the conflict zone. A few outlets who already maintained a presence in Gaza, however, have been closely following the conflict. Al Jazeera, the only international news outlet with a presence in Gaza, has been taking particular advantage of the Internet in order to get its news to English-speaking audiences. In addition to the station’s use of Twitter updates and YouTube, Al Jazeera has published an interactive map which tracks bombings, deaths, provision of aid, and other information using the Ushahidi platform. Ushahidi allows users to submit information related to international crises via cell phone or Internet, which is then fact-checked and published to the web.

Israel’s information blockade has also failed to stifle the voices of citizen journalists, and has potentially increased dependence on them. Images, video, and first-hand accounts from Gaza are spreading rapidly on the Internet.

Although web 2.0 and citizen journalism can help amplify aspects of a conflict that otherwise wouldn’t receive attention from the traditional press, the risk of biased or inaccurate information is also extremely high.

Already, video footage has been taken out of context. One video that has been widely circulated online and broadcast on France 2 claimed to depict dead and injured Palestinians in the aftermath of an Israeli bombing. According to the UK’s FirstPost, however, the footage was actually “the aftermath of an accidental explosion of Hamas’s own weaponry at a rally in a Gaza refugee camp in September 2005.”

In a similar vein, the BBC has debunked a video from the IDF’s YouTube channel:

Israel released video of an air attack on 28 December, which appeared to show rockets being loaded onto a lorry. The truck and those close to it were then destroyed by a missile.

This was clear evidence, the Israelis said, of how accurate their strikes were and how well justified…

It turned out, however, that a 55-year-old Gaza resident named Ahmed Sanur, or Samur, claimed that the truck was his and that he and members of his family and his workers were moving oxygen cylinders from his workshop.

But the misinformation, as well as emotion-filled if accurate accounts from bloggers, has effectively polarized the debate.

According to Dev Raj Dahel, head of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Nepal:

In a situation of ongoing conflict, media's role lies in debating impartially about the health of the country and citizens, framing conflicts in a rational manner, offering concrete options rather than just criticism of actors and furnishing practical initiatives to the conflicting parties to resolve the conflict of various kinds—direct, structural, perceptual and latent. Capacity building of journalists on conflict reporting, communication and peace education thus helps to identify and release deep-seated knowledge located within the various sub-systems and systems of society, weigh a range of alternatives and adopt multi-track measures to seek peaceful resolution of conflicts.

A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review critiques the use of social media in the Gaza conflict, questioning in particular whether or not the use of Twitter by the Israeli Consulate is in fact an improvement over a traditional press conference:

…this angle emphasizes the mere fact of democratization over the more salient question of what, exactly, is being democratized… As long as the people answering questions have public relations, rather than public information, as their primary goal, throwing the doors to a press conference open to the general public won’t make the press conference any better. It’ll just make it more crowded.

Followers of the “propaganda war” being waged online may be led to believe that violence is the only option available-both to Palestinians and Israelis-in the debate over Gaza. However, a 2006 report by the United States Institute of Peace found that “for the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis.”

What’s been called the “over-democratization” of conflict journalism may be making it more difficult to amplify the moderate voices within the Israeli-Palestinian debate that are calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The use of new media in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict encompasses a number of the ethical questions we often address on this blog: How can an audience verify the accuracy of citizen journalism? Is a certain amount of professional training necessary to produce quality reporting? Should YouTube censor extremely violent and gruesome footage of potential political significance?

It may also emphasize the responsibility of professional news outlets to maintain rigid standards despite an influx of information and amateur competitors. While new technology is making it easier and faster to get more news out to a wider audience, it's no less important for professionals to verify, edit, and contextualize citizen reports in a way that mediates, rather than sensationalizes, conflict.


Anne Vis said...

A couple of years ago - even at the time of the Lebanon war - people in the Netherlands who spoke agains the israeli aggression were violently attacked by pro-israelis ... I am sure there are still death threats, but now the number of people who are speaking their truth is so large that it has technically become more difficult to silence them ... also thanks to internet ...

Abhishek said...

Great post. I am currently in singapore and all my opinons on the Israel - Palestine situation is through web 2.0. Simple.
I do not trust the News Channels who only care about their funding sources and sponsors and do everything they can to not disappoint them.