TEL AVIV – I write this just hours after a bus bomb rattled central Tel Aviv – the first since 2006. My office is a few minutes’ walk from where the attack took place, so our team was one of the first at the scene. We saw the shell of what had been the number 142 Dan bus, the shattered glass strewn across the pavement, and an incredulous expression of fear etched into the faces of both the victims and the passers-by.
A few hours later, much to the surprise of Israelis, Palestinians and journalists alike, Jerusalem signed off on a ceasefire agreement with Hamas, who had declared the attack “a victory from God”.
I covered the eight days of what many thought would escalate into another full-scale war from Israel – and so was limited in terms of what I could report about the reality on the ground in Gaza. I was left to battle through a minefield of material in social media to balance my reports.
And what a minefield it is.
This was a war that took place in cyberspace as much as on the street. From the moment the Israeli Defence Force announced it had killed top Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, social media became its weapon. Using the Twitter name @IDFspokesperson, its communications centre tweeted a photo of Jabari with the word “eliminated” stamped across his face, and uploaded a video of the attack to YouTube. It posted photos of military operations and streamed images from drone (unmanned aerial vehicle) cameras to Twitter posts. Hamas wasted no time in returning fire, frequently uploading its own updates of mortar and rocket attacks on Israeli targets.
Experts say the extensive use of social media, especially by Jerusalem, marked a sharp turnaround from the Israel-Gaza war four years earlier when the IDF banned journalists from entering Gaza. This time around, however, not only was the border crossing between Israel and Gaza regularly open, but journalists were given advance warning of its operating hours. A 24-hour Israeli government press office was set up to issue press cards and media tours were organised by the Government Press Office to locations where rockets were landing from Gaza. I cannot talk about what it was like for journalists working inside Gaza. I imagine most were just trying to avoid the airstrikes.
But does all of this make for good journalism? It’s one thing to wade through volumes of tweets and Facebook postings – it’s quite another to double check sources and know what’s accurate and what’s not.
Supporters on both sides of the conflict waged their own battles online. Some were regular viewers/listeners; others were inevitably media with an agenda.
On day five of the conflict, an Arab news site called Alarab Net released a photo showing a family that was allegedly “massacred” in Gaza on its Facebook page. The caption in Arabic roughly translated into English as “martyred massacred family in Gaza shortly before…”
It was later found out that the photo had originally been published a month earlier on a news site based in Dubai with the caption: “Syria killed 122 Friday…Assad Used Cluster Bombs.” But not before thousands of furious people had left their comments.
It wasn’t the first time that photos from the Syrian massacres were recycled into Gaza tragedies. Hamas uploaded a photo on their Twitter page of a dead child in his weeping father’s arms, claiming it had happened during an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. The American news syndicate Breitbart found that the photo was a month old and had appeared in a slideshow about the Syrian conflict on the UK’s Guardian website. The photo had in fact been taken in the Dar al Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, Syria.
The role of social media is something Israeli officials are trying to get their heads around.
Former South African Paul Hirschson, who works for the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, told me, “Today there is a battle, a campaign online, that’s been offline in the electronic media for years, for the hearts and minds of public opinion. It is very, very important.”
One of the things that irks Hirschson and others is the lack of coverage given by mainstream media to the dozens of rockets that were raining down on Israel long before Operation Pillar of Defence. As soon as Israel retaliated, it became big news.
The irony is that when the story broke I wasn’t even in Israel to cover it. I was in Barcelona attending an international journalism conference dedicated to debating the tricky journalist issues of the day – who sets the news agenda; whose responsibility is it to check sources; has social media negated the need for traditional journalism? When the story broke I immediately flew back to Israel and into the heart of a conflict that was still battling to find answers to these pressing questions. N
Paula Slier is CEO on Newshound Media.
This story was first published in the January 2013 issue of The Media magazine.