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#Gaza: Fighting In Cyberspace?

Nov 16, 2012
Originally published on November 18, 2012 9:26 am



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys are going to weigh in on the news of the week. We're particularly interested in the guys' perspective on the relationship scandal that forced the resignation of the CIA director, General David Petraeus.

But first we want to talk about a pressing international story - the cross-border violence that has escalated between the Israeli military and Hamas. After a series of rocket attacks and air strikes this week, the fighting continues today and the Israeli defense force has announced that ground forces are on standby. NPR correspondents around the region are watching this closely and we'll be brining you up to date on developments throughout the day.

But one thing we're noticing is that the conflict is also playing out in 140 characters on the Internet. The Israeli military announced the operation on Twitter. Both sides have, at times, live tweeted their military operations and both sides are using social media to take their campaigns directly to the public. Forbes magazine has even dubbed this conflict the first war declared by Twitter.

We wanted to take a closer look at this with two NPR experts in digital and social media. Andy Carvin is a senior strategist at NPR. Greg Myre is foreign editor for the web. And they're both with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.


ANDY CARVIN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Greg, I'm going to start with you because as a journalist you covered Jerusalem for most of the last decade. Is this kind of information war a new thing?

MYRE: Absolutely not. It's been an integral part, really, for decades and in the heavy fighting over the past 10 years or so, we've just seen these sides want to control the narrative. This fighting is going to go on but no land is going to be gained or lost. And a big part of this is the PR aspect of it.

The Palestinians want to show that they're facing an embargo, that they're not making any progress in negotiations. Israel wants to show that it's under assault, that it's under attack from rockets from Gaza. So, as much as the fighting on the battlefield, is the PR war.

MARTIN: What have you seen on both sides tweeting since Wednesday?

MYRE: This has really put their information war on steroids, having access to social media and Twitter in particular. The Israelis delivered the first big blow here by killing the Hamas military leader in the Gaza Strip. Shortly afterwards, Israel formally announced this military campaign. So this has sort of created the notion this is the first time a big military operation has been declared by social media or on Twitter and not by, say, a formal announcement at the military headquarters.

And so Israel keeps giving updates. It provided video. It's provided photos. It's saying how many air raids it's carried out. Hamas, in return, their armed wing is tweeting as well, saying that we fired rockets at this town or that town in southern Israel. So both sides are providing almost real time information on the kinds of attacks they're carrying out.

MARTIN: Andy, your experience on Twitter during the Arab Spring has really put you at the forefront of social media in conflicts, you know, like this. How are you monitoring the situation from where you are now in Istanbul?

CARVIN: Over the course of the last couple of years I've put together a fairly broad range of sources that are on Twitter and set them up basically as different groups that you can follow. So, for example, I have Twitter lists based on people who are in Israel, who are in Egypt, who are in Gaza and the West Bank. And so before even this started I had a certain amount of baseline sourcing I had already taken care of.

But whenever there's breaking news there's going to be new people coming to the fore online and so I've spent a lot of time over the first 12 hours when this started a couple of days ago, trying to dig through as many of my sources as possible on Twitter to see who they're talking to and who they're talking about and that way I've ended up finding probably a dozen other sources in Gaza alone.

And countless more all across the state of Israel. And that's allowed me to dig in more deeply to see how it's being reported on both sides as well as capturing the humanity on both sides. Because no matter what your politics are, there are civilians suffering on the ground on both sides and that comes through loud and clear on Twitter.

MARTIN: To that end, though, in the Arab Spring one of the things that people were noticing is the rise of so-called citizen journalists, if we can use that term. And we generally believe that these were just individual people sharing their experiences, but here it's very clear that official sources are trying to capture and influence the information stream using these vehicles. So how do you know, Andy - how do you decide what to tweet, what to re-tweet and whether what people are saying is in fact true?

CARVIN: For the most part citizen journalists have been more accurate than the official accounts of the Israeli Defense Forces or of Hamas, for that matter. Clearly, Twitter is being used for propaganda purposes on both sides. And while there's often either a grain of truth or a half-truth in what's being said there's also a lot of bluster and bragging.

On the IDF Twitter account, for example, there have been a number of infographics they've uploaded that clearly intend to be taunting Hamas, possibly trying to rile them up on Twitter as well as other images that will rally support among Israelis. So there's definitely a propaganda war taking place on Twitter.

Meanwhile, there are these incredible moments when you watch a citizen journalist on Twitter that I'll see one or two people in Gaza saying I just saw a rocket launch off. And then about 30 seconds later someone in Ashdod, Israel might say there's a rocket overhead. And then 30 seconds after that you'll hear people outside of Tel Aviv reporting the sound of an explosion nearby.

And so literally the narrative arc of what you're seeing on Twitter often tracks the actual arc of the rockets as they're taking off out of Gaza.

MARTIN: Well, Greg, what about you? How do you evaluate what is credible and what isn't credible?

MYRE: It's a small space in terms of territory, in terms of the number of people, and communication flows very, very quickly and very, very freely, even before we had Twitter there. So it's pretty easy to triangulate compared to other conflicts. You can test the claims very, very quickly.

If Hamas says, for example, that they fired a rocket towards Jerusalem and the Israeli parliament, well, very quickly you know if indeed a rocket does land somewhere near the parliament. You're going to hear that from the Israeli side. Or you're going to hear that from the Israeli officials.

And so I think in this particular conflict, while some bad information has been going out, it's very easy to ferret out that bad information. I might just make an analogy to say a few years ago in Iran when you had the uprising, it was very hard to tell because you really only had an Iranian government giving information and individuals. You didn't have many Western journalists who could operate freely there.

You didn't have an opposition where you have here - you've got Hamas giving one version, the Israeli government giving another, and private citizens chipping in on all sides. So these multiple sources of information there do make this a place where bad information, I think, gets ferreted out fairly quickly.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're taking a closer look at Twitter as the cross-border conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip is escalating. NPR's Andy Carvin and Greg Myre have been following it closely. They are both involved in the digital space in monitoring this conflict.

I wanted to ask each of you what kinds of pressures you feel in this situation. Andy, you can see where there are people trying to shape what you re-tweet, sort of criticizing you for tweeting this or re-tweeting that. And at one point you said, look, if you're not interested in both sides, don't follow me.

CARVIN: Right. And it can be very intense at times. One of the aspects of the Arab Spring over the last two years is that in most countries you only saw one side on Twitter because the governments weren't very effective at using social media. That isn't the case this time and it's certainly not the case for civilians on both sides of the conflict.

And so there are important stories to be told on both sides as well as rumors that need to be debunked on both sides. I'm getting many messages throughout the day basically telling me to stop spreading the stories and the lies of the other side, being accused of all sorts of different conspiracies and the like, and it's - this is a real emotional issue for a lot of people. Lives are at stake on both sides and it's understandable that people can get very, very upset.

But having said that, I feel it's very important to do whatever I can to find the stories that are happening in real time and do it in such a way that I'm not trying to necessarily achieve quotas on both sides, because in reality, breaking news doesn't have a quota.

MARTIN: Greg, what about you? I mean one of the things that I noticed is that, you know, I've been getting a lot of information over email with - purporting to be real-time information, and I have no way of knowing whether it is or isn't. I mean photographs that people claim are from the current circumstance and I have no way of knowing whether they are or aren't or they're from something that happened, you know, years ago. I just don't know, especially if they're interiors or something like that. Well, what about you?

MYRE: Both of these sides love to talk to the media, so you know when something happens and something serious happens, they're going to talk about it. So if you're only getting it from one or two individuals, your antennae go up very quickly and you know to be suspicious.

I've also found, which I hadn't really thought of before, is that the brevity enforced by Twitter in 140 characters is making people go to the point very quickly. You can't start a tweet by saying, well, back in the war of 1948, you need to understand the history. You've got to say what you want to say here, so people are being pretty quick and to the point.


CARVIN: Fortunately, there are a number of tools online that make it possible for you to analyze photos, both in terms of the content itself and when it was taken. Just in the last couple of days I've seen images circulated by both sides claiming to be from that day, but have actually been either months or years old. And so in some cases I think it's just people passing along what's been given to them. But in one or two cases I think they've been deliberately misleading the public, claiming that this is a photo they took themselves when that's clearly not the case.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Greg, I'm just going to give you the final word here. For a person who is interested in following what is going on here and does have an open mind, is interested in the facts, is not interested in the spin and propaganda, you know, from either side, what would you recommend in how to evaluate this information coming in through these vehicles?

MYRE: I think you do have to invest a fair amount of time. If you're only looking at the Israeli military, you're only looking at Hamas, you're not going to get enough. So you need to look at this in totality. Some of the newspapers there are live blogging and I think that's providing pretty good information as to developments and when there's an intense attack taking place in Gaza or in Israel. So I think that may be a better and more effective way to look at it.

MARTIN: Greg Myre is foreign editor for NPR's website. He's here with me in our studio here in Washington, D.C. Andy Carvin is NPR's senior strategist. He joined us on the line from Istanbul. This is a story that we'll continue to follow here at NPR, so please keep tuning in for updated coverage.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

MYRE: Thank you.

CARVIN: Thanks again, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.