Freaked out by Mideast militarization of social media? Don't be

commentary While the bullets and bombs are flying, a second war is being fought -- on social media. If you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.

Let's not act so shocked if Frankenstein's invention is on the loose.

A couple of days ago the Israel Defense Forces began live-tweeting as the newest round of hostilities broke out along Israel's already hot border with Gaza. The IDF Twitter stream included the video recording of a missile attack that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, along with an in your face taunt: "We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead." For its part, the military wing of Hamas used its own Twitter feed to offer the Palestinian narrative of the story, naturally castigating Israel's "most inhuman army" for killing "civilians, kids, women and elders."

In other words, while the bullets and bombs are flying, a second war is getting carried out -- on social media.

The only surprise is that it's taken as long as it has to reach this point.

Let's recall that this wasn't the first time a nation's army has made use of Twitter to supplement a military campaign. Last November, in fact, Kenya tweeted out evacuation warnings to Somali villagers prior to carrying out a cross-border bombing campaign. (It's unclear how many villagers had adequate connectivity or smartphones to receive the message, but I digress.) Because anything involving Israelis and Palestinians gets intensely magnified media attention, the spread of their conflict to social media was bound to become a flashpoint in its own right. And so it has. Silicon Valley's tech press is excitedly following the spectacle.

But one aspect of their escalating battle -- the use of social media to spread propaganda and manage (that is, manipulate) media messages to the outside world -- has outraged their sensibilities. Videos of exploding cars? That's not what social media ought to disseminate, right? Meanwhile, the engineers who created Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the rest can't do a thing to stop it. They have been reduced to the unfamiliar role of spectators watching how the non-digerati are using their inventions, for better or for worse.

The only weapon -- no pun intended -- that they can wield is the document governing a service's terms of use. As long as the contending sides stay within the boundaries of community standards, they're free to shock-and-awe away in their competition for hearts and minds. (You can peruse the fine print at YouTube, Twitter and Facebook)

Truth be told, this is depressing to watch play out. After last year's Arab Spring, which highlighted social media's positive potential as a political game-changer when thousands took to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to organize and to post news and videos, we got a glimpse at the potential for using technology in the service of humanity. We're still seeing that play out in the remaining protests in Bahrain and especially in Syria, where opposing sides battle to control the message while they fight in the streets to control territory.

But social media's success is part of a bigger success story -- the triumph of the Internet. Though we still get excited when big news events break -- I can't wait for "Twitter reacts to Loch Ness Monster discovery" -- the novelty exists only if you haven't been paying close attention. The fact is that the Internet has become so intertwined with the other integuments of a modern society that it's hardly a surprise when it gets enlisted into the service of a broader, militarized social media offensive. Call it part of the old battle for hearts and minds but with a 21st century spin. This is all still fairly new stuff -- even for the U.S. Asked about social media as a future tool in its arsenal, an Army spokesman told me that there's no policy "to use social media in any tactical way as it pertains to future operations of any type." (Note to self: Call back after the U.S.'s next conflict for an update.)

"In some sense, this is a successor to how radio has been used in the past, with governments announcing troop movements speaking to the public through the media of the day," said Nicco Mele, a faculty member at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The role of the military and the role of armies in communications to their populations about the shape that the war is taking -- there's a long precedent, and seeing Twitter as a successor to that makes lot of sense to me."

He's quite right. Whether Twitter -- and other social networking sites -- wind up serving a higher good or not boils down to a subjective judgment about whose side you support. Media entrepreneur Rafat Ali correctly noted that "propaganda on social media is still propaganda, not transparency."

It's also inevitable during times of conflict and the confusion of war that disturbing or ugly images are bound to get posted as social media gets subordinated to military objectives. (And remember, we're already a half-century past the shock of the 6 o'clock news bringing the Vietnam War to supper tables at home in the U.S.) It's a scenario that the great 19th century German military historian Carl von Clausewitz would have recognized immediately as the continuation of policy by other means. If you understand that, the Mideast militarization of social media becomes part of a more familiar storyline.

 

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