War, 140 Characters at a Time

18 Nov

The Israeli Defense Force (@IDFSpokesperson) and Hamas (@Alqassam Brigades) have been engaging each other, not just with surface to surface missiles in Gaza, but with Tweets. The two Twitter accounts have traded barbs over the past couple of days, an an effort to win the war for hearts and minds in the global media. The Israelis and the Palestinians have long fought to present themselves as peaceful, restrained actors in a hostile environment, and to paint the other side as a group of ruthless killers in the international media. What’s interesting about the Twitter campaign though, is that the two belligerents are now able to circumvent the media altogether. Sure, many large news outlets still provide coverage, and even cover the Twitter campaign, but the IDF and Hamas are able to use Twitter to bring their message directly to disparate publics in far flung corners of the world. There is no longer any need to convince the international media of one’s moral fortitude. These two belligerents can now tap directly into our iPhones, our tablets and our laptops, and spoon feed us propaganda 140 characters at a time.

The IDF has run a glossy campaign of infographics and information. Their Twitter seems aimed at educating, the masses about their aims, and detailing the steps they take to target only terrorist cells in Gaza. One infographic titled “Where Does Hamas Hide It’s Rockets?” shows a satellite image of a missile launch site nestled between factories, a mosque and a playground. The underlying message being that the IDF must be extremely precise with its strikes, and that Hamas hides its launch sites in places that endanger civilians. But the Israelis must do more than just appeal to minds, they have to win over hearts. For example, here’s one of their most recent Tweets:
“Thanks to our followers worldwide for sharing our infographics. Let’s see how many RTs you can get for this one… pic.twitter.com/s50rb1fI

From there, they link to a Twitpic of a bombed out Israeli car in an otherwise idyllic suburban neighborhood. I understand that new media is here to stay, and that Twitter is a mainstay of that new media, but somehow, a retweet of such destruction seems crass and inadequate. The small format of a Tweet allows for quick updates, but it doesn’t allow for reflection and deep thought. Each new Tweet comes so quickly on the heels of the one before it, that we really don’t have time to process the image, and understand each death and bit of destruction for the tragedy it really is. Even by the time I hit the back button to return to the IDF’s feed just now, that tweet was already buried under fifteen new Tweets and comments on Tweets, Twit pics, and retweets.

@alqassambrigade tweeted today:

“In response on massacre committed by #Israeli occupation, led to killing 10 civilians, Al Qassam Brigades shelling Israeli sites and bases.”

The Hamas Twitter account seems focused on framing its rocket attacks as retaliation for Israeli strikes. Each side is able to present itself as pure good against pure, reprehensible evil in its Tweets. An interesting hiccup in all this propaganda though, is that each side’s Twitter feed includes criticisms. People who disagree with the IDF or Hamas say so, and tag the corresponding groups. These criticisms are displayed directly next to the organizations’ posts, providing at least some dissenting opinion, even at the nexus of biased reporting of facts.

There’s just so much noise in new media, that it’s hard to sift out what’s important, what’s real, and what we should believe. Most images and pieces of text, infographics and sound bites will get pounded down the feed by the sheer volume of new data incoming. Soon, they sink into the silent netherworld of irrelevance that is most of the internet, a sad Purgatory of half-seen, ill-considered images, bits of text and thoughts. Of course, there is the other possibility, that an image, a story, or a bit of information goes viral. It rips through the internet like wildfire, with shares on Buzzfeed, Digg and the Huffington Post. But I wonder, is that really better? Is a war, a death, a rocket that goes astray and hits a family home, any better understood; more properly mourned, because it gets one million likes on Facebook? Once we see it so many times, don’t we get a bit desensitized to the story?

One of the images that has floated to the top of the jetsam pile of tragedy in this round of violence, is that of BBC journalist Jihad Masharawi cradling his dead infant son after an Israeli rocket strike. I’ve come across this image dozens of times now on the internet, from blogs, to Twitter to Facebook. It’s a gut wrenching and visceral sight, to see a grown man in tears, cradling a child who was one hundred percent innocent of the violence around him. As I looked at his anguished face for the first time, I felt as if I were staring at a modern day Job. Here was a man being asked by God or Fate to endure unimaginable suffering, for no readily apparent reason. It was the face of human helplessness, and confusion at a cruel and dangerous world. That image haunted me. However, I began to see it pop up more and more, all over the internet. People were sharing it, and somehow, it had become a symbol, of something as old as bed humanity itself; suffering in the face of unimaginable pain. But the more I saw it, the more I questioned whether the internet, and new media in particular were really the right places for an image like this. It was powerful, of course, and it made me think. But, how many of the reshares I saw really considered the image, and the humanity behind it. How many, as crass as it sounds, were just cash- ins on a horrific scene for the sake of clicks? And how many more shared just to share, because everyone was doing it? At some point, through all the reshares, retweets, and reblogs, content gets diluted. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy; the original might still be there, but new media has the tendency to cheapen emotional experience and involvement by mass re-producing content.

I realize, the selfsame criticism could easily be leveled at this blog and writer. And the sad, and inadequate response I have to that is; maybe you’re right. For all my arrogance in thinking that I was different, that I gave that image thoughtful consideration, here I am linking to it. And indeed, I first saw it on a website. In the end, I think it has a lot to do with one’s personal experience with an image, a news story, or even a Tweet. Even a Tweet, at only 140 characters, can be thought provoking. It can the springboard for informed dialogue. Or it can spark a flame war, where mindless retweets fill the feed, and any substantive conversation becomes drowned out by pure noise and troll-like arguments. The internet, and new media let everyone jump in on the conversation; allow individuals to share and be hear. But there’s a shadow side to all that, that substitutes breadth for depth, quantity for quality, and speaking and typing, for thinking. As images, and causes pick up and go viral, how much authenticity is there anymore? Probably the best example of this was Kony from last year. It’s so easy to retweet, or reblog something, and feel like an activist, even feel informed. It’s a little ego massage, and a way to feel involved. If I retweet an IDF update with a snarky little comment, maybe I’ll feel relevant, the most important word on the internet. How many of those retweets are considered? How many of those comments are anything other than another pile of words on the digital band wagon?

It’s simultaneously the length and the amount of content streaming at us through snippets like Tweets that’s worrisome. The staccato fire of gruesome images, propagandized posts, and self-serving irony on the internet threaten to pound us into oblivion. There’s just too much to keep up with, and even when we try, so little of what’s out there is even worth reading. What’s worse, is that even meaningful words and images get drowned out in the noise, and in the repetition of seeing them, hearing them, so many times. There’s something inherently unsettling about war at 140 characters a time. We hear that war never changes, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore, at least for the vast majority of us observers (or voyeurs). The experience of war, has been chopped up into bite sized portions, as yet another thing for us to consume. But we risk missing the forest through the trees in doing this. There’s something undeniably grotesque about retweets of mangled bodies, shorthand and hashtags for murder, slaughter and death. And this grotesqueness comes from the fact that these events are trivialized, and made less real when they’re chopped up, cut down, and splattered all over Twitter and Facebook, in a cruel mockery of the real chopped up, cut down bodies splattered all over the streets.

140 characters is not enough. But is any amount enough? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts below.

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2 Responses to “War, 140 Characters at a Time”

  1. philofelinist November 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Fantastic post and well written as usual. Puts my silly posts to shame. I hadn’t been following the news over there, hadn’t seen the pictures so it was very informative for me.

    • onetwistedpoet February 8, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

      Excellent and balanced perspective on the dilution of significance in new media.

      I think your most important point is that the torrent of information can still be a springboard for dialogue, thought, or research

      The fact is that the available information is almost always off the mark of the closest approximation to an objective “truth”. Our role as media consumers then is to take advantage of the availability of data points to find a mean path to the understanding, and the ease with which the fringe is brought to the fore allows us to contemplate outliers more often, contrast them against the generally accepted trends and keep us sharp and questioning.

      Sure it leads to news that is on the surface shallow and vapid, but whether that’s where it ends is up to you, no?

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