Becca Stewart, Dja Camara, Izzy Coles, Counter Threat Strategic Communication (CTSC) Team
Week of Monday, May 17, 2021
Replica of “Israeli Occupied Land” Map
Following recent escalations in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, social media platforms have been widely utilized to disseminate information, express solidarity, and provide unfiltered footage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in real time. While pro-Israeli actors have emphasized Israel’s right to self-defense, pro-Palestinian actors have sought to reframe the current narrative by sharing their perspectives online. As social media users have attempted to re-establish the conflict as a human rights issue, the Palestinian cause has garnered widespread sympathy and support from the international community. With the polarization of the political and social discourse has already proven fatal, the urgency to de-escalate current tensions is essential to avoid further violence in the region.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in May 2021
For over 100 years, tensions have been seen between the Arab and Jewish communities existing in the state formerly known as Palestine, but more commonly recognized as Israel. These tensions are deep-rooted in a territorial dispute between the Arab and Jewish communities, which led to the land being separated into the state of Israel and the self-governed, Arab-occupied lands of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On Thursday, May 6, 2021, Palestinians protested in East Jerusalem regarding the anticipated Supreme Court decision to evict six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian occupied territory. These protests escalated rapidly from a fracas into violence between Palestinian and Jewish protestors. On Friday, May 7, 2021, Israeli police stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest place in Islam, using stun grenades and rubber bullets against Palestinians. These protests and the Israeli police intervention led to an all out war between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist political organization and militant group who have governed the Gaza Strip since 1987. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for over a century, the recent flare-up of the situation stemmed from the impending eviction of Palestinian families from Palestinian-occupied lands. The violent response from the Palestinians can be understood as their refusal to evict Palestinian citizens to make space for potential Jewish Israeli residents. This builds on the territorial dispute in which Palestinians appear to have continually lost land ever since the conflict began. The Israeli Police intervention in the al-Asqa mosque added fuel to the flame due to the importance of this site within Islam. Muslim Palestinians likely felt that not only were Jewish Israelis taking the homes of their citizens, but they were also now bringing chaos and violence into one of their holiest and most important sites.
While the physical damage took place mainly on the ground in Israel and Gaza at the hands of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Hamas, social media has played a large part in igniting a global uproar. Disinformation has been shared about the violence in Israel, with people of all nationalities taking sides between the Israelis and Palestinians, and launching verbal, and occasionally physical, attacks against opposing groups. While the digital sphere has provided unfiltered documentation of the conflict in real time, without the interference of biased news agencies and state media agencies with political agendas, there has also been significant exploitation. Disinformation and “fake news” have been shared using old images and videos, some from conflicts in other countries, manipulating the message behind them to suggest violence was taking place where it was not. According to a survey by 7almeh, “fake news” rose by 58% during the recent violence. Alleged censorship of Palestinians also occurred based on the political agenda of the social media platform’s host country. In the same way, Israeli and Palestinian propaganda, both from official and amateur sources, has spread widely in the digital sphere. This polarization of narratives has not only fueled the fire based on the content being deployed but also the content allegedly not being consumed due to selective censorship. Should there be any truth behind the social media companies’ involvement in the manipulation of information being shared in favor of either side, this would likely exacerbate the situation. While a ceasefire has been called on the ground, the information warfare will continue across various platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok. The nature of social media and the ease of post sharing has meant that this violent discourse has spread broadly and rapidly, reaching global audiences with little intervention from social media platforms to bring awareness to the false nature of the information or the political motivations behind it.
The Role of Social Media in the Conflict and its Offline Implications
Seeking to direct the narrative of the ongoing conflict, disinformation becomes increasingly prevalent among pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian actors during periods of heightened violence and conflict. Social media platforms are increasingly playing host to scenes of online activism fueled by a younger generation that is highly effective at producing engaging content. Although widespread sharing of videos and infographics does not necessarily lead to deeper engagement, it has successfully shaped public opinion and has illustrated the shifting perceptions of young people towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While 75% of Americans still hold favorable views of Israel, a growing number are sympathetic towards the Palestinians, and many are increasingly utilizing social media to re-establish the conflict as a human rights issue. As younger generations neither view Israel as a victimized state nor possess the memory of the Holocaust that their parents and grandparents have, it is evident that the outlook of young westerners has contributed to a clear generational shift in the discursive framing of the conflict.
Facebook accepted 81% of requests made by the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Cyber Unit to remove content, which may indicate that the digital censorship faced by Palestinians on Facebook was potentially the result of political influence to moderate social discourse. Following the alleged removal of content detailing Palestinian evictions from Sheikh Jarrah and the suspension of pro-Palestinian accounts on Twitter, concerns have been expressed over the silencing of Palestinian voices. Such actions potentially indicate internal pressure from Israel and its allies, highlighting that social media platforms are vulnerable to political pressure. As Facebook’s oversight board includes the former Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Emi Palmor, who has historically lobbied for the removal of Palestinian content, it seems unsurprising that corporate policies of social media organizations would align with the foreign policies of their national governments and allies.
Although Israel undoubtedly has the military advantage in its ongoing conflict with Hamas, its ability to influence the public narrative seems to be diminishing. Attempts to push government messaging tend to be viewed as underhanded and are regarded with suspicion, negatively affecting Israel’s image in an information landscape where authenticity is highly regarded. The stark difference in tone utilized by the Hebrew and English-language IDF’s social media accounts emphasizes a more militaristic view directed at Israeli followers on the Hebrew page, whereas the defensive tone of the English-language account continues to target a global audience.
In the image to the left, an Instagram post from the Hebrew-language IDF account celebrates the “significant achievement” of destroying a high-rise building in Gaza with the top image labeled “Before,” and the bottom labeled “After,” where the tower is shown reduced to rubble. Though some supporters praised the post, many expressed their disgust at the boastful tone of the account. With the utilization of English and Arabic hashtags such as #savesheikhjarrah, #gazaunderattackk, and #انقذوا_حي_الشيخ_جراح (Save the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood) being shared hundreds of times more than hashtags related to Israel or Hebrew content, it is evident that the Palestinian narrative has generated a greater global reach and garnered greater international sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
From Wednesday, May 19 to Sunday, May 23, 2021, the CTSC Team collected data from LinkedIn and Twitter about the number of hashtags and key phrases that were used before, during, and after the ceasefire. The data includes the number of followers pro-Israel and pro-Palestine hashtags gained during this time, as well as how frequently hashtags and key phrases were used. As airstrikes continued and tensions rose, social media activity gradually increased until the announcement of the ceasefire on Friday, May 21, 2021, which saw the beginning of an overall decline in related activity. While pro-Israeli phrases steadily decreased in frequency after this event, pro-Palestinian activity declined at a far slower pace, suggesting that pro-Palestinian actors have continued to widely share content to continue engagement with the Palestinian cause. It was also noted that three accounts included in the data set displayed unusual behavior by utilizing foreign language slogans that failed to achieve a following, indicating they were operated by actors who had attempted to unsuccessfully influence the narrative.
In the following graph, the prevalence of different languages used to target global audiences on LinkedIn and Twitter are displayed. As the current global lingua franca, the predominant utilization of English is evident across all social media platforms, followed by a sizable influence from Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish-speaking actors seeking to shape the narrative. Indications are that Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian actors are also deploying messages to target audiences using social media. When Israelis are shown evading rocket attacks in content similar to scenes shared from Palestine, it often fails to match the same amount of sympathy online, indicating that Israeli military action in Gaza and the subsequent disproportion in the number of victims has led many in the global community to no longer consider Israel the oppressed state in this conflict. Indications are that the Japanese hashtag #셰이크_자라흐_동네_구해줘 (Save the Sheikh Zarah neighborhood) was inauthentically trending, but failed to gain traction with actual Japanese audiences.
The radicalizing effect of social media algorithms has undoubtedly served to exacerbate polarization of the political and social discourse, making political resolutions difficult and societal tensions more defined. While online platforms have allowed for the unfiltered documentation of daily life, major social media companies stand accused of allowing their platforms to incite violence, practice censorship, and have seemingly failed to rigorously address disinformation. As many are primarily based in the United States, it seems that they are also privy to national political pressure that renders them incapable of offering users the capacity to participate fully in the political and social discourse of the conflict online. In a situation where people desperately seek to share information, the effects of misinformation and polarization have already proven fatal as distrust and hate between Israelis and Palestinians have further aggravated communities, highlighting the need to rapidly de-escalate current tensions to avoid fresh outbreaks of violence.
Mixed Messaging: Second and Third Order Effects of Current Countermeasures
Social media platforms as a collective have had a disjointed response to the online war that has mirrored the recent escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Facebook, which faced a “social dilemma” during the Arab Spring, is facing backlash for its response to online activity on its platform. The backlash is framed as targeting pro-Palestinian content when associated with Facebook’s Israeli-linked oversight board. Should this content be found to violate Facebook’s community guidelines or other ethical standards, the presence of Palmor on the board sends mixed messages that these decisions are not impartial or fair. This has created some conflict around Facebook’s decision-making process, which has also been seen with Instagram and Twitter. Most notably, Palestinian communities have voiced their claims that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are censoring pro-Palestinian content that exposes the alleged realities on the ground and negatively portrays Israel as a hostile actor. In response to these claims, algorithms and technological errors were cited as the contributing factors for the removal, blocking, and/or restriction of certain content on these platforms. In public statements, social media company representatives acknowledged that this course of action would be reviewed and/or reversed, emphasizing their commitment to universal human rights and freedoms. Again, this sent mixed messages as pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian content have not been dispersed equally and several serious real-life implications for these reversals exist both in the Middle East and internationally. These implications impact the rate of hate crimes committed, national security, foreign interference, and public perception in countries with national interests in the region and investment in the conflict outcome itself.
The capability of certain content to incite violence makes content marked as “politically biased” by algorithms potentially dangerous. There has been a reported 500% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United Kingdom during the escalation, with 116 incidents occurring between Saturday, May 8 to Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The United States has also seen several anti-Semitic hate crimes. When these social media companies relented to criticism about their decision-making, there came with it secondary and tertiary consequences. The content itself is biased, which in some cases may be protected speech, but if it has the potential to incite violence, it becomes irresponsible to disseminate. Content that contains a violent call to action does not have this protection according to many national constitutions, including the United States. This relates to the exploitation of social media platforms by hostile state actors to further their political agendas. Besides Russia and China, a prominent example of this was Iran’s 2020 weaponization of Facebook and Instagram to undermine American-Israeli relations. Facebook was informed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations that fake social media accounts were waging information warfare to influence public opinion. The United States Department of Justice was also involved in addressing this exploitation, which led to Facebook taking countermeasures, removing over 20 accounts. Should social media companies fail to investigate account holders, restoring content and accounts without doing their due diligence can have serious security implications.
In order to address these threats comprehensively, the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends that social media companies and national governments implement the following countermeasures independently from and collaboratively with one another:
To avoid actual or perceived bias, social media companies should implement their existing countermeasures universally. This would counter and delegitimize claims of partiality and send a clear, unified message to audiences as well as account holders. It would also serve as a defense should bad actors attempt to exploit the platforms to wage information warfare. In this comprehensive approach, social media companies need to swiftly and effectively remove any content that attempts to incite violence. With this comes accountability wherein social media companies need to provide transparency in their decision-making regarding the removal, blocking, and/or restriction of accounts and content to avoid claims of discrimination against certain communities. Bias in the process needs to be factored in, but the process itself needs to test for potential security vulnerabilities and implications. Threat assessment should be tested against alternative hypotheses and other measures to determine the probability of current and future harm. This should drive decision-making as well as best practices and lessons learned during the Arab Spring, rather than backlash or criticism if security and safety are a priority. Countries can also take further steps to regulate and hold social media companies accountable for the practices that are directly and indirectly linked to their platforms.
Simultaneously, social media companies are encouraged to promote counter-messaging campaigns that challenge politically biased narratives, as well as inflammatory, inciting, and mobilizing content that serves these narratives. Should the framing of these biased narratives be found to mobilize audiences to commit hate crimes and pose other national security threats, campaigns with the same reach, relevance, resonance, and resolve should be readily available to challenge these. For these campaigns to be successful, funding should be allocated to developing as well as monitoring and evaluating campaigns to counter polarizing messaging and information manipulation. Campaigns should be independent and contain persuasive messaging told by credible messengers.
Publicly accessible programs should be put in place to strengthen the digital and media literacy of social media account holders and internet users to determine whether the content is biased, is not factual, and/or is dis/misformation. Google and YouTube partnered with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) to launch the Be Internet Citizens program which is aimed at students and young people to teach them critical thinking when engaging with online content. Similar free programs and certifications are readily available, and it is recommended that more funding be allocated to developing, monitoring, and evaluating programs to prevent polarization and audience manipulation. Similarly, programs should be independent.
CTG is continuing to monitor the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as the online and offline implications the recent escalation has had and continues to have around the world. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Terrorism, Crime, and Hazards (WATCH) Officers are following recent developments related to the escalation in real-time. CTG’s CENTCOM Team is investigating and documenting developments within a geopolitical and historical context. CTG’s CTSC Team will regularly monitor and evaluate social media activity and exploitation related to information warfare.
________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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