The protests against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir Square, the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire as a result of a two week volleyed attack and the UN General Assembly’s vote to recognize Palestine’s “non-member” statehood status.
With recent events in the Middle East, I began to realize that these issues deflected attention from my social media campaign aimed at proactive, solution-based activism.
Instead of a platform for open, collaborative dialogue and information exchange, social media increasingly divided people, instantly transforming into an arena for propaganda: lavished from head-to-toe in their team colours and symbols, social media users were waving patriotic, yet provocative signs and banners, relentlessly rallying support for, or against, a team or cause.
In place of stadium cheers, applause and boos, support and criticism were measured in Facebook likes, reposts, tags and Twitter retweets.
Through slogans, catchphrases, status updates, photos and cartoons, networks became a stream for propaganda, creating a distinct separation between the “us” and “them”—or in this particular case, pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis.
Observing the current events in the Middle East through the lens of social media, I noticed an interesting dichotomy: the role of social media as both instigator and mediator: a) mediator in its ability to foster open dialogue, information exchange and innovative resolutions to our global, political issues; and b) instigator in its ability to encourage the exchange of ideas that inaccurately, stereotypically and inappropriately portray certain groups.
In a recent discussion with Yehudit Barsky, the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Director of the Division of Middle East and International Terrorism, explained to me that despite the presence of positive campaigns, social media is also used to perpetuate anti-Jewish and anti-Arab stereotypes.
A Facebook photo that surfaced during the Israeli-Palestinian volleyed attacks demonstrates the divisive potential of social media. The cartoon displayed an anonymous, blindfolded Israeli soldier, with the Hebrew word for “peace” shalom emblazoned on the his breast pocket.
Seemingly, this was pro-Palestinians’ perception of the Israeli army as being blind to the grim circumstances of their Palestinian counterparts, despite “peace” being the cause for which Israelis fight. This photo generated immediate responses, becoming the default picture for many Arabs.
Another cartoon juxtaposed an exaggerated Israeli reaction to an attack, with the Palestinians’ perspective on an attack. The former depict wall, harming no one. The latter conveyed the extreme violence, blood and debris that followed after an alleged Israeli attack. This photo had several “likes” and “shares,” mostly by Arabs.
Similarly, a friend posted a green, white, black and red banner on my wall that read: “Free Palestine, “‘Like’ this, then repost.” This banner generated several favourable comments and “Likes.” Another friend borrowed a quote from Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, to demonstrate the perceived hypocrisy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her status read:
“I don’t understand your optimism…Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?…”
~ David Ben Gurion
Following this quote, my friend added: “See?! Even HE admits that it’s not their (the Israelis’) land!”
Many people reposted this quote or updated their status with it. On the other side of the arena, people proudly announced their support for Israel, defending a country’s right to protect itself from unprecedented rocket attacks, and other violent acts, sparking a barrage of “Likes” and reposts.
And on both sides, photos of the Palestinian and Israeli flags superseded profile pictures, and at times, close friends and relatives were even tagged to the photo, putting a face and name on the cause.
In our conversation, Ms. Barsky also recollected on a report she heard during an NPR broadcast, The Role of Gaza’s Children in Hamas-Fatah Rivalry. NPR’s Philip Reeves reported from “Small Hands Kindergarten,” a school in Gaza, where toddlers were led to a public square, and encouraged, by their teachers, to wave toy guns at imaginary Israeli jets overhead and stomp on a poster bearing the Star of David.
The teachers saw this as a “therapeutic” way to cope with the two-week bombardment. Reeves then described the onlookers. One particular man, Atef Batrawy, an economics consultant, was disconcerted by this demonstration, viewing it as a method of exacerbating the conflict, rather than a remedy for psychological wounds:
“If you want to get rid of violence, you have to cleanse it with love, not by teaching kids how to carry guns or prepare for another conflict…it does not look good to the international people, because the people see just (the) picture, just (see) the picture.”
~ Atef Batrawy
Citing this example, Ms. Barsky wondered:
“What can we do to encourage these and similar people-whom are disconcerted by the propaganda and/or looking to move forward-to speak out, to gain stature and publicity in their communities, as a way of educating and encouraging others that in order to end these conflicts, we must recognize that all people are human beings?”
Ultimately, Ms. Barsky and I acknowledged that we live in a global world where students, campaigns and organizations, commendably strive to galvanize global support to address the world’s most pressing challenges; efforts that are part of the trend towards online contacts and subsequent dialogue.
Ms. Barsky and I are concerned however, about the validity of these efforts, long term. Social media has given birth to a second and even more lethal function: instigation, used as a powerful tool in expediently igniting and disseminating information, breeding prejudice, ignorance and misperceptions.
Elana Temple is passionate and perseverant individual with significant interest in international affairs and public relations, eager to enrich my professional skills as a communicator. Elana is an ex-pat living in Belgrade, Serbia with her college honeypot. Connect with Elana here.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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