Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

30 May, 2015

UN meeting examines Role of Social Media in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

ASTANA, 27 May, UN News Centre — The 2015 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East concluded today, with two panel discussions that explored how social media both hindered and advanced audiences’ acceptance of Israeli-Palestinian narratives, as speakers throughout the day analysed the media’s role in promoting a facts-based discourse about the recent conflict in Gaza.

“We have heard very interesting and inspiring discussions over the last two days,” Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said in closing remarks.  She especially thanked the younger generation of media professionals attending the conference.  “You showed how much — with creativity and engagement — your processional work can contribute to understanding the critical issues related to the conflict.”  The presence of so many students also sent a clear message that Kazakhstan was interested in participating in world affairs.

In his closing remarks, Roman Vassilenko, Chairman of the Committee for International Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, said the Middle East was at the centre of global attention.  Yet, a deep understanding of the problems was lacking.  The Israel-Palestine situation was an issue which Kazakhstan wanted to help resolve and his Government had taken an active role as a neutral host, particularly in the Syrian situation, to help resolve issues, seeking to create the best conditions for parties to move forward.

During the first panel on “Perceptions of Palestine and the recent Gaza conflict:  when the battle reaches social media”, speakers described how information transmitted through Facebook, Twitter and mobile groups, such as WhatsApp, shaped real-time opinions about events unfolding in Gaza last summer.  Manipulation of photos, videos and even audio files had made it difficult to determine what was actually happening.

Israelis had an “almost blind” belief in their news outlets, one speaker said, which were privately owned and had little interest in presenting a Palestinian perspective.  As a result, they often questioned events that had been otherwise accepted.  Another pointed out that Israeli journalists could not publish without permission from the Israeli Defense Ministry.  Because of that, some regularly gave the independent Palestinian news service information before other Israeli channels.

The second panel —“Creative media:  use of innovative means for impact and influence” — explored the radical transformation in how news was consumed in the Middle East following the Arab Spring.  Panellists described ways to engage people with visual images and statistical data that challenged their perceptions about Israelis, Palestinians and conflict.  Through new production methods, technologies and collaborations, journalists were finding instant and effective channels for communicating a message or telling a story.

Joseph Dana, a writer at Abu Dhabi-based The National, who moderated the discussion, described Israel-Palestine as a conflict of narratives, with Israel deploying vast resources into its portrayal of conflict in a colonial context.  Yet, social media had defeated that narrative structure.  With both Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers in Gaza tweeting about their experiences, a rights-based narrative had emerged in the understanding of the conflict.

The day also featured a screening of the film Omar, a Palestinian drama produced by Waleed F. Zuaiter, which won the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.  Mr. Zuaiter, in a video message ahead of the presentation, expressed his hope that the film would inspire questions about Palestine.

Panel I

Participants started the day with a panel discussion on “Perceptions of Palestine and the recent Gaza conflict:  when the battle reaches social media”. Moderated by Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, the panel featured presentations by Sanat Kushkumbayev, Deputy Director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies; Tal Schneider, blogger; and Raed Othman, Director General, Ma’an Network.

Opening the discussion, Mr. MANSOUR said that during the war in Gaza, each side tried use social media to win support for what was happening on the ground.  Israel, which had capabilities — including in the army — tried to seek justification for what it was doing.  Palestinians had shown their sophistication in using hashtags such as #prayforGaza.

Mr. KUSHKUMBAYEV said that more than 2 billion people around the world used social media.  It was available all day every day, allowing users to co-generate information and share photos, videos and other material.  The “backside” of that phenomenon was the penetration of terrorists, extremists and others who exercised their ideologies and propagandistic activities.  Kazakhstan had 17 million people, among them 7 million Internet users.  The country ranked first in Central Asia in that regard.

He said social media was used in his country to exchange friendly information, express oneself and participate in public affairs, partnerships and associations.  Information on the Gaza conflict had come mainly through Russian mass media, as well as BBC and CNN.  Photos of events were published in a national magazine, yet only two users had tweeted them. Facebook, which ranked as the fourth most-used platform in the country, had 1 million users, while Twitter, which ranked fifth, had 300,000 users.  The top three spots were occupied by Russian outlets.

Official statistics showed that 300 Kazakhs were taking part in the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS), he said, as well as 360 people from Turkmenistan and 300 from Kurdistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  Most shocking were videos of Kazakh children taking part in ISIS activities.  Material was sometimes manipulated.  One clip, for example, of a boy participating in an ISIS execution had been recorded in warm weather, yet uploaded on the Internet the clip now showed him in winter.  ISIS, the Taliban and other groups were now using social media other than Facebook, such as Diaspora.  The number of Europeans participating in ISIS in Syria was larger than those from Central Asia, showing the difference in social media use and influence.

Ms. SCHNEIDER said that while Facebook was big in the United States in 2007, it had not become popular in Israel until 2012.  Quoting United States Senator Hiram Johnson, she said:  “The first casualty of war is the truth.”  It was often difficult to determine whether statements on social media were true.  Israelis had an “almost blind” belief in their authorities, evidenced by the fact that the Israeli Defense Forces had half a million Twitter followers.  Yet while that account was active during the war, the Defense Forces were not engaging in discussions.  Rather, their Twitter feed was serving as a quick public relations channel for the military.

She said photo manipulations had made it difficult to determine what was happening in Gaza.  The Israeli public that followed Channel 2 and Channel 10 did not learn about what was happening on the other side, as Israeli channels did not want to present the Palestinian side of the story.  After the war, major television professionals admitted that they had not been willing to show what was happening in Gaza.  Two of the major channels were held by business people, while Channel 1 was under the Israeli broadcasting authorities.

Even when Israelis saw videos of teenagers being shot by Israeli troops, they did not trust what they were witnessing, she noted, adding that “if you disbelieve everything you see because you think it is being manipulated, you will stay in a bubble.”  That mindset was exacerbated during the war.  In mobile groups, such as WhatsApp, information ran like wildfire but was not fact-checked.  During the conflict, such information was becoming “fact”, to a point where Israeli authorities had to deny what was running on WhatsApp.  By creating one’s own feed and choosing who to follow, people often did not open themselves to new ideas and influences.

Mr. OTHMAN said it was easy for people in newsrooms to talk about war.  “But war is something hard to cover.”  He asked participants to consider what happened when the journalist became a casualty while covering war.  That had happened to him during the second Intifada.  The Israeli army had shelled his house, and at that time, he had to cover the event for his news service.  Another time, a relative had been killed during the Intifada, a tragic and private event about which he did not want to speak, yet which he had to report.

He said Ma’an had become one of the most successful news outlets covering war because its slogan — “Don’t be fast” — was not normally used in news rooms.  It was independent and had various sources, including in the West Bank.  It also translated news from the Israeli side.  Israeli journalists could not publish without permission from the Israeli Defense Minister, making Ma’an better at covering the news.  Because of that, some Israeli journalists gave his outlet the news before other Israeli channels.

Politics was part of Palestinians’ daily life, he explained, and through social media, they tried to participate in it, as they often were unemployed and had free time.  In Israel, because of censorship, there were very few photos, whereas in Gaza, one could easily take pictures and upload them.  For Ma’an, “we can’t completely trust social media” as an information source, he said.  But if relevant material was published, Ma’an would research it.  In Palestine, there were almost 1 million smartphones, and nearly 2 million people were connected to the Internet.  Some 1.6 million people were connected to Facebook, 1.4 million of them for less than five years.

Ms. SCHNEIDER, to a question on how social networks defended public discourse with respect to stopping the war, said Israelis did not delve much into what was happening on the other side.  They read Israeli news, especially on rocket fire and Israeli soldier deaths and injuries.  Nothing that emerged from social media had put public pressure on the Government.  Rather, it was the length of the war and disruption to peoples’ lives that had influence.

Mr. KUSHKUMBAYEV, responding to questions about whether there was an ISIS child training camp in Kazakhstan and about footage of a child participating in an execution, said social media played a considerable role in ISIS recruitment.  Kazakhs who were recruited often had family and friend connections and were from the central part of the country.  Also, they were not necessarily young and unemployed.  That was not the reason they were being pushed towards ISIS.  Their evolution was rapid — just weeks were enough for people to be recruited.  For many relatives, it was a shock, because just weeks prior, their family members had shown no signs of such behaviour.

As for the Kazakh boy in the video, he said it could have been ideological propaganda, where the boy represented the ideology.  Regarding other people in video clips, “we can be sure they were from Kazakhstan”, he said.  There was a high probability that children of men who had died fighting in Iraq and Syria would be used for propaganda, showing the group’s inhumane exploitation of people.

Mr. MANSOUR, to a question on whether the conflict could end without United Nations or third party mediation or intervention, said the United Nations had taken it upon itself to resolve the situation in Palestine that had existed since the partition.  “The United Nations will be involved in this issue until it is resolved in all its aspects,” he said, which was why there were 20 United Nations agencies in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Gaza.

Ms. SCHNEIDER, to other questions, said Haaretz was most consistent in publishing data on Palestinian children killed each day.  Most Israeli media were concerned with Israelis’ daily lives.

On that point, Mr. MANSOUR added that 2,444 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza war, and 11,000 injured, 85 per cent of who were civilians.  On the Israeli side, 63 soldiers and six civilians had died.  This was not a war between Hamas and Israel.  Rather, it was an onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza.

Mr. OTHMAN said two days ago, Israelis killed a 51-year-old Palestinian man who tried to attack a policewoman with his car.  The only source for that incident was an Israeli source.  From the Palestinian side, the only source of information about a boy who was kidnapped during the night was his family.

Panel II

The day’s second panel — entitled “Creative media:  use of innovative means for impact and influence” — was moderated by Joseph Dana, writer, The National, and featured presentations by Mohammed Haddad, Palestine Remix, Al-Jazeera; Anne Paq, photographer, ActiveStills; and Roman Vassilenko, Chairman of the Committee for International Information, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.

Opening the discussion, Mr. DANA said the manner in which the public consumed media and received information on conflict, especially in the Middle East, had radically transformed.  Social media delivered immediate and intimate portraits of people participating in events.  Trends brought about by the Arab Spring were already under way in Israel and Palestine, especially with Palestinians using social media to transmit “unfiltered” accounts that were stripped of mainstream media bias.

Indeed, he said, social media was an important tool for those trying to understand what was happening and how to go forward.  Its widespread use also raised questions about the ethics and authenticity of media. “The influx of information has started a revolution in how we understand what is happening in Israel-Palestine,” he said.

Mr. VASSILENKO said a study of news consumption in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had found that 75 per cent of those surveyed were more likely to access news if accompanied by a video.  Twitter had found that posts with images received almost 100 per cent more engagement than those that did not.  Moreover, YouTube viewership was growing by 50 per cent year in the Middle East, mainly on mobile phones, showing that people were interacting with media while on the move.

He said social media gave a voice to people in real-time.  Trust in social media was also growing and would possibly become a more trustworthy news source than mainstream media.  Facebook had 80 million users across Middle East, 89 per cent of whom used it daily, making it the region’s most used social networking tool.  He cautioned that platforms could be hijacked by groups like ISIS, highlighting the need to control messages on those new channels.

At the same time, the popularity of new channels, such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat, was increasing, he said.  In 2014, the United Arab Emirates launched an Instagram account promising a “behind the scenes” view of the Government at work.  In a similar light, Kazakhstan would use social media to engage with people in the Middle East and fight extremism in Central Asia.  Governments could use social media to show how economic developments were related to rising living standards.  The world was on the verge of another revolution in way people received, disseminated and engaged with the news, he said.

Mr. DANA added that Israel-Palestine was a conflict of narratives, as Israel had put a lot of resources into its portrayal of conflict in the context of colonialism.  Yet, social media defeated that narrative structure.  With Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers tweeting in Gaza, it was easy to see that a rights-based narrative had emerged that had been absent of peoples’ understanding of the conflict.

Mr. HADDAD said he designed and developed visual news stories for the web.  “A good story must be well packaged and crafted to reach people wherever they are, to keep them informed,” he said, and new techniques were allowing that to happen.  Making an audience care about a story involved taking them on an emotional, intellectual and aesthetically pleasing journey and breaking down distribution silos.  Interactive story telling was about combining techniques to best deliver a story.

In that context, he highlighted the Palestine Remix video project, launched last year.  Its “building blocks” were films about Palestine.  One of them, for example, looked at Gideon Levy’s problems in reporting on Palestinians.  The question centred on how to liberate films, which were valuable resources of information, making them searchable, shareable and available so people could “make them their own”.  By combining snippets of text with videos, users could create a “remix” that told a new story.

On the technology front, he said he worked with the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Group that embedded data journalists into news rooms.  On the design side, the project used the Adobe “Muse” programme and had received several award nominations, especially important for bringing Palestine to the world.  A goal of the project was to digitize the atlas of Palestine — to provide a living resource about the land.  Data was about people’s lives and the job of a data journalist was to bring that data to life.  “You can take storytelling to a new level with these kinds of tools,” he said.

Ms. PAQ said ActiveStills was a collective of Israeli and Palestinian photographers working on issues they cared about in a long-term context.  Early on, in trying to document demonstrations on Palestinian lands, photographers did not have a platform on which to share their material — so they created one.  In 2005, they organized street exhibitions in Israel, including Jerusalem, to raise awareness about what was happening.  The reaction of the Israeli public not only included writing racist comments on the photos, but removing the photos as well.  “For us, this is good,” she said.  “We are here to disturb the public.”

At the start, she said, the photographers were distributing photos through Flickr, for use mainly by non-governmental organizations in different countries.  Pictures were also used in demonstrations, in the Negev, for example, and in Tel Aviv, where asylum seekers had seen them.  Today, the photographers used Facebook and Instagram and were publishing books to share new work.  They also had a partnership with an Israeli media channel.

She shared visual examples of how to communicate a message, saying that administrative detention posters had been designed by mixing statistics and pictures in an efficient and creative way.  A Gaza-based artist who had lost his home had created a character named Art Man, which he paints on buildings in the area.

In Gaza last summer during the Israeli military offensive, she was shocked by the destruction:  1,000 houses had been destroyed, causing a spike in homelessness.  Not one had since been rebuilt.  Wondering how to approach the story, she decided to photograph children in destroyed houses and schools.  She posted her photos on Twitter and they immediately went viral, used by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Health Organization (WHO) and others.  Some 143 families had lost all their members.  They were totally gone.  The question was how to package that massive amount of material so people could understand it.  “We have a responsibility to think about this,” she emphasized.  It was up to people, Governments and the United Nations to take action.

Taking questions, first on how to incorporate photo data into news services, Ms. PAQ suggested contacting her collective.  ActiveStills photographers were open to collaborating.

Mr. HADDAD said his organization licensed its data through the Creative Commons licensing platform, which lent credibility.  He cautioned that “data does not equal truth,” which was why he recommended people to license their work.

Asked about the target audience and how many Palestinians and Israelis had accessed his website, Mr. HADDAD said his organization tracked website traffic, which was higher from the United States and the United Kingdom, where internet penetration was stronger.  Fourteen cent of the traffic was from mobile platforms.  Palestine Remix also wanted to partner with universities in the use of infographics.