WASHINGTON - Thousands of miles away from the combat in Gaza, Palestinian and Israeli diplomats in the American capital are fighting their own war: on social media sites.
Rather than rockets, bombs and shells, the munitions are words. The battle for public opinion is marked by tweets from Washington.
In one case, tweets were fired off by the Palestinians so rapidly that one came just seconds after the other. The Israeli ambassador even held a Twitter Q-and-A in the midst of the fighting, receiving a major response from both supporters and critics.
Palestinians at their mission in Washington use graphic pictures and powerful words to describe the deaths in Gaza on social media, pointing to the asymmetry between Israeli and Palestinian lives lost, particularly with children. The Israeli embassy uses strong language and images of Hamas storing arms amidst the civilian population, the number of rocket attacks against Israel and the network of tunnels used by Hamas fighters.
While the Palestinian mission might post bloody pictures from a Gaza scene, the Israelis would show a field hospital where Israeli soldiers help treat Palestinians-or rocket damage in Israel.
Diplomats from each side are hoping to gain at least public sympathy and perhaps influence government or legislative action with their postings in such arenas as Twitter and Facebook.
Influencing public opinion is a key factor in modern warfare, particularly one like the Gaza conflict, according to former State Department official David Pollock, who now analyzes the Mideast for The Washington Institute think tank. “For both sides, it’s really part of the fight,” Pollock said. “It’s probably just as important as the traditional operation because it does determine how long the battle goes on.”
A colleague of Pollock’s recently gave a presentation in which he referred to the conflict in Gaza as three major campaigns: the air war, the ground war and the “media war.”
For the embassy social media outreach in Washington, “they are definitely trying to influence public opinion, the media, even indirectly, policymakers in the United States,” Pollock said.
Former U.S. official Pollock emphasized he believed that tweets or Facebook posts alone won’t change the course of the volatile situation.
“I’m skeptical it’s going to make a big difference in terms of direct appeals by the parties to the conflict,” he said. “I think people are probably inclined to discount both sides because they’re obviously going to be self-serving.”
But where Twitter and Facebook, as well as YouTube or other social media, come into play is amplifying or getting the attention of traditional media. “I think that’s where the real influence is,” Pollock said. “The U.S. media probably does have an important impact on public opinion, and therefore, at least indirectly on the atmosphere in which policy is formulated. It’s not going to be decisive. It’s a factor.”
The Israeli effort seems to have volume behind it. “Today, the Embassy has more than 200,000 friends and followers,” on Facebook and Twitter, Jed Shein, digital director at the Israeli embassy in Washington, stated in an email interview.
“In the situation like Israel is in today, there's a flood of information coming from every direction,” he added. “We share facts on the ground and seek to ensure that our voice is heard.”
Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer was heard by many in his Twitter question-and-answer session earlier this month. Dermer answered 13 questions, including those from impassioned critics.
Many others posted bluntly-worded criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza under the interview’s Twitter hashtag #AskDermer, which ultimately drew 27,000 responses, according to social media analysis site Topsy. Both Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Al-Jazeera described the ambassador as being in “hot water” over the way it turned out.
But the Israeli embassy seemed pleased with the large response. Shein claimed the interview’s Twitter hashtag at one point trended number one in the United States and number three worldwide. “We thought the Q [and] A would be popular, but those numbers beat our expectations,” he said.
The Palestinian mission in Washington did not respond to calls and emails about its social media strategy, but a staff member pointed to Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center in Washington. Munayyer is a significant pro-Palestinian voice in Washington with more than 16,000 followers on Twitter.
“Social media has “served Palestinians tremendously because it has allowed them to get their voice into the conversation,” Munayyer said. “It allowed Palestinians to get out there in this marketplace of ideas and in the past, they have not had this kind of access.”
Another factor in social media is the ability to influence media coverage. “Now, your criticism might actually have an effect on the way the story evolves before it gets into print,” said Munnayer. “It’s not actually responding to media coverage. It is actually shaping it.”
When Palestine Center director Munnayer felt cut off on the issue of Hamas by a conservative U.S. talk show host, he responded by tweeting the TV host became “unhinged” at his comments.
Interestingly, many of the official Israeli and Palestinian posts still refer to mainstream media reports on the issues. They might tweet a sentence beforehand giving the article their spin.
But both sides, for example, cite articles in The Washington Post and appearances on American television networks.
In addition to adding potential credibility when citing a media report, for diplomats it avoids having tweets reverberate on the embassy or mission where it can be seen as official policy. “I’m sure that plays into their thinking,” said Munayyer.
Heavy use of Twitter could wind up working against diplomats if words aren’t well chosen, Pollock warned. “It’s so fast and it seems to be so casual, it can lead to hasty ill-considered, impulsive or just uniformed comments. It’s a little bit dangerous actually for officials to indulge themselves too much with this.”
Pollock warned, “It is so intense, it can be a trap, rather than a real useful tool.”