Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Social #netWARks- new dimension, or crass distraction?

The internet is swamped with talk of the 'new dimension' of warfare that this latest Gaza, Israel fighting has spawned. From the twittersphere to traditional broadsheets articles are spewing forth on the potential importance of this radical new battleground. One of the most commonly cited exchanges of 'tweet bombs', this between the official twitter accounts of Israel's military and Hamas' military wing-

But these are just the more official combatants circling each other in this much vaunted cyber dual. There are armies of bloggers, facebookers and tweeters lining up to take a side and do battle, mostly under fluttering hashtag banners like #GazaUnderAttack or #IsraelUnderFire-

There have even been fake accounts set up, further contributing to the chaotic online struggle. Look carefully at the twitter handle of this user. 'Spokeperson' instead of 'Spokesperson' on the genuine Israeli Defence Force account. Having copied the look of Israel's official military voice, look what this platform is used to broadcast-

But what does all this swirling storm of comment actually consist of? Many of the tweets sent by supporters of the various camps call for support and try and to justify their side's case. Others attack the other side or criticise those that support them. And some others celebrate or lament some reported, all too often gossiped, victory or defeat, for example the Israeli jet 'shot down' on the internet which strangely never materialised in real life.

Once upon a time a reporter was surrounded by the details of the story, struggled to pick and choose which elements to include and which to leave out for the audience, and that was pretty much it. Now that pyramid if you like, a mass of raw detail on the bottom distilled into a selective report at the top, has metamorphosed. It hasn't been turned upside down, because the mass of detail is still there on the ground, rather than pulled out into a giant block.

The usual myriad of details, depending on how deep you want to look, is still being fed in. But that mass is also more easily fed out through a vastly expanding number of outlets. In a way this is good, breaking the stranglehold of traditional media on the 'truth'. However it's now fed out fast, with little checking and often shot through with rumour, comment and emotion. Does it deserve the title, 'a new dimension of warfare'. Hardly.

By its nature this mass of social media publishing, on the surface united in support of a single side or cause, is not organised. It doesn't have a clear or unified objective. And it doesn't contribute to the overall aim of a campaign. In fact, far from well representing their cause many social media warriors end up creating a scatological mob. Their 'arguments' swirl around like a murmuration of starlings.

Even worse, many of the barrage of comments are just plain crass. Ignoring many of the human tragedies unfolding in Gaza and Israel, comments like this-

or this exchange-

There are 'conversations' on the web far, far more hateful than this. They make the whole thing seem like some sick ideological game. Even if there is mention of the dead, the rabid fury with which dedicated groups or individuals tweet their cause sets them permanently onto 'output' mode and seems to disconnect them further from reality. It's easy to tweet or post. But all chatter seems to fade into the background when stories of real human tragedy present themselves. Like the BBC Arabic journalist in Gaza who's baby, among other family members, was killed in an Israeli airstrike. It rather puts it all into context to see pictures of him, not filled with rage but sobbing with heartbreak, asking only, "what did my son do to die like this? What was his mistake? He is 10 or 11 months old. What did he do?  

War is intimately connected with society. War is a political act. Many of these social media comments are highly, even obscenely, politically charged.  But with such grave consequences on the ground, and such a need for calm, clear headed compromise from both sides, it begs the question, is this frenzy of shouting down and denouncement really 'social media', or in fact something highly anti-social?

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