Laptop Warriors Engage in Israel-Gaza Twitter Battles

Armed with computers and smart phones, millions of people - some in the Middle East, others in Europe and the U.S. - enlisted to battle for the Israeli and Palestinian causes just as soon as Operation Pillar of Defense began. Who is winning the social-media battle?

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Back in the dark ages, before the Internet and social media networks, if you weren’t a soldier or civilian on the ground or a working journalist, you didn’t have much to do when a conflict broke out between Israel and the Palestinians but sit back and worry.

No matter how much you cared about the outcome, you were consigned to passively watching and waiting.

Times have changed, and now we live in the age of the laptop warrior. Armed with computers and smart phones, millions of people - some in the region, but many around the world - enlisted to do battle for the Israeli or the Palestinian cause just as soon as Operation Pillar of Defense began on Wednesday. Ever since, the rhetoric has been flying as fast and furious as the missiles, on blogs and Facebook, but primarily on the speediest online medium - Twitter. Twitter has become no less than a full-fledged battlefield as the two sides duke it out, gathering forces on various hashtags, fighting for their side to rank as high as possible among the “trending topics.” Much of the online activity is being officially orchestrated by the participants in the conflict, but the vast majority is coming from the grassroots.

Many on the pro-Israel side had already been at their battle stations for several days. Online activists were already doing their best to tell the world about the barrage of missiles on southern Israel, posting the news on every missile fired from Gaza onto the hashtag #stoptherockets. Raising awareness of the missile attacks in Israel had been a challenge over the past week, in an online environment consumed with the Petraeus scandal, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing bloodshed in Syria. No one seemed very interested.

But that turned around radically, of course, with the targeted assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, the opening salvo in Operation Pillar of Defense. In what was clearly a well-prepared plan, the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli government spokespeople immediately began tweeting under the hashtag #pillarofdefense and encouraging others to do so.

The world quickly took notice of the central role online activity was playing in the campaign. Forbes declared:

“This may be the first war declared via Twitter. The Israeli military is waging an attack on two fronts today: it’s bombing “terror targets” in Gaza and at the same time broadcasting the details of its attack through Twitter and on the Israel Defense Forces blog.”

Hamas leadership, the residents of Gaza and their supporters abroad were quick to mobilize in response. As soon as the first IDF attacks occurred, tweets went out under the hashtag #gaza reporting the damage that the Israeli offensive was causing.

What immediately drew the most attention across the Internet and in the media was the unprecedented official tweeting between the @idfspokesperson and @alqassambrigade, the Twitter handle of the paramilitary wing of Hamas, who were exchanging direct online fire at one another. The following Twitter exchange received extensive international play:

We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.

@AlqassamBrigade @IDFSpokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves)

But the most intense action hasn’t come from military or government officials tweeting, but from the volunteer combatants in the Israel-Gaza Twitter war around the world. Supporters of the Gazans soon chose #prayforgaza as their primary hashtag of support for Palestinians and anger at Israel. An additional tag that has been trending worldwide is #Gazzeatesaltinda, Turkish for “Gaza Under Fire,” as well as #gazaunderattack.

Israel’s supporters have countered with #prayforisrael and #israelunderfire. Late on Wednesday, after Israelis went to sleep, a new surge of vociferous Twitter support for Israel was launched in the United States, with a new hashtag - #hamasbumperstickers. Using the most powerful tool on Twitter - twisted black, and often inappropriate humor - the hashtag climbed to #2 trending topic worldwide for a time.

Some examples of the most popular and retweeted #hamasbumperstickers contributions include:

- My honor student can blow up your honor student

- Baby Suicide bomber on board

- My Other Car Is Also A Smoking Heap Of Burning Rubble

- Honk If You're About to be Taken Out by an Israeli Air to Surface Missile!

So, the big question is - who is winning the online war? This Washington Post piece asserted that the online masses are clearly on the Palestinian side, overcoming the challenge of an IDF armed with more sophisticated and well-funded, optimized posts and “fancy” graphics and videos.

“Gaza’s cause is sounding louder, and further, than the IDF’s – a strong indication of the grassroots movement behind it. In the Gaza Strip, Israel’s financial and technological superiority will surely prove decisive. But Twitter users seem more apt to discuss the unfolding violence using the #GazaUnderAttack hashtags that, while not exclusively antagonistic to the strikes, at least suggest the idea of Gaza as a victim in the violence. That’s probably not the social discussion that the IDF’s team was hoping for, but it’s what they’re getting.”

But this war isn’t over, either in real life or online. I’m not sure that the situation is so clear-cut. From my observation, the balance of sympathy seems to shift with the time zones - during Europe’s waking hours, the tweeting masses are clearly cheering for Gaza and Hamas, while when the United States is awake, there is more support for Israel. Both sides are still organizing. In Jerusalem, the Government Press Office on Thursday opened up a "social media war room" hoping to fill it with volunteers tweeting and Facebooking in multiple languages, and there are plans from Israel’s supporters in other countries to organize their efforts in a similar fashion.

The ultimate result won’t be known until the last missile - and the last tweet - are fired.

Illustration: A private civilian contractor works with his laptop inside a transit tent.Credit: Reuters

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