If the wave of violence we’re seeing now morphs into a full-fledged third intifada, blame it on Facebook.
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This is certainly not what Mark Zuckerberg would want to hear, nor the many millions around the world who are making reams of money and winning instant fame through social media – not to mention the billions who use it to upload family photographs, look for a job or share jokes. Social media are supposed to be egalitarian and democratic, a way to break up crusty, exploitative institutions like the traditional media, party politics and the taxi industry.
But hey, what’s good for sharing product reviews and avoiding commuter-hour traffic is just as good for inflaming passions quickly and easily enough to start your own intifada.
Each intifada has had its own special characteristics. The first was a truly spontaneous outburst of anger expressed in stone-throwing that eventually consumed itself in account-settling among Palestinians. The second was organized from the top and employed live ammunition and suicide bombings.
The third looks to be spontaneous, like the first, the choice of weaponry nothing more than a kitchen knife or screwdriver and the medium for spreading frustration and outrage – the Internet.
Suicide by screwdriver attack
Most of the attacks have been done by teenagers with whatever tools were at hand. Almost none are known to have belonged to any terrorist organization, much less have been subjected to lengthy indoctrination and training. Yet day after day, a handful of self-recruited young Palestinians go out and – because the odds are quite good you will be shot down in the process – effectively stage a suicide attack.
In Israel, the right wing seems to think it's still fighting the second intifada. It’s accusing Mahmoud Abbas of inciting terror and, by implication, organizing it, as if he were Yasser Arafat.
Abbas does speak with a forked tongue, making inflammatory remarks in public while privately urging Palestinian leaders to stop the attacks, but so what if he does? An opinion poll last week showed that two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign. It’s hard to imagine many are inspired by him to go out and kill.
If the right isn’t blaming Abbas, then it blames Palestinian schools and media, as if teenagers imbibed everything they learned from textbooks or classroom lessons. It’s a pity Netanyahu never gave the right-wingers a peace process, or they’d blame that, too.
The right doesn’t want to hear it, but this violence isn’t simply a function of empty propaganda. Whether it’s due to Israeli oppression, frustrated national sentiment, economics or religion can be debated, but Palestinian anger is real.
It only takes something to actualize it, and for our up-and-coming intifada it seems that social media are what's doing it, with tools like this: A staged YouTube video making the rounds shows a young man watching on his smartphone a video of what appears to be an Israeli soldier fighting Palestinians. He looks up to see two Jews walking down the street, pushing some Palestinian boys in their way to the ground and laughing. To the strains of portentous music, the young man pulls out a knife and attacks the two. The scene ends with a close-up of the bloody knife held above the victims.
By itself, the 40-second clip isn’t inspiring, but in the context of the Palestinian social reality and a universe of online support and encouragement, it’s easy to see how stuff like that can incite a young person. Multiply it by tens of thousands of times and a mass movement is born. It’s the democracy of social media in its purest form.
We should have seen it coming. The mass protests that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak nearly five years ago were supposed to have been made possible by social media. That wasn’t true: In 2011, just 6 million Egyptians had Facebook and just 130,000 had Twitter in a country of 80 million people, hardly enough to draw a million people to Tahrir Square. People were inspired by television broadcasts, not tweets.
Since then, however, social media have conquered the Middle East. In Egypt, according to the Arab Social Media Report from 2013, Facebook penetration has reached 16.2%. In the Palestinian territories, it’s 25% and presumably much higher in the West Bank than in Gaza. Among 15-to-29-year-olds, 470,000 Palestinians had Facebook, three times as many as those over 30.
These are figures from two years ago – they're presumably much higher by now. People now access social media using smartphones, which are everywhere and provide an intimate and ever-present experience. Social media bring the violence – and the resentment – to the audience instantly and in a kind of cinema verite that lends an authenticity a news broadcast can’t.
Think of the Islamic State, which has exploited social media in a far more difficult context. It’s fighting a war hundreds of kilometers away from teenagers in Western Europe, in a country few of them have ever visited, much less have a personal or family connection to. The enemy is abstract – the Assad regime, not someone you have encountered on the street.
Yet the Islamic State has successfully recruited thousands to fight and enjoys wide support in the Arab world, at least on social media. That demonstrates the power of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like, far more than amusing cat videos that go viral.
But social media’s power could end up being a weakness. It has been widely observed that the proliferation of electronic media has enabled people to winnow out differing points of view. There is so much available and so much choice that people opt for outlets that show the world as they are already inclined to see it. They choose content that reinforces preconceived notions.
Even more than electronic media, social media seem to work best at spreading extreme views and creating groups of like-minded people because they not only broadcast news and views but allow the like-minded to communicate with each other. In that context, the genre seems to be most influential with the young, who rely on it more than their elders and haven’t had their youthful idealism squeezed out of them yet by experience.
It could change, but right now the wave of violence is one of the very young and very unorganized. In other words, if it stays a Facebook intifada, it won’t have legs.