Millennial Letters

New Media & the Israel-Gaza Information War

Confused about what happened in Gaza last week? There’s a reason for that—and it’s not necessarily the fault of warring Twitter feeds. 

At the time, only one thing seemed to be clear: the threat of war. You could blame the Palestinians for that. Or you could say it’s Israel’s fault. It all depends on what (and where) you were reading. 

The fact is, journalism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tends to be more charged than that of other territorial divisions (heady Nagorno-Karabakh coverage, anyone?). This is partly because problems there go beyond mere border disputes, but more importantly, it is because political interests have long encouraged stark divisions among the reading public. The press falls prey too—at this point, many reporters have covered this story for years and understand all too well which facts play better than others. 

This could explain why social media played such a prominent role in the recent conflict. Many readers, especially Millennial readers, chose to follow the Israeli military’s Twitter feed and its Palestinian response hashtag, where bias was clearly demarcated—possibly another sign that young readers do not want news filtered “for them” by traditional media.

This works if readers have a general understanding of a story’s context, which many do in this case. Unless you’ve been hiding in a hole for the past 20 years, you know there’s been an ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more or less what’s driving it. Providing such context is one of the most important services rendered by traditional media in what is now a very competitive information environment, but it might not have been as needed in this case—landing new media an unexpected triumph in the information war over Gaza. 

Of course, some readers just came to gawk at the Israeli military’s unprecedented social media blitz, complete with live-blogging and surreal video feeds. But you can tweet all you want, and if you don’t have attentive followers, it goes into Twitter’s black hole of boringness. There was something about this latest outbreak of violence in Gaza that saw more people turn to information-sharing platforms instead of, or at least as well as, other options. 

This is not to say that fair-minded, balanced reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict doesn’t exist, only that it can be particularly hard to find—and that’s a problem. 

Take the US-based Associated Press, considered by many to be the standard-bearer of journalistic objectivity, its reports carried in a majority of American newspapers. One of their recent headlines ran: “Egypt’s PM Rushes to Hamas’ Aid in Gaza,” which kicked off with:

Egypt’s prime minister rushed to the aid of the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers Friday in the midst of an Israeli offensive there, calling for an end to the operation. Palestinian militants took advantage of an Israeli halt in fire during the visit to rain rockets on Israel, including a strike on the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv for a second straight day.

The Egyptian prime minister’s stated goal in visiting Gaza that day was to explore a possible cease-fire. One would think a potential truce has more news value than a trip made in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Note the language inviting readers to see the Egyptian official’s visit as a shield for stepped-up attacks on Israel—a fair point only if readers are also aware of the 150-plus rockets fired by Israel into Gaza overnight and that morning. But that information was apparently not judged relevant enough for that critical first graph. These kinds of editorial decisions hurt the public’s trust in the press, handing alternative sources of information an easy win. 

The nuances of the AP’s reporting is a far cry from what you can find elsewhere, though. Iran’s state-run Press TV ran a piece last week explaining the conflict like this

The apartheid regime of Israel denies about 1.7 million people in Gaza their basic rights, such as freedom of movement, jobs that pay proper wages, and adequate healthcare and education.

Or there’s Russia Today, with its roughish “Question More” slogan, writing in a news piece last week: 

Hamas is a militant organization, which many in the world see as terrorist. Israel, however, is a civilized democracy and a rich developed nation and so the hyperbole and venom coming from the mouths of its leaders seems that much more shocking.

Point being? There’s a war raging for the minds of news consumers, particularly young news consumers. The traditional media should be making full use of a major weapon in their own arsenal: relaying information fairly, providing all the facts, not just some of them, and news reporting that’s free of manipulative analysis. That’s how they’ll win the information war. Gaza is a case in point. In reading about this particular conflict, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that news consumers can be targets too—but here the battle is for their feelings, for their understanding of “the facts,” and, ultimately, for their trust.


Photo Credit: Israel Defense Force 

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