Propaganda hits social media like a mortar shell | Bleader

Friday, November 16, 2012

Propaganda hits social media like a mortar shell

Posted By on 11.16.12 at 06:00 PM

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Tweets about war and birthdays go hand in hand
  • Twitter doesn't care that you need context for your news narratives
Minutes before I started writing this post, the military wing of Hamas, the Gaza Strip's ruling political party, flaunted a video of a captured Israeli drone on Twitter. This was part of an ongoing propaganda campaign that seems unique in this brave new digital world: military and paramilitary groups were tweeting PR about (what is surely at this point) a war in real time.

There's a lot to unpack about this, not least of all the exchange between the Twitter spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force and Hamas's Al-Qassam Brigades:

Those jabs from across the world's most contentious wall drew lots of commentary, much of it on the pit-bull aggressive posts by @IDFSpokesperson. This is a new wrinkle on military propaganda because its reach is limitless—what an illustration of globalized war—and it's a chilling addition to the on-the-ground war reports that Twitter's been heralded for. These accounts aren't the inconsequential mutterings of out-of-the-way armies, either; as Buzzfeed's John Herrman says, "at least in the information war, tens of thousands of nearly instantaneous enlistments is significant." That Zionist you know won't refrain from hitting the retweet button; your friend who compares Palestine to apartheid can now bombard you with newfound and disturbing (and possibly faked) videos of a one-sided war's gruesome collateral.

All this strikes me as worthy of study, or at least a gloss. What follows is roughly in line with what a TA for a college course called "The Ethics and Practice of Social Media" might receive in a weekly response paper, and if the name Habermas automatically triggers some kind of stress reaction, there's no need to continue reading.

Propaganda like @IDFSpokesperson's changes the tone of a person's Twitter stream in this really strange way, like a hurricane alert on a TV program. The first time I noticed this kind of directness was when the New Yorker was tweeting out a Jennifer Egan story, "Black Box," for eight straight nights. The ingenious yarn is behind a paywall now, but this will give you a sense of what it was like. Told in the second person, the story followed a female spy as she stumbled through an incredibly important, high-tech mission, submitting to sex with powerful men against her better judgment and uncertainly sleuthing through the corridors of drug dealers' secluded houses. It was edge-of-your-seat stuff for the writing and for the fact that it was being fed to you every 20 or 30 seconds. You had to watch or refresh your feed for the next line to come through, a directive that seemed directed at you, like "Throwing back your head and closing your eyes allows you to give the appearance of sexual readiness while concealing revulsion."

I read it later for a short story club, and realized it had lost something in the haziness of Twitter. To see that scary world bursting through and talking to you through the bon mots or news bites was to realize how indirect all that is, how little it calls to you and unserious it is on the whole. As I read the reactions to my favorite sports team losing a game, I was also waiting to find out what happened to a terrified woman who'd just pressed a secret button to let her husband know she missed him from abroad. The game lost its meaning, and my interests seemed pointless. This was great literature, but it was also a great disruption, purposely removing the context of the set of digital voices I'd cultivated in selecting my followers. It was refreshing then, but it's much more ferocious now.

This Gaza PR does that same kind of fog-horning. Its 140 characters are no more powerful than the ones being tweeted by your best friend or your boss and the information no more—that's the democracy of the Internet. But it's formatted the same way, it presents itself similarly, and that makes its call to action seem far less insidious. Propaganda does that same kind of hailing that Egan's second person accomplished and which Twitter often doesn't do. It speaks to you, not for you; it's the same difference between hearing a friend get outraged and that friend making small talk. The IDF is speaking directly to America, and its language is backed up by real guns, real missile-carrying drones, real death. You find that you're being asked to support someone's death:

This kind of stuff wakes you up and asks you to reconsider what you're reading, dismissing the neutral tweets as bloodless and the non-pertinent ones as irrelevant. There are plenty of normal reactions to it, like skepticism, revulsion, or agreement. The question isn't how you respond, it's whether massive numbers will respond in a way you don't like. At a very basic and tribal level, those people are your enemies, and the propaganda has done its job.

The IDF doesn't just continue to tweet out its victories and status updates and threats, grandstanding on a global stage that the Internet's might classify as trolling writ large (the other side absolutely does the same, I should note, but I think there's a different level of expectation for a Western-style democracy). It's also using Tumblr, previously the domain of artsy pictures and streams of cute GIFs and porn, to bait people into listening to its side of an actual war. It's not great at racking up hits just now, but wait until the military gets fluent in what goes viral and starts producing rage comics and military cat videos and funny Photoshops. If the Internet is good at anything, it's at making emotions seem rational.

Until now, the brawniest way anyone has wielded that power is Barack Obama's reelection campaign, but you can bet this will happen when America gets into its next war; it will happen when China fights a war. It's Radio Free Europe, only this time, it'll be broadcast with the help of dutiful followers around the world—maybe you're not one of @IDFSpokesperson's 144,400 followers, but you may follow one of them—and all it will do will be to add to the polarization in people and disinformation of battles. Worst of all, Twitter is a bad fact checker and the propaganda will strike quick and lure acolytes faster than can be corrected for.

Anyway, the Guardian has a list of authorative Twitter users to consult on the Gaza conflict, and the Times's Robert Mackey is a great source for live updates on anything Middle East. Let's hope this fight's over soon, and for good.

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