Since the Arab uprisings of early 2011, social media have played an increasing role in the politics and conflict of the wider Middle East. That has been especially true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood, who returned to Gaza to cover the Israeli military operation in the summer of 2014 concluded of her time on that assignment: “If you want to know what’s happening, it’s on social media first, before any other news outlet, so it’s essential to be monitoring Twitter all the time.”
This is how the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved: while eyewitness reporting remains of paramount importance, it is no longer sufficient just to be in one place.
With social media, and Twitter in particular, you have simultaneously to keep an eye on what is going on elsewhere too.
Social media had been a part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it came into being. Following Operation “Cast Lead” – an Israeli military campaign in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 – there were reports that both the Israeli Army and Hamas’ military wing had warned those in their ranks against using social media for what doing so might give away to the enemy.
This was different. Sherwood found Twitter ‘essential’ this time because of the wide range of sources it offered to add to what she was seeing and hearing around her. “And a lot of that isn’t from journalists but people in Gaza who are tweeting what’s happening in real time. It’s incredibly useful.”
Reuters Jerusalem bureau chief Crispian Balmer echoes this, pointing out the rapidity with which Twitter has made itself an indispensable part of newsgathering and distribution.
“When I came here four years ago I was aware of Twitter, but it wasn’t any more than that. Now I can’t conceive of a world without it.”
For agencies, this has not been an entirely welcome development. Balmer says of the new reality, in which the Israeli and other official sources are “tweeting aggressively”.
In a way they risk undermining our business model of speed, accuracy, receiving and disseminating information. Now they can put out the news directly. I think people still do look and wait for Reuters, AP, BBC flash. I think it makes it more important for us to put context in the stories.
To illustrate his point, he gives the example of the Israeli Army commemorating the anniversary of the 1967 war by tweeting news from their archives. One such tweet was a report of Israeli warplanes bombing Damascus.
But this came at a time, in the summer of 2013, when there was growing speculation that western air forces might be preparing to attack targets in Syria as a means of influencing the outcome of the civil war there. As a result, Balmer says, “some not very bright energy traders moved markets on it, based on the tweet, at a moment where fears of an attack on Assad were heightened”.
There was a comical side to this, as it appeared from Balmer’s experience when he drew to the Israeli Army’s attention what had happened, but also a potentially serious side, too:
I called the IDF to get comment, and got laughter. Then I realised that it was actually quite serious – that they are playing with economic and financial forces that they are not necessarily aware of. It said ‘67’ on it, but if you’re not reading the signs as the markets can do, they just latch on to a few words and go.
As one long standing member of the international press corps puts it, social media has “revolutionised everything”.
For better, in the case of availability of information, for worse in the sense that it shortened even further the time to consider the kind of complex issues which characterise the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a time which was already compressed by the advent a couple of decades earlier of twenty-four hour television news.
When even Reuters sees social media as a threat to its business, those who seek to influence public and diplomatic opinion know they need to be there.
To But social media also has a downside for journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
While a news organisation can, through moderation, retain a degree of control over what appears on its website – “Most of the articles we don’t open to comment on Israel-Palestine, for obvious reasons,” says Sherwood – the same is not true on social media.
“On Twitter, of course, any time I write anything there’s a whole torrent of criticism and often abuse,” she continues. “I tend not to read it because you can get demoralised by it – or futile engagement with people who aren’t interested in having a rational debate, they’re just interested in scoring points.” As a result, she says, “I find that to fight through the wall of criticism to find the people who actually do want to have a discussion would take me forever.
BBC journalist Yolande Knell says the messages she has received while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have made her, “much more reluctant to use social media, even though the BBC encourage us to use it more, and presenters follow us on social media, I tend not to tweet much here”.
The experience has led her to draw a distinction between what happens on social media, and the content she contributes to more traditional platforms, “I’ll save my words and strength for my proper, official broadcasting which people have more of a right to monitor – and complain about if we don’t get it right.”
Working as she does in a round-the-clock media world, Knell argues that, “When you’ve finished work you don’t want to be woken in the middle of the night by your phone buzzing abusive messages.”
Picture: Palestinian protestors taking a 'selfie' in September 2015, Reuters.
James Rodgers is a senior lecturer in journalism at City University London and a former foreign correspondent for the BBC. This piece is an extract from Headlines from the Holy Land published by Palgrave Macmillan.