More is less – on social media and the war in Gaza

Social-Media-Icons-cloudDespite the summer heat there’s a blizzard blowing; not one involving snowflakes and cold, but rather consisting of hot air and bile. I am referring to the avalanche of tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook messages that are filling cyberspace on the subject of events in and around Gaza.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a subject as mentioned in my previous blog which, (to paraphrase Abba Eban  a former Israeli Foreign Minister), never misses an opportunity to become an opportunity, for debate filled with much passion, but little sense.

Numerous (often unverifiable) postings are circulating that purport to present the ‘reality’ of the situation in Gaza and Israel. Twitter is abuzz with images under various partisan hashtags including #gazaunderattack and #israelunderfire. The aim of these postings is to deliver sharp and often shocking messages to back up one or other of the competing narratives.

The late publisher of the Washington Post, Philip Graham is attributed with saying that, ‘journalism is the first draft of history’. If that is true, then social media is the semi-legible half-considered scrawls that precede words being committed to paper.

While the openness of the internet is a welcome antidote to the old days when governments were able to tightly control the flow of information, the over-abundance of data is creating a fog of confusion for those struggling for something more than partisan propaganda. This situation is also negatively impacting the way in which the formal – old style – media operates.

When I began working as a radio reporter in the early 1990’s radio features were edited using razor blades and sticky tape. They were dispatched for broadcast from far flung places by post or over crackly phone lines. Deadlines were hours or days away, allowing time to cultivate contacts over relaxing and reimbursable drinks.

Within a few short years the arrival of satellite and digital technology transformed the methods and pace of the work. Suddenly stories could be filed with relative ease from virtually any dusty backwater with a rudimentary technical aptitude and a few small bags of equipment. Rolling radio and TV news networks meant that deadlines were constant with little time to digest latest developments, let alone a hurried lunch. We reporters working on news networks became the ‘satellite monkeys’ or ‘the gob on the stick’, filling broadcast time from our makeshift studios on rooftops, in fields, or wherever we happened to find ourselves. Despite these limitations and frustrations, reporters worked according to an established order determined by editorial standards.

But today, social media has created an environment where dis-informational anarchy reigns. It is illustrated in all its (lack of) clarity with the current situation in Gaza. Pictures, video, clips and messages often parading as facts are being uploaded for immediate consumption.

This has created a situation in which the image has become the story. Type ‘gazachildren’ into a search engine, or Twitter and you will be confronted by nightmarish images of dead and injured infants. You cannot discuss, explain away, or respond in any reasoned sense, in the face of such pictures. They numb conversation leaving only outrage and shock in their wake. The problem lies in the fact that they mostly come without context; in identifying the casualties, the circumstances of their deaths, and in describing the nature of the conflict itself. For the most part these images are stripped of anything which might explain – while not diminishing – such deaths.

Added to that, is the fact that many of the images being circulated are unverifiable and of uncertain provenance. Some are being disseminated with the deliberate intent to deceive. The BBC’s Jon Donnison was caught out in unwittingly tweeting an image he believed to be from Gaza but which was in fact originally from Syria.

The unreasoned hysteria in discussing events in Gaza and Israel, combined with the flood of immediate postings from the conflict zone, has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’. This means publishing the most immediate, striking, provocative and shocking image that can be found to reinforce a given point. These range from the gruesome to the bizarre, including a tweet I recently saw, seemingly suggesting Israel’s responsibility for a bleeding horse lacking milk for her foal.

The military conflict in and around Gaza is particularly intense, as is the media war. It is – in all senses – asymmetric, pitting wildly differing forces against each other, both of which differ in their aims, tactics and standards. In the military sphere it is lives that are being lost and shattered. In terms of the media, it is journalistic integrity, reliability and understanding that are the main casualties in this battle for hearts and minds. In their place have come hate, prejudice and hysteria which are now spilling far beyond the Middle East to the streets of Europe, and elsewhere.