Twitter: A weapon of war?

Originally produced for The Oppidan Press.

Twitter was founded in March 2006 by American web developerJack Dorsey and seven years later and it has become one of the world’s most widely used forms of social media, boasting 500 million users, of which 200 million are considered active.

Twitter’s design enables the rapid sharing and consumption of information through text based messages called tweets that can contain up to 140 characters as well as images, video and links to other websites.

Owing to this unique, brief and hyper-fast feature, Twitter enables the broadcasting of information in real-time for consumption by anyone on the planet and so has been rapidly embraced by journalists and media organisations around the world as a method of reporting stories on the fly.

Businesses and governments also quickly jumped on board, using the platform as a rapid means of disseminating information and engaging with their consumers or constituents.

Social movements

Perhaps it was then not surprising that social movements would also immediately latch onto the platform and use its network as a means of information sharing and organisation.

Movements such as Occupy, who rejected the massive social and economic inequality the world over, used Twitter as a means of organising themselves, using the platform to call for volunteers or broadcast new protest dates.

Thanks to the global nature of the network, Occupy spread worldwide within a few months. It transformed from a small ‘occupation’ of Zucotti Park in New York in 2011 to hundreds of similar events in 82 countries.

Occupiers also use Twitter to watch over the riot police who were sent to break up the protests. Users posted photos of any excessive use of force by police and often live-tweeted their own arrests. Twitter tools like hashtags and retweets also made sure that this information spread almost instananeously.

Exactly the same trend was seen during the 2011 riots and anti-austerity protests in England. It was also used in the aftermath of the riots, in which the hashtag #riotcleanup was used to organise people to help tidy up the streets.

Political reform

Twitter has also been used an instrument to facilitate and expedite social change. Movements like the Arab Spring, which resulted in a number of regime changes throughout Middle-Eastern and North African Arab countries, were largely organised and publicised on Twitter.

Countries that achieved the most support on Twitter tended to overthrow their governments faster as as witnessed in the case of Egypt.

Those which were not so popular like Bahrain and Syria remain in a state of social upheaval. Syria has, of late, begun to draw more and more attention which has brought about increased pressure from other countries on the current leadership of President Bashar al-Assad to bring a peaceful end to the conflict.

But it is not only in social movements that Twitter has been influential. During the last outbreak of violence between Israel and Palestine in November of 2012, Twitter, quite literally, became a warzone.

Al Jazeera broadcast an episode of its social media focused show The Stream that examined the usage of Twitter over this period thoroughly, entitled Battleground Twitter. You can see a full broadcast of the episodehere.

While the show was unable to definitively conclude whether or not Twitter had become a weapon of war, it is worth re-looking at the question, especially in the light of the recent pro-Palestinian international Israeli Apartheid Week.

New-age conflicts

Many modern wars are influenced on the basis of who the public opinion favours. Administrations employ propaganda to achieve this aim.

While propaganda may not necessarily be entirely true, it is often rooted in fact and is intended to be heavily persuasive. Propaganda is widely accepted as an absolutely crucial weapon in any modern war.

During the last Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), through its Twitter handle @idfspokesperson, rolled out a massive public relations and propaganda campaign targeted specifically at the internet.

For example, when the IDF announced the death of Ahmed Jabari, second-in-command of Hamas‘s military wing, they tweeted this image detailing the crimes for which the Israeli government wanted him for:

The IDF regularly posts images that are definitely intended to defend their position and justify their actions. Below is another image that also appeared in the same time period justifying the necessity of Israel’s Iron Dome initiative:

Hamas has also used Twitter for exactly the same purposes as the following two images show. The first is a representation a Hamas soldier’s boot crushing an Israeli soldier into the ground, while the second, which is far more recent, is a graphic representing the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Other users also added their voices to the conversation using various hashtags. Pro-Palestinians used #GazaUnderAttack, #Gazzeatesaltinda and #Gaza while pro-Israeli users used #PrayForIsrael, #IsraelUnderFire and #PillarOfDefence.

Twitter became, effectively, the platform on which the public opinion regarding the violence would be decided.

Since a large amount of the content used during this debate could be considered propaganda, it can be concluded then that Twitter, and possibly by extension other social media, has become a weapon of war.

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