Laura Pevehouse Thomas

Israel and Palestine Bring Evolution, not Revolution, to Propaganda with Social Media


As the roar of the shells has died down, so too has all the talk of social media’s role in the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict. A WIRED UK headline earlier this month exclaimed Israel “loses social media war to Hamas,” but that’s about all I’ve seen on the topic since the new year started.

I actually began writing this post back in November, and my original headline was “Everything Old is New Again.”  Not because the conflict between these two is ancient – it is – but, because the use of propaganda is also ancient. Leveraging the new tools of social media is simply keeping up with the times, rather than revolutionizing the process.

Just how old is propaganda? Well, you could say it’s as old as the existence of stone monuments that described kings and even a female Pharaoh.

According to the Oxford Reference, the word propaganda is derived from the Vatican’s establishment of the Sacre Congregatio de Propaganda Fide in 1622. “Before 1914, propaganda was usually associated with religion and the implanting of ideas to be cultivated in support of existing beliefs and ‘faith’. Its wartime applications, in the Napoleonic or the American independence wars, were confined largely to calls to arms, lampooning the enemy, glorifying victory, and sustaining morale,” it notes.

Cover of the book Comic Art Propaganda  - by Fredrik Strömberg Munitions of the Mind traces propaganda back to even earlier times of warfare. From those stone monuments I mentioned to paintings, print, radio, television and computers, the scholarly book points out that “throughout history, propaganda has had access to ever more complex and versatile media.”

And, that’s all that happened when the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and Hamas’ Ezzedeen Al Qassam Brigades took to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and just about every other major social network to make their case to the world for why their side was right. Propaganda simply moved to the media of the current times.

Tweet of Hamas Comic ImageToday’s infographics are simply an electronic version of yesterday’s comics, rather than the “disconnect between that messaging and the bombing taking place in real life” that Alex Kantrowitz talked about in his Forbes piece that called the use of social media both “groundbreaking” and “bizarre.”

Spanish Civil Ware Propaganda FlyerAre hashtags really that much more radical than small leaflets in packets of cigarette paper sent by rocket over enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War in late 1938? Sure, the potential audience is larger, but then we get into the whole debate about broadcast messages versus targeted messages and which has the greater response rate or drives actual action and change.

What is new in this evolution of propaganda is the ability to know who the individual is behind it. It’s possible that the stone carvers, painters and comic artists creating monuments, murals and booklets were known by a small circle for their work, but it was much easier (and probably safer) to hide that involvement from most.

In today’s connected environment, the creator can become equally as known as what they create.

One Jewish publication, Tablet, highlighted “The ‘Kids’ Behind IDF’s Media” opening the curtain on what had to happen behind the scenes to convince military leadership that social media was indeed a powerful tool to be leveraged. It sounds very similar to the challenge anyone in a large corporation faces when seeking budget for new initiatives.

But, there is also the less-flattering side of being responsible for an organization’s presence in social media. Many have lost face, or even lost jobs, for their snafus. Military propagandists are not immune.

A photo posted by one member of the IDF new media team in September came back to haunt him months later as the military conflict and the social media propaganda heated up. An image of him at the Dead Sea’s mud baths with a controversial caption led to accusations of racism and led him to restrict public access to his Facebook profile.

It’s a good reminder to everyone, whether you work in social media communications or not, to not only check your privacy settings, but also always remember that anything you say or are photographed doing can and will be used against you.

“Its results may be beneficial or harmful. It can cause victory or death, and today it is a potent and highly influential instrument for the deliberate and purposeful leadership of peoples,“ a U.S. Navy publication said of the subject of its title: “Propaganda.”

The “today” they referred to was 1958, but it might as well be 2013.


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