It was 18 months ago that I first wrote about the extension of real, shooting wars to the social media battleground. This past week saw a return of cyberspace prominence in the Israeli/Gaza blockade. The first story that flooded Facebook, YouTube and Twitter was the violence that occurred on the Mavi Marmara. As this story exploded across the traditional press outlets, videos were available on YouTube showing the actual helicopter boarding of the ship and the attack on the soldiers, which was followed by deadly violence. In this case social media added some perspective to a very volatile issue.
What I found particularly interesting was the coverage of the next ship that attempted to land in the Gaza, the “Rachel Corrie”. The name of the ship is a reference to an American woman who was killed in Gaza in 2003. This ship was due to meet up with the Israeli navy early Saturday morning. I was quite interested in what would happen and tried to get information from traditional media websites throughout the evening in New York. Much of the information I found was old. Old in this case means at least 12 hours. Around midnight NYC time , Twitter seemed to become the major news source. This was fascinating. Tweets were coming in fast and furious. This is the first time I experienced the “fog of war” in real time social media. Reports came in about the ship being boarded, stopped, not stopped, trailed by naval ships, proceeding to Gaza, going to Ashdod, being inspected by International representatives, and so on. Rumors followed Rumors.
The Jerusalem Post reported that the ship had been boarded three hours before the actual event. This report seemed to be in response to an earlier Tweet that seemed credible. A credible Tweet as a source? The Jpost eventually retracted their story, but not before their report was Tweeted 1000’s of time as credible. The problem is what is a credible Tweet? Twitter is an environment where anyone can broadcast anything. The need for instantaneous news on any world event has put news organizations in the position of trying to sift through 1000’s of Tweets to determine what may or may not be happening. Most Tweets about the Rachel Corrie were re-Tweets of other rumors that were then reinforced by their sheer volume of messaging. As the trending stats of the Rachel Corrie become higher and higher, it attracted the spammers and the truly crazy people. Yet through all of this, I was updating the Twitter role of info on the Rachel Corrie. The information pipe became even more stuffed with offers for good, services, merchandise and other threads about the ship that described what was or was not happening.
For the record, the ship was eventually boarded and led to the port of Ashdod where the crew and passengers were deported from Israel and the goods inspected, before shipment to Gaza. The ruling Hamas Party in Gaza has subsequently refused to accept the aid from the Rachel Corrie becuase it was trucked through Israel. This ship made less worldwide headlines because there was no attack on the naval boarding party and the ship sailed peacefully to an Israeli port. However, this crisis is far from over as Iran now proposes to use its Navy to escort blockade running ships.
Will we continue to rely on Twitter as the front line of information gathering if this situation escalates even further? The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) maintains a Twitter account to answer journalists questions and give them real time information on fast moving stories. During the Rachel Corrie event they responded to a false story in the Jpost as follows:
Twitter is a mix of first hand accounts, rumors, government accounts, and just plain propaganda.
In the case of the Rachel Corrie what would have happened if Twitter had been flooded with purposeful and coordinated false information? Suppose Tweets circulated that the Israeli navy blew up the ship? These false Tweets get re-tweeted thousands of times. Mainstream media picks up the story and then reports the false reports. Riots occur, real people get killed; Politicians take public stances that are difficult to back down from. Fantasy become reality. By the time the truth is known, it is too late and a real war has begun. Sound fantastic? This has happened, almost….
It was October of 1939 when Martians invaded the State of New Jersey. Panic ensued. Orson Wells and his epic War of the Worlds was of course just radio fantasy. We could only imagine what might have happened if he had a Twitter account at the time.
Here is Russian Television’s Report on the Rachel Corrie Ship