Israel and Hamas clash on social media

As in the field, Israel deploys superior strength and resources as both sides attack each other on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube

The lethal military confrontation between Israel and Hamas is being mirrored in a bitter clash on the battlefield of social media.

Each side has taken to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to denounce the other, and to present accounts that are at best partial and often blatantly distorted.

The propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians is not new, but this battle-round is being fought with unprecedented ferocity. And like the asymmetry in the military conflict, the strength and resources of the Israel social media troops outweigh those of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations.

The Israel Defence Forces has an official Twitter account (@IDFspokesperson) in English, with 292,000 followers, providing dozens of updates every day on military activities plus graphics, photographs and video. As well as data on air strikes and rocket launches, it also comments on Hamas's motives and actions, and posts "infographics", such as one purporting to show how Hamas uses Palestinian homes as military command centres and weapon storage facilities.

Before the World Cup final it asked followers to retweet its posts on the number of rockets fired from Gaza using the hashtags #WorldCup and #GERvsARG in order to maximise its reach.

The IDF is also active on YouTube and Facebook, and Israeli government ministries, officials and embassies have Twitter accounts.

In recent years Israel has recruited hundreds of students to assist in its hasbara, or public diplomacy campaign. These individuals – some of whom are paid – act openly and covertly, many engaging in below-the-line online discussion threads to promote Israel's interests.

At the start of the current conflict in Gaza students at the Interdisciplinary Centre, a private college in Herzliya, launched a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook, "Israel Under Fire".

According to its leader, Yarden Ben-Yosef, 27, more than 400 students have volunteered for the programme, running five Facebook pages in five languages (English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and German). They run a website, israelunderfire.com, which posts in 21 languages and claims to contain only factual data – "there is no propaganda, no exaggeration, no lies".

"We counter Palestinian propaganda and explain the Israeli perspective," Ben-Yosef said. "Social media is another place where the war goes on. This is another way to tell our story."

He conceded that the students used pictures and data provided by the Israeli government, but insisted it had no say in how the group used such information. "This is part of the hasbara effort – we're working for the same goal, but we do it in our own way."

On the other side of the conflict, Hamas and other Palestinian organisations have used social media in the propaganda war. Hamas's military wing, al-Qassam, has increased its Twitter activity, posting in Arabic, English and Hebrew and using graphic and distressing pictures of injured children, funerals and the destruction of homes. It has 11,900 followers for its English posts (@qassamfeed).

It uses language such as "genocidal aggression", "resistance" and "martyrs", which may seem strong to westerners but is part of the daily discourse among Palestinians.

Hamas has also hacked Israeli television channels and Domino's Pizza's Facebook page to warn Israelis about its military intentions. Other organisations and individuals in Gaza have joined the campaign to win public support using the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack.

As well as the general public, both sides are aiming their barrages of information/propaganda at the mainstream media. The rise in live blogs covering events such as the conflict in Gaza has led to a greater reliance by journalists on social media for access to a steady stream of information in real time.

Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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