November 14, 2010
The 'Facebook' of Palestinian Society
In the internet era, the battleground of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer limited to just ground, sea, or air mêlées. Now the boundaries have shifted to include protracted and arduous online campaigns.
Israelis are only just starting to internalize the necessity of victory on both fronts -- the physical and the virtual -- as the mission to delegitimize Israel online becomes pervasive. For example, in 2008, Israelis living in the West Bank were shocked to discover that they had to choose "Palestine" as their state, with no option for Israel, when filling out the address section of their Facebook profiles. In contrast to the much-discussed "facts on the ground," here was a blatant attempt by Palestinians to revise history by creating "facts" online in order to claim that an area of Israel today is a valid Palestinian state -- a state which in reality has never existed.
Even more flamboyant confrontations take place daily on Wikipedia, where Palestinians have sown "destroyed villages" and "war crimes" allegations across the map, to the point of claiming that Tel Aviv was founded on the ruins of invented villages.
The social media world is based on instant gratification and on the rapid tempo at which we can enter and transmit data. If institutions of higher education serve as indicators of social trends, then the noticeable increase in online classes and institutions demands that we turn to social media to discern trends and attitudes. And there is no denying our growing collective dependency on technology and social media. In this particular case, therefore, understanding online discussions and debates is crucial to perceiving Israeli and Palestinian attitudes toward one another and towards peace.
Israelis and Palestinians are fighting a social media war, and both fully understand the importance of making their case online. Israel's defenders combat most Palestinian claims quickly, but the advantage remains with the aggressors, who constantly find new venues for putting forward their narratives. But what do Palestinians discuss among themselves?
Enter Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), who recently authored a new monograph entitled "Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn from Palestinian Social Media."
Their study tracks debates on a number of Palestinian social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as several blogs, using software designed by ConStrat, a company that deploys military-grade technology on behalf of the U.S. Central Command. At the authors' direction, Constrat viewed approximately 10,000 Palestinian social media entries between May 3 and August 3, 2010, of which it analyzed in depth approximately 20 percent based on relevancy. In the end, the company analyzed 1,788 statements contained within 1,114 unique posts across 996 threads written by 699 authors.
For example, according to the report, users of the sites hanein.info, h-alali.net, and aljazeeratalk.net circulated an article alleging that Israel, Iran, and the United States had joined forces. The article argued that Israel attacked the Turkish flotilla in order to divert attention from its ally, Iran. Moreover, in an essay entitled "Against Reconciliation," circulated by Egyptian writer Abdul Halim Kandil, Kandil "rejected a reconciliation agreement on grounds that it would appease Israel and weaken the 'resistance.'"
These and other data stand in stark contrast with what pollsters have disseminated in the past. After all, polling Palestinian society over the past few decades has been more art than science, and traditionally, the polls tend to reflect what their commissioners want to see. Take as a case in point Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Despite being the go-to person on Palestinian polling, Shikaki became famous both for minimizing Hamas' influence within Palestinian society and inaccurately predicting a Fatah victory in the 2006 elections. In fact, his work helps explain why so many in the U.S. and Europe were so lax about Hamas' participation in the election to begin with. Whenever we hear statements that the majority of Palestinians accept a two-state solution, or that a majority of Palestinian refugees don't really want a right of return, or that Palestinians hate corruption as much as (if not more than) Israelis do, we will find support for these allegations in one of Shikaki's studies. Would that it were so.
In contrast, we can find an independent and singular voice in ConStrat. ConStrat's uniqueness stems from its ability to excavate hundreds of thousands of social media entries to match keywords -- in this case, words relating to peace, diplomacy, violence, and radicalization. These keywords allowed Schanzer and Dubowitz to analyze hard data and shed light on the true attitudes of individual Palestinians and, by extension, the mood on the Palestinian "street" as its members speak among themselves.
This is just the sort of hard data decision-makers in Israel need: one of the major drawbacks of Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 was the resultant dearth of human intelligence which in years past helped the Israeli Defense Forces make strategic military decisions. As Schanzer and Dubowitz have demonstrated, the virtual world is an excellent venue where Israel can pick up the slack.
Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz have proven that real information is more useful than wishful thinking. Contrary to Shikaki's cleverly drawn questions and happy-face deductions, the conclusions in "Pulse" corroborate the obvious: that Hamas has little if any desire for peace with Israel, that Fatah is in internal disorder, that the cleavage between Hamas and Fatah is growing, and that the likelihood of Palestinians trying to combat Iran's influence in Gaza is slim at best. And thanks to ConStrat's technology, these conclusions can come to light in the Palestinians' own words.
As the Obama administration continues its attempt to reignite the peace process in the Middle East, it would behoove the American president and his cabinet to utilize this study and similar ones to get a clearer picture of the realities they are facing -- both on the ground and in the virtual world.
Asaf Romirowsky is a Philadelphia-based Middle East analyst, a lecturer in history at Pennsylvania State University, and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Forum.