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  • Michael Dickson

The Hamas Leader Who Was Killed By A Tweet

Originally published at The Times of Israel

For such an evil man, Hamas leader Ahmad Ja’abri, it was the ultimate – and deserved – indignity. He became the first terrorist mastermind to be killed by a Tweet.

Of course, the actual cause of death was an IAF missile targeting his car but online, his death notice, instantly tweeted out and posted on Facebook by the IDF Spokespersons Unit caused waves. The striking image of his photo, listing the charges against him with the stamp ‘Eliminated’ marked a new stage in the war online. The IDF web advance continued throughout the campaign, with slick images detailing operations and video being made available of Hamas rocket launching from civilian areas in real-time. But it wasn’t just the army involved in the fight.

As thousands of Israeli reservists were called up to serve, thousands of their counterparts were being unofficially conscripted and armed only with laptops and phones to fight in the new frontier of warfare: Web 2.0

The truth is that this was more like Web 2.01. During the last campaign against Hamas in Gaza in 2008/9, in an interview with Reuters filmed at the situation room StandWithUs had set up at the IDC Herzliya, I termed that conflict “the first social media war”. And now, in 2012, once again, the battle for public opinion was being fought on social networks, and on talkbalks of leading media sites and blogs.

This time we were even more prepared. As grassroots web ‘Situation Rooms’ sprang into action all over Israel, we channeled our energy into getting clear and effective messages out on social media with a two-pronged aim: rallying our side and reaching out to those who are undecided. As we now pour over the analytics we will judge how effective we were in the public diplomacy effort and where we can improve in an inevitable ‘next time’ situation.

But what is clear is that with the right message and the correct delivery at the appropriate time, information sent out via social media reached people en masse.

With activists working around the clock to respond in real-time to online criticism of Israel and to help counter misinformation about the situation, we were able to buck the propaganda coming out of Hamas and highlight the many lies peddled by the enemy and unfortunately all too often, the media.

Let’s not kids ourselves. Hamas and other terrorist organizations are increasingly web-savvy. If you want an alternative version of the conflict from the actual, historical one why not check out Hamas’s Twitter feed, where they lay claim to all of kinds of strikes on IDF bases that simply never happened. They also address Israelis directly, one particular gem being:

“Oh, Zionists You have to drag yourselves out of hell, go back home now, go back to Germany,  Poland, Russia, America and anywhere else.”.

Hamas hatred in 140 characters or less. But apart from Hamas, there were all too many Palestinian groups who acted as online apologists for the Islamists. Via the internet, organizations or individuals can have a greater effect than that of a country and of course Israel’s enemies have long known this.

In a perceptive article in The Washington Post shortly after the terror attacks on 9/11, the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke asked of Osama Bin Laden, “How could a mass murderer who publicly praised the terrorists of Sept. 11 be winning the hearts and minds of anyone? How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?” The terrorist adversaries of Israel know that as well as being a fertile recruiting ground for extremists, the Internet is the central battleground for their PR.

And online Hamas fans scored some limited successes, with ‘Anonymous’ hacking the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister’s Twitter feed and defacing some Israeli websites for a limited time.

But as Hamas shot rockets and Israel knocked them out of the air, so it happened online. Indeed, Israel’s hero, the oft-mentioned ‘Iron Dome’ anti-missile system told ‘his’ own story on both Facebook and Twitter and was celebrated in this meme, created by a fan.

Indeed, internet ‘memes’ – graphic images – became popular ways to tell the story of the conflict. Humor, and often sarcasm were the tools. When Hamas fired a long-range missile at Jerusalem, no less a figure than Willy Wonka wanted to know why, asking:

Videos were also effective, the men and women behind the Iron Dome were given a face by an impactful YouTube and one of our own staffers, Assaf, stayed in the firing line in Beersheba to record a series of testimonies about life in a bomb shelter.

So why is it important? Consider this: Every minute of the day 100,000 tweets are sent, internet users spend 22.5% of their time social networking and there are 2.27 billion people online. So the online battlefield is there; the challenge is to stand out from the crowd.

I’ll give you just two examples of how we did that in this recent campaign. When Hamas carried barbaric executions of fellow Palestinians in the streets of Gaza, then led the bodies around town tied to a motorcycle, they did their own ‘bad PR’. But since we can’t rely on the media to make this a story, we uploaded an image entitled ‘The Hamas Judicial System’, shared over 5,000 times.

And when BBC West Bank and Gaza Correspondent Jon Donnison tweeted out a photo with the text ‘Gaza Pain’, even though the grisly image of a child was from Syria, we acted quickly. An image juxtaposing the tweet and the original picture from Syria went viral, with well over 17,000 people sharing that single image, prompting the Daily Mail to cover the story.

Of course, there were many more ways that, throughout the conflict, we leveraged social media to educate people about the situation, hosting a global video conference with Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, sharing the Hamas charter, infographics and highlighting important articles. We also shared an album of photos showing people rallying for Israel around the world; fellow Israelis told me what a morale boost this was for them.

With the media bar for accurate reporting so low, social media gains more credibility. People who were with me when news broke of the terrorist bus bombing in Tel Aviv headed first to Facebook to find out the news, to hear from eyewitnesses and to check friends were ok.

The spike of interest in our Facebook and Twitter advocacy was palpable. Social media is the frontline of the battle for public opinion. This is web advocacy on a war footing and we are making a significant difference. Israel’s case in this operation against Hamas was rock-solid; when given the facts, presented by real people using the social media effectively, it can change people’s minds.

This effort increases in battle but it must continue. For too long Israel has allowed itself to be defined by others and the Internet has been a breeding ground for the delegitimization of the Jewish state. But the danger of the social media revolution is also the beauty of it: everyone is involved and that means you, too; consider this your call-up for reserve duty. Interestingly, it was an image of Israeli soldiers making a human Star of David that was one of our ‘most-shared’, a poignant representation of online backing up the real heroes on the frontline.

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