Mike Isaac

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Social Warfare: Israel Live-Tweets Its Military Campaign Against Hamas

Cry havoc, and let slip the tweets of war.

The Israeli Defense Force, the official military arm of the state of Israel, has launched a full-scale combat campaign against Hamas, the Islamist party that governs the Gaza Strip area of the Middle East. But instead of holding an official press conference, as is protocol for events as major as these, the IDF took a different tack.

It announced its campaign via Twitter.

The original tweet was sent out at approximately 7 am PT, announcing the “widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the #Gaza Strip, chief among them #Hamas & Islamic Jihad targets.”

You’ll note that whoever is at the helm of the account is versed enough in Twitter language to employ hashtags, one of the many ways users can follow trending topics across the 140-million-strong social network. As of approximately noon PT, #Gaza, #Hamas and #Israel were all trending keywords across Twitter’s network.

It’s a fascinating case study into the realm of social media, and the ever-evolving role of the social channels in the political arena. Recently, Web-savvy political organizations wielded Facebook and Twitter as major strategic tools in the U.S. general-election campaigns. And during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in 2010, Twitter was methodically used to facilitate and organize demonstrations of civil resistance, ultimately playing a part in the toppling of multiple despotic regimes in the Arab region.

It seems, however, that the IDF is using social in a different way entirely. It is a veritable “Shock and Awe” online assault, with Israel live-relaying updates on the combat situation. Among the tweets are updates on the successful interception of enemy fire against Israeli troops, citations of Hamas-backed violence against Israel and briefs on sites inside the Gaza Strip which Israeli forces have attacked.

It is, if you will, a modern, more social warfare — one tailor-made for the Information Age.

Perhaps the most jarring of the IDF tweets came stapled to a single photo of a top Hamas leader; The IDF broadcasted the confirmed assassination of Ahmed Jabari (seen above), complete with Jabari’s headshot and a list of his alleged offenses.

The IDF isn’t restricting its communications to Twitter. The organization is using other social channels as well, posting pictures of the attacks to its Flickr stream and status updates to its official Facebook page.

While novel and perhaps unprecedented, the IDF’s campaign raises more questions about the nature of social media, and the role it plays on the modern battlefield. The IDF’s updates are coming fast and furious, but the information isn’t necessarily being verified in real time. It is possible that the IDF could be spreading misinformation strategically.

It also raises questions about the role of the companies themselves.

Are these practices within the bounds of the Twitter and Facebook Terms of Service? Even from a close reading, it is difficult to tell. According to Twitter’s rulebook, users are not permitted to “publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others,” nor are users allowed to use Twitter “for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities.” That includes tweets both foreign and domestic, as Twitter’s “international users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.”

Facebook’s ToS cites similar bylaws, telling users not to post content designed to incite violence or hate speech.

But under what area do the IDF’s activities fall? Is Israel on sturdy ground if it restricts its Twitter activity to mere reportage of events happening on the ground? Should a tweet such as this — where the IDF advises Hamas leaders not to “show your faces above ground in the days ahead” — be considered a threat?

It’s unclear, and possibly falls under the domain of Twitter’s legal team, composed of privacy and free-speech heavy hitters Alex Macgillivray and the recently hired Nicole Wong. Wong, in particular, dealt with issues of international censorship during her time at Google’s YouTube property.

At any point, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr can indeed intervene. Twitter, for instance, still reserves the right to remove any content published on its service at any time, in order to “protect the rights, property or safety of Twitter, its users and the public,” states the company’s Terms of Service.

Another possibility: Twitter could also choose to block users in specific countries from seeing tweets from certain accounts. Twitter did as much in Germany last month, when the company blocked German users from viewing tweets from a Neo-Nazi Twitter account in order to comply with German law. However, this came only after German officials requested Twitter block the account’s visibility from German Twitter users.

Twitter has not responded to my multiple requests for comment. Neither has Google’s YouTube unit, which, as Wired’s Noah Shachtman pointed out earlier, is currently hosting a ten-second clip of the killing of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari.

But at least two companies are taking harder stances on the matter.

“Facebook will not be taking action on the current content posted,” a Facebook spokesperson told me.

Update: And two days later, a Yahoo spokesperson got back to me saying that Flickr, too, will not be taking any action on the IDF photostream in question.

The ultimate question for these Web giants: Is this a speech issue, or a safety issue? Will Twitter, Facebook and even Yahoo — Flickr’s owner — eventually step in if the situation escalates? Or will they let this play out over the course of the IDF’s campaign?

And at what point is global policy exempt from the standard terms of service agreements written by Twitter, Facebook and the like? Should a declaration of warfare via Twitter be considered a “direct and specific threat,” or a matter of foreign policy no different than a political address carried out over a broadcast network?

We’re in new territory here. Perhaps territory these social giants never thought they’d cross. As the warring factions trade tweets as quickly as they do weapon fire, we’ve nothing to do but watch and wait.

And of course, refresh our streams.

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