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Israel and Gaza: Over-Democratizing the Debate

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An Oxford professor once commented to me, "there are two Arab-Israeli conflicts, one between the Israelis and the Arabs, and the other between the scholars." Since then, I have heard this same point made on a number of occasions. As I watch the current conflict unfold between Israel and Hamas, the discourse seems to be generated not by scholars, but by ordinary people including students, bloggers, online social networkers, and I-reporters. As a part of a demographic that gets most of its news and information through digital media, this is how it occurs to me. What my professor said to me was accurate four years ago, but now it seems elitist. The advent of digital media has democratized the debate and opened the third and largest front of the Arab-Israeli conflict: concerned citizens around the world armed with mobile phones and computers. Gone are the days where the public debate can only take place between elite intellectuals like Dershowitz, Netanyahu, Mearsheimer, Schlaim, and Chomsky. These individuals will continue to write bestselling books, provide content for university syllabi, and write editorials for major newspapers but the playing field is leveled so that anyone with information, images, and ideas can emerge onto the scene.

The accessibility of the debate stage means there are more opinions, stances, and causes out there now than we have previously seen. Everyone from the kid with a mobile phone taking a picture, to the university student blogger can make his or her assertion. However, this new and all-inclusive front of the Arab-Israeli conflict means that the discourse is also being overrun with credibility issues and superficiality. The substance of the debate has degenerated into a competition of who can produce more, at a faster pace, with more flash and imagery than the other side. An afternoon on YouTube searching words like "Israel" and "Hamas" will lead any Internet user into the battle of videos that is taking place between both the pro-Israeli and the pro-Hamas sides. This is not a substantive debate, but a vanity contest won by whichever user can post the most graphic and dramatic video accompanied by the most chilling music. Dramatic images of blood and dying children propagate more hits, shares, and comments to the posted video. That is not news.

The same thing can be said for the online social networks. Groups with the most members are not necessarily those with the most balanced missions, or the most rigorously intellectual debates. Instead, they are the ones with the most provocative titles, the most emotion evoking images, and the most incendiary language. These groups often overshadow the more boring, intellectually rigorous and balanced groups and blogs, which fall victim to the reality of what gets a hit on the Internet. But online social networks are being used in this conflict to do more than create groups and share opinions. Along with Twitter, they are facilitating the dissemination of news alerts. For instance, there is a site which allows Facebook users to donate their status to individuals who change their status to real-time updates about how many Qassam rockets are hitting Israel. Ironically, the donation of status updates was first used in the 2008 presidential campaign to help get out the vote.

It is not just the traditional online social networks that are being leveraged in the debate. Advanced social networks like Second Life, which is a platform where the online social network environment is brought to life in a virtual world, has become a key platform for nefarious participation in the debate. IslamOnline, a group based in Qatar and affiliated with Al-Jazeera has used Second Life to create a "Palestinian Holocaust Museum." Israel's daily Yediot Aharonot reported that in just 24 hours, over 6,000 people visited the new online museum. According to its creators, the Palestinian Holocaust Museum is modeled after the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum and will "feature the photos, names and stories of Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces in the context of a new Holocaust."

In another example of digital instigation from Iran, the conservative Combatant Clergy Society built a password protected web platform where young Iranians can volunteer to become "martyrs" in Gaza. This call for volunteers online is a supplement to elements of the regime distributing registration forms throughout the country. The regime claims to have 70,000 young Iranians ready to martyr themselves, but in what is likely a robust propaganda exercise, President Ahmadenijad is allegedly not permitting them to leave Iran for this cause.

Another tactic being used in the debate is "Google Bombing", or the organized attempt to skew Google search returns by inundating the blogosphere to links of a particular site or message. Hamid Tehrani, a Europe based Iranian blogger, recently uncovered a series of organized Iranian "Google bomb" campaigns designed to support Hamas. One such Google Bomb was an appeal to bloggers around the world: "You, oppressed people of Gaza know that we Muslims of Iran and all over the world haven't forgotten you and will not cease until complete breaking of the surrounding of your city. In the path along freedom of Gaza and our common value which is the freedom of Palestine, we will not cease and will go on."

Tehrani also discovered an association of Islamist bloggers called Paygahe Blogeraye Arzeshi, which has collected 500 links to already published posts on the Israel/Gaza issue. Their strategy is to skew Google returns, information, and news toward links that favor their perspective. This is almost impossible to influence in America, but in places like Iran or other parts of the Middle East, it is not only possible, but also happening.

The aforementioned digital media interactions reveal just some of a long list of activities that have elevated concerned citizens around the world to the status of reporters and information feeders. We saw a glimpse of this in the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, but digital media was not global in the same way that it is today, or will be tomorrow.

With so many forums to post, feed, and publish information, the overcrowded environment is both hungry for information and desperate to get noticed. These thousands of digital media outlets means there is no shortage of customers for bogus content as they gobble-up false reporting, images and quotes taken out of context, and straight up fabrications to get that coveted search return. This uncontrolled media environment means that any small group of extremists can use these platforms to draw wide attention to their agenda. The unfortunate reality is that it is often the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

The Arab-Israeli conflict between concerned citizens of the world will fundamentally change the nature of this age-old debate. The diffusion of the discussion throughout online social networks, blogs, Google platforms, and other digital media outlets raises the question of who is responsible for overseeing the credibility and the civility of the debate? The answer is you. We are witnessing the first world wide, user-generated debate of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will not be the last.

Read previous columns from Jared Cohen's Dorm Room Diplomacy series.