Some weeks ago, my colleague Lisa Goudy wrote a column about the power of Twitter.
“Twitter, if used correctly, can be a fantastic source of news and information ... I will never underestimate the power of Twitter. Neither should you,” she wrote. She’s not wrong.
During Hurricane Sandy, Twitter was the vehicle through which ordinary people and trained journalists alike were tracking the storm, sharing their experiences, and keeping people informed. Up-to-the-minute information was being disseminated to the general public.
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, was using his Twitter feed to co-ordinate relief efforts.
Twitter is an astounding tool. At its best, it has been a key instrument in the toppling of dictatorial regimes, the live publication of election results, and the organization of grand-scale ideological movements.
But this column isn’t about the singing of Twitter’s praises.
This past Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched an assault on the Gaza strip which they called Operation Pillar of Defense. It was the latest in a decades-long series of altercations that collectively form the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The IDF’s Twitter account, @IDFSpokesperson, shared an image boasting that it had “eliminated” Ahmed Jabari, the second-in-command of Hamas’s military wing, very shortly after launching the assault. A video of the air strike that killed him was also released.
The IDF then tweeted, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” to which Hamas replied by issuing a threat on their own Twitter feed, @AlqassamBrigade.
“Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves),” the tweet read.
Since the operation began, Canadians — and everybody else — have been able to follow the military strikes, executions, and other happenings of the war in morbid detail via the opposing Twitter feeds. All with a healthy dose of propaganda, of course.
To be honest, it’s all a little more than absurd, and incredibly disconcerting.
That ordinary civilians tweet about the happenings of war is not unusual. It has even become an expectation in major conflicts, thanks in no small part to the Arab Spring.
That militant organizations with clearly defined ideological agendas are using Twitter to feed propaganda and messages of hate to millions of people worldwide is another can of worms altogether.
To be fair, the publicization of war is nothing new.
There are journalists who made a career — or at least a name for themselves — out of war reporting. Walter Cronkite, Bill Boss, Ernest Hemingway, and Al Gore are among the many notable individuals to have reported from or about warzones. And there is no shortage of video footage from most of the major wars of the past century.
There exists a massive library of bestselling non-fiction books about war and conflict, as well, including notable titles like Shake Hands With the Devil, penned by retired Canadian Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire; and Band of Brothers, penned by biographer Stephen Ambrose.
Indeed, authors, journalists and filmmakers have been tapping into humanity’s morbid obsession with large-scale conflict for as long as their mediums have existed.
But there is a big difference between reports from war zones and shallow boasting and self-promotion of military efforts over Twitter. A 140 character message is not enough to give the full context behind anything, let alone the execution of another human being.
By using Twitter to actively boast about killing another human being, and to spread propaganda and outright lies about a conflict to their followers, both parties — the IDF and Hamas — have crossed a line that they simply shouldn’t have. And as a result, Twitter joins the ranks of other fantastic tools whose initial purpose has been corrupted for horrible means.
What a shame.