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The escalating conflict in Gaza continues to highlight some of the ways that social media is changing our perceptions and understanding of war. Social media platforms such as X (formerly known as Twitter) and Telegram continue to lead the way in terms of first-hand reporting, eyewitness accounts, and graphic visual documentation of the ravages of war. And that means these social media platforms are getting wrapped up in a much larger debate about disinformation, national security, and wartime propaganda. Here’s what you need to know.
Disinformation and the fog of war
The biggest concern, of course, is whether social media might actually be contributing to the fog of war. Anytime a hospital is bombed, raided, or reduced to rubble, it’s no longer clear exactly what happened, or why. Even if we see images of dead bodies or damaged buildings, there are always conflicting interpretations. The Israeli side argues that these hospitals were military locations for Hamas, while the supporters of a ceasefire in Gaza claim that these hospitals are being purposefully targeted in order to punish innocent civilians.
It’s getting to the point where it’s difficult to know which side to trust, or which platform offers the most accurate real-time updates. On X, for example, it’s often hard to make sense of the many disturbing images flooding social media feeds. Some images are from previous conflicts, some are deepfakes, and some have been highly edited. So, while it might sound counter-intuitive, social media might actually be contributing to the fog of war.
National security issues
Social media is now being used to geolocate troop movements across Gaza. User photos uploaded to social media, for example, can be used to pinpoint exact locations of tanks, armored divisions, and infantry foot soldiers. Photos and videos of buildings can be carefully scrutinized to figure out the strategic approach being used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). A single image, for example, can tell you what types of munitions are being used, and from what direction the IDF seems to be advancing.
This relentless scrutiny of social media has possible national security implications. Simply stated, if your troops are using social media, then they are potentially exposing their locations. This is supposedly what was happening in Ukraine, when Russian soldiers on the front were opening up their mobile phones to call back home and tell their parents how the war was going. As soon as they did that, the Ukrainians could geo-locate them and send over a few drones to keep them company.
That’s one big reason why the Pentagon enacted a policy of banning the use of TikTok on mobile devices. A large part of strategic wartime advantage derives from your opponent not knowing where you are, or what you are doing. You certainly don’t want to give them any advance warning with a new TikTok video.
Social media as a form of propaganda
Social media has also become a very powerful tool for changing public perceptions of how the war is going, and why you should be supporting or opposing it. That’s why Israel is uploading photos of weapons caches, hidden underground tunnels, and potential military hideouts as soon as they find them. It’s why they are now embedding Western reporters with their armed forces. That’s just about the only way they can deal with the fierce denunciations they are receiving from around the world. It’s getting to the point where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has flat out told Israel, “The killing of babies has to stop.”
So you can think of social media as a new form of online propaganda these days. If you are going to wage a war, no matter how just, you must be able to influence crowds and convince them you are on the side of good and not evil. In the past, this was usually the job of silver-tongued spokespeople, who could deliver the latest news from the war front with a charming smile. Now, it’s the job of young people on social media, furiously using hashtags and real-time updates to counter charges of “genocide” or “war crimes.”
While social media should be making it easier to follow wars and conflicts online, and to understand the various nuances involved, that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Israel-Gaza conflict. If anything, social media has become a weaponized tool for propaganda, or a useful way to sow disinformation. If that continues to be the case, then the future of warfare might have changed forever.