At the onset of the 2008/9 Gaza ‘war’, I was sat watching the BBC News Channel’s coverage. I’d never questioned the dominant view in the UK that Israel was rarely, if ever, in the wrong. I’d studied the Holocaust at university, I’d sat and listened to survivors of the concentration camps, I’d come to understand what it all meant and I associated Israel and Israelis with Jewish people, homogenising all and thinking that here were people who’d have a deep understanding and appreciation of human rights, international law and what can happen when people act without limits. The Israelis, by association, were undoubtedly the good guys.
Even though I’d disagreed at times with BBC coverage on numerous things, this had still been within the realms of disagreement over superficial matters. However, the writing was always on the wall for this approach. Like everyone, I’m linked to events that influence my world view. My dad came to the UK from Poland after WWII, in which his family was killed, and my mom came here after the fall of the British Empire in India so, with an insight into the long-term effects of extremism, difference and occupation, I think I’m less inclined to buy into anti-semitism or the Islamophobia that exists in my part of the UK, though I’m still not immune.
A friend of mine, who’d once lived on a Kibbutz, had told me: ‘Israel never starts anything, but it knows how to finish things.’ I had no reason to doubt this. Here, though, watching the footage of what was happening in Gaza, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – unarmed people cowering and running around in a panic, in an area where barely anything was visible, consumed as it was with thick, dark grey dust, an aftermath of intense bombing – while the BBC, as it can be at times when a story first hits, was caught off guard with its version of events not tallying with what I could see for myself.
In the days that followed, the BBC got its act together and tried to both cover events and justify how it was doing it, with the common refrain of ‘both sides’ being used to somehow make what was turning out to be a massacre by the Israelis on the Palestinians a reason for excusing the Israelis’ behaviour. It wasn’t and the BBC’s attempts to make it seem so made them look worse as they kept repeating ‘both sides’ as if the viewers needed spoon-feeding a line that only the high and mighty BBC could possibly know. The rest of us were just ignorant of the facts.
Back then, social media was different. Even though there’s more effective networks now, those 5 years ago were more open because we were, this being something relatively new to us. I was forging connections with people I’d have no access to otherwise and we were talking about this abomination and the way the mainstream media was covering it without an intermediary like the BBC putting its spin on things.
For me, this was the turning point on the Israel/Palestine question that many people are reaching 5 years later. Suddenly, what we’ve been told in the UK by our institutions about Israel and Palestine is shown to have been a decades-long mass-deception and many people are trying to join the dots and make sense of how and why this could have happened.
Since 2008/9, quite a lot’s changed. Social media’s matured somewhat and, to be fair to the BBC, its output has improved this time, even though the many protestors who’ve marched to numerous BBC headquarters are right in that its coverage is still often severely wanting. But, what I’ve learned this time over Gaza has made more sense of what’s going on and, despite the horrors of the story itself, there is room for optimism at least for our institutions and for those of us who use social media to discover and discuss such things.
This time, I’ve learned that the picture at the BBC isn’t all cut and dried. For example, the BBC comes under intense pressure from an Israel lobby in the UK that’s also powerful in the UK Parliament. Furthermore, it’s been reported that there’s internal politics at the Corporation, with infighting over how much of the Palestinian side should be represented. Better late than never, I suppose, even though it’s questionable in humanitarian terms whether ‘sides’ are relevant.
It seems unfair to concentrate on the BBC, though, and it’s not only the power and pressure the Israel lobby has and tries to exert that I’ve learned about. What else I didn’t know before was the sheer amount of propaganda the Israelis use – of hasbara, of their use of propaganda even against and within the United Nations, as if they’re trying to dupe the world, an amount of deception that makes it difficult to believe anything the Israelis say, once the cat’s out of the bag. I also didn’t know that they’d got a PR specialist to work on how to persuade and justify their actions in minute detail to a Western audience, as if they hadn’t misled us enough.
With the constant stream of graphic images and emotionally-charged testimony coming over the social media networks often contradicting official sources and mainstream media outlets, I think we’ve reached a stage where the news media, along with other institutions, have to adapt. There are signs that that may already be happening: the bulk of the news media seems to have ditched some of the pro-Israel bias and the official line of the main UK political parties has shifted recently, to start reflecting the realities of long-term Palestinian subjugation, rather than echoing the spin of Israeli propaganda, even though that clearly retains an influence.
For all the criticism of the mainstream news media, though, it works both ways. All of us using social media should at least wish to become better at what we do: what we debate and how we debate it. Just as the Israelis disseminate propaganda, others are often guilty, however unwittingly, of repeating misinformation, something which does nothing for social media or the people who want to use it to get to the heart of the matter.
Using Twitter primarily as the launchpad for other debates on Gaza, it’s become obvious to me that, whatever the information – whether from supporters of the Israelis or Palestinians – it’s important to wait and verify information, especially when its crucial. Ways to do this include searching and scanning Twitter (especially reliable sources) first. Usually, in time, someone crops up with something to add which either confirms or debunks the propaganda claims originally made, after which substantiating evidence is often quick to follow.
A classic example is Israel’s use of repetition to align Hamas with the use of ‘human shields’ though, to date, there’s been no concrete and reliable evidence of this taking place (Israeli’s definition of a ‘human shield’ is so all-encompassing that it’s beyond credulity). The conclusion I reached is that it’s a propaganda tactic designed to deflect criticism of Israeli atrocities and apportion blame to Hamas. Another example is the alleged use of UN facilities to store Hamas weapons. Again, there’s no evidence of this, even though it’s often repeated in the news media. The Israeli’s propaganda tactic, though, is the same. Weapons have been stored in facilities that were used by the UN, but this was after the UN had abandoned the buildings, according to the UN’s John Ging, a fact that disproves the allegation.
Other ways to check on information are to just use your common sense. You wouldn’t buy Coke from a medicine man on a wagon, even though people once did. Likewise, you shouldn’t buy any information from anyone just because they say it’s so. Our parents and grandparents grew up in a time when they trusted official accounts more than we do now. That’s healthy for us, but it still means that we’ve got to check our facts and be open to changing our minds, while, with this story, being watchful of things like anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Be prepared to read through discussions, cross-referencing claims, while remaining critical. There are methods for checking out information on the internet – some old journalistic methods and some of the new ones of citizen journalism – and there’s some great resources around that should help, a few of which I’ll link to at the end of this post.
The Gaza story’s a complex one only, really, because it’s been made so. That was obvious to me in 2008/9 and it’s even more so now, as I’ve learned more. Had our institutions given us a more reliable account of what the situation’s been, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in, we’d have better debates and we’d have a chance of adopting official policies that stand a chance of working. But here we are and, as well as being wary of the emotions it stirs up and the prejudices it may reveal to ourselves, a lot of good might actually come out of the situation around Gaza – in our institutions and ourselves – so long as we’re open to that.
Remembering my friend’s comments about Israel never starting anything, I now know it’s clearly propaganda, the kind of propaganda every country lives by to a certain extent, especially when they’re involved in conflict. Even Israel’s assertions that this latest massacre was started by Hamas kidnapping three Israeli teenagers and killing them has turned out to be false, as has been admitted by Israelis themselves. And, like most things in this story, it took time for that real story to emerge. But it did, and that’s why social media and even the mainstream media can be so useful – especially so, if we learn to improve our skills with them and use them better.
All this may also be a turning point as many more people address the ignorance that may have served them well in the past and instead start to join the dots to, while not approve of extremism, understand more why it takes place, with potential benefits for public debate and policy. What we shouldn’t allow, though, is for a lobbying group, such as that of the Israelis, to attain such power again so that its special interests override what should be a government’s primary duty to informing its own citizens properly.
As for Jewish people, they’ve had a terrible history for centuries. This may go some way to explaining the extremism that exists amongst the Israeli population and in its current Government. But that’s no excuse for committing atrocities and working to subvert international law, leaving the way open to do it all again at will. If anything, their history means that Israel should accept the judgement of international law in a way that could – just maybe – ensure extremism in Israel and elsewhere loses much of its constituency.
‘How to detect bias in news media’
‘War, propaganda and the media’
‘How to: verify content from social media’
‘Verification Handbook’ – Chapter 10 of the free PDF has a good list of verification resources.
‘Your guide to Citizen Journalism’
‘Is there credibility in Citizen Journalism?’