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AlJazeera’s Twitter Feed in Gaza, Part II

Twitter, and other Web 2.0 social media tools, are continuing to change the dynamics of crisis information sharing. Since the Mumbai attacks, where besieged civilians used Twitter to disseminate information and communicate to loved ones, such tools have only increased in use.

As I began to suggest in my last post, this development has unique implications for the way in which we receive, process and react to crises, particularly military conflicts. Twittering decentralizes the control of information, potentially challenging an accepted line, whether it comes from the government (Israel), the main stream media or influential players (like Hamas) skilled in manipulating press coverage. This necessarily alters the dynamic of how the conflict is framed and understood. How collateral “collateral damage” really is may indeed depend upon how much we know and understand of actual ground conditions, even live Twitter updates.

Hypothetically, the number of civilian deaths could decrease as the public’s appetite for violence wanes and world wide protests against the military players, both Israel and Hamas, increase in intensity. In the Berkman case study of the Burmese Saffron Revolution, the suggestion was made that, although the military successfully quashed the rebellion, it was careful not to massacre the monks completely, largely out of fear of the internet’s collective gaze (pg. 14).

Similar hypotheses may hold true for current conflict in Gaza. What images have emerged from the conflict have sharply increased world protest, and have circulated rapidly through the internet. Moreover, since virtually all of the international press is currently locked out of Gaza, many have turned to AlJazeera’s innovative Twitter feed for regular updates, linking and multiplying those stories (and others) into a massive topic chain of #gaza tweets.

AlJazeera Beta Labs has also mashed its twitter updates together with the remarkable Ushahidi mapping software to give geographical coherence to the large numbers of disparate war reports (for more on the technical details, read this). It can collate information categorically and overlay it on a map of the conflict. This allows information to aggregate as soon as it comes in and can be reasonably fact checked.

Of course, critics will no doubt take issue with precisely this: the problem of fact checking tweets. During the Mumbai attacks, several false rumors also made the rounds through Twitter, sometimes clouding out any substantial or useful news altogether. Many, following the emergence of twitter as a platform for reporting/debating the Gaza conflict note how entrenched both sides have become in sparring and propagandizing over the conflict.

Instead of contributing new or useful information, such debates may simply multiply talking points already absorded second hand from traditional sources of power (IDF press releases, Hamas statements, etc), creating massive echo chambers of redundant and rigid perspectives on the war’s meaning.

Perhaps more pernicious still is the fear, which some have already expressed, that Twitter — a megaphone of democratic impulses — is likely to frame the Gaza debate in terms sympathetic to whomever tweets the loudest. In this “strength in numbers” scenario, the largest crowd of ideologically inclinded twitterers could distort the information world (and its attendant web of links) to suit their narrow political interests and perspective.

Given AlJazeera’s already controversial status with the American public, many will no doubt reject some of its twitter coverage out of hand as biased or unfair. I think this reaction is excessive. Indeed, I welcome, with due caution, any way to gain information about Gaza that hasn’t been “reshaped” by a state news agency or diplomatic engineering. Thanks to Twitter, the untold story of the non-military population, of “collateral damage” may soon be finding a stronger voice.

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