Information may be “the oxygen of the modern age,” as Ronald Reagan famously said, but information technology is a mixed bag. Among other things, it has fueled the rise of global jihadism as we know it today.
It enabled a nest of tunnel-based terrorists in Afghanistan to coordinate the most deadly non-state terrorist attack in history 15 years ago. More recently, it has populated a new Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq with volunteers from around the world.
But there is a silver lining to the widespread use and abuse of social media in the Middle East: It can tell us a great deal about the individuals sitting behind the electronic screens.
Take Hashtag Palestine, the title of an insightful report by Hamleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement. The Ramallah based-nongovernmental organization is dedicated to training individuals and community-based groups to engage in grassroots social media activism. Its recent report on Palestinian social media activity in 2015, a year that launched what is now called the Knife Intifada, is revealing.
Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians have computer access and half use a smartphone.
Palestinians, like others in the world, have become active internet users. Nearly two-thirds report having a computer and half use a smartphone. Young people form the majority of users. With this level of penetration, the Internet is already playing a significant social role in their lives.
What has been trending in Palestine? The report analyses 18 campaigns that tell us something about the Palestinian mood.
The most popular recorded campaign was “#it_will_not_be_divided,” centered on thwarting imagined secret Israeli plans to divide or even destroy al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a popular theme of Islamist leaders who incite violence. Ironically, Israel and Jordan, which are custodians of Temple Mount, recently reached a new understanding on how to better handle the management of the holy site.
Other hashtags advocate violence more explicitly, such as #the_intifada_continues, #Palestine_resists and #the_intifada_of_knives. The #returning_the_martyrs_bodies campaign was launched by Mohammad Alian, the father of Baha’a Alian, who orchestrated an attack on an Israeli bus in Jerusalem last October that killed three.
The #we_are_not_afraid campaign was launched after 18-year-old Muhannad al-Halabi stabbed to death two Israeli Jews and critically wounded a woman and a baby next to the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. As a wave of Palestinian stabbings followed that event, the campaign called on Palestinians to re-occupy the gate while “commemorating the martyrs of the popular uprising.”
The dominant Palestinian social media voices are still centered on ‘resistance’ and ‘martyrs.’
A few campaigns mentioned in the report showed encouraging signs of a different, more introspective discourse. For example, “Enough with Women’s Killings” was launched with the aim of decreasing the worrying phenomenon of honor killing in Palestinian society. “The Check Initiative” is a Facebook page offering a critical look at news and social media, which too often exaggerate and manipulate.
Yet, the report concludes that the dominant voices were still centered on “resistance,” which is to say, celebration of the “martyrs” of the Knife Intifada. The lack of campaigns centered on individual rights, freedom, building a better tomorrow and other non-violent aspirations is telling. That spirit, unfortunately, is as absent from the Palestinian Internet as it is from the reality on the ground.
Information might indeed be the oxygen of the modern age, but the surrounding air in Palestine is deeply polluted. A young society with a median age of 19, Palestinians are being socialized to sanctify struggle over life and liberty by the same technology that has freed societies elsewhere from reactionary shackles. Until that changes, their future will be grim.
Nir Boms is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies. Asaf Romirowsky is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.