Expert explains how an endless mass of incitement on social media has reached such a lethal potency in Israel.
The role played by rampant incitement by Palestinian Arab officials and religious leaders has been highlighted repeatedly by Israeli officials, who have called on the international community to place pressure on the Palestinian Authority and others to put an end to it.
However, as one expert has pointed out, while world leaders still appear to be largely ignoring that aspect of “top-down” incitement, the role played by social media means that even were they to act, a significant volume of the incitement would still continue unabated.
Dr. Sheldon Himelfarb, president of The PeaceTech Lab in Washington D.C., is one of the foremost experts in the United States on the role social media plays in both peace building and terrorism.
Speaking to Arutz Sheva, he noted that while it is difficult to gauge preciselyhow much of an impact social media has played in inciting violence as opposed to other platforms, previous studies clearly attest to the power of social media as a “medium to mobilize people for unified action on the streets.” He cited in particular two studies his group carried out during popular protest movements in Egypt and Syria – the latter of which has long since evolved into a brutal civil war.
In those cases, countries where major, nationwide protest movements were previously all but impossible saw grassroots activists able to quickly and relatively easily mobilize hundreds of thousands of people within days.
“Social media is certainly a significant factor, but again its relative importance is hard to measure until we’ve done more research,” he said.
But what makes social media so potent?
Apart from the obvious fact that it empowers people – both good and bad – to spread their messages and reach like-minded audiences far beyond what they would be able to otherwise reach, two key elements amplify and sharpenits effect further.
The first is the “megaphone effect” – namely the way in which messages on social media are amplified by similar messaging on other platforms.
“Social media does not occur in a vacuum,” Dr. Himelfarb explained. “Its potency is greatly heightened by the megaphone effect it gets from other news sources like TV and radio, that amplify what’s being said online and reach many millions more.”
In that sense, official Hamas and Palestinian Authority outlets such as their respective TV and radio stations can help push the endless stream of social media incitement to the point of critical mass.
Violent messages on Palestinian TV and social media play off one another:
Another factor is how social media users tend to coalesce around and engage with content they agree with. Such behavioral patterns not only amplify the message, they also make it far likelier that those receiving it will act on it
“Our research indicates that when you move beyond the mobilization phase of a social movement, social media can be enormously polarizing, with people clustering around the people, organizations and ideas that they themselves agree with.
“This of course means that the videos we’ve seen online inciting followers to stab individuals on the streets are particularly dangerous as they echo among like-minded (individuals).”
While tracking down and prosecuting those responsible for spreading online incitement and closing pages peddling such messages – as Israeli police have increasingly been doing – can be effective to some extent, he says the only way to truly neutralize messages of violence and hate is by using the very same media the fight back and create a counter-narrative.
“Investment in peacetech has got to increase – and by this I mean the use of tech, media and data to prevent violence.
“Countering the social media messaging can be impactful but has to come from both Israelis and Palestinians. So I’m hoping we’ll hear more from voices like the YaLa group of young Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who have found common ground before on opposing violence, and who use social media very effectively to grow and connect with networks on both sides.
“I’ve seen promising work by the Israeli ‘Games for Peace’ organization, and the Israeli-Palestinian-American Bandura Games exploiting the mass appeal of games to counter extremism and build bridges.
“These kinds of efforts need to scale in order to have real impact; at the same time there needs to be vigilance in removing the truly objectionable content calling for violence against innocent civilians.”