How the war is being continued by other means
In parallel with the military activity on the ground, the latest conflict in the Middle East is being continued online through propaganda campaigns that show a constantly evolving command of the medium.
|Jihad Unspun||Islamic Resistance on Lebanon|
|Grassroots.org||Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs|
|Electric Lebanon||Google blogsearch|
|Anecdotes from a Banana Republic|
|Debbie Schlussel||Hot Air|
|One Hand Clapping||Against the Grain|
Time, depressingly, to return to the online battle in the Middle East. I have been watching the way Israel and its enemies have been using the web for many years, and have seen it become increasingly important. Not surprising. It is an obvious medium for getting views across to the internet-watching world in the west.
It was always a one-sided battle, and it is getting more so. Hizbollah used to have its own site, but has one no longer, while the address www.hamas.org gets you to a US charity site. Jihad Unspun, one of the most sophisticated Muslim sites, has relaunched itself as a subscription-only portal because “with new internet fees on the horizon, we simply must find additional revenue streams”. Meanwhile, the Israel government site gets ever slicker, and the blog circuit piles up with pro-Israel comment.
Free from restraint
One of the fascinating aspects of the web is that it gives the ordinary internet user access to raw news and opinion not processed by journalists. During the 1990s I could get a clear view into the minds of extremists in Northern Ireland by looking at their sites; and until a couple of years ago I could do the same with the unrestrained Hizbollah site (hizbollah.org). It has gone, though I have a feeling it has reappeared in different, rather subtler, form.
Typing ‘hizbollah’ into Google, I found a site headed ‘Islamic Resistance on Lebanon. Special website covering Israeli aggression on Lebanon’. It consists mainly of links to articles with a consistent message. The use of quotation marks around the word Israel summarises this, although interestingly many of the stories come from Israeli sources.
Among the links to newspapers are some labelled ‘Special’. The latest begins: “The Islamic Resistance declares the destruction of a Merkava tank during a confrontation to an advance attempt towards Bint Jubeil”, while another quotes Hizbullah consultative board member Sheikh Mohammad Yazbeck talking about “heroic combatants”. So it seems that this site is a conduit for Hizbollah statements, perhaps acting as a proxy for the old site.
Meanwhile, type in ‘www.hamas.org’, and you get to grassroots.org, “a 501©(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to spread valuable social information throughout the world, and to provide free services to other nonprofit organizations to help them save money and further their own missions”. I suppose by registering addresses like hamas.org it is getting traffic that otherwise might not think to come, But I’m not quite sure of the point.
Restrained by intent
The equivalent ‘raw’ site for the Israelis is that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was developed early in the life of the web as a sophisticated explicator of the government’s views. Although it has not developed that much, it is still way ahead of equivalent sites in the region (and the world, come to that). The main shift I have noticed is that its language has become more restrained – it too has become subtler.
The home page this week consists of reports of speeches by Israeli and foreign politicians. One of the links is headed Terrorism, and within this is a section on Terror from Lebanon. The last two weeks’ entries consist of “summaries of IDF operations against Hizbullah in Lebanon”. But throughout the tone is straightforward, almost flat, and there are none of the pictures of death and devastation that we might expect from a propaganda site.
More distant voices
There is rather better balance between Israel and its enemies in what might be called the second-tier propaganda sites – those that support one or other of the sides from a distance. Here, one of the most powerful efforts works against Israel. Electronic Lebanon is a new spin-off from Electronic Intifada, a London-based site that has been providing slick pro-Palestinian news and views for several years. It too pulls in articles from agencies and also has diary pieces from people on the spot. The site is professional, with exceptional use of photographs (look at the diary piece ‘The only thing she keeps asking about is Ahmad’ for an example). Of course, the diaries are pretty much identical to blogs, but the site is right to a use a more traditional (and I suspect more durable) word.
The word of blog
What then of blogs, which were given such a boost by the Baghdad Blogger during the invasion of Iraq? Well, there are certainly blogs coming out of Beirut. As with Baghdad, they are more world-weary than opinionated. A German woman living in the city has one called Anecdotes from a Banana Republic, which tells the sad story through the details of daily life. But if you look for references to Hezbollah using Google’s specialist search engine, you discover a battery of cheerleaders for Israel. Either pro-Hizbollah people don’t write blogs or the pro-Israeli bloggers are much better at getting up the search rankings.
Debbie Schlussel is, according to her biography, “a conservative political commentator, radio talk show host, columnist and attorney”. Her home page this week is headed ‘Most Americans in Lebanon are Hezbollah supporters; US taxes shouldn’t fund their return’. A note at the top says “As read on air by Rush Limbaugh – thanks Rush!”. That’s interesting – a blog being disseminated by a high-rating radio host: a sign that the web (or at least the blog) is being taken seriously by ‘real’ media people.
Hot Air calls itself “the first full-service conservative Internet broadcast network”. One post headed ‘The non-neutral press goes into Beirut’ is an attack on a BBC piece – what is intriguing is that it includes the video report, which has been taken from the video sharing network You Tube. Definitely a child of the past year or two, and more mixing of media.
I will end by proving that if you look hard enough you can find moderation; and also that the web really does have everything. I found a long and thoughtful essay by a soldier-turned-priest, Donald Sensing, on his blog, One Hand Clapping. And I found the Pope. You would expect him to choose his words on the crisis with exquisite care. What you may not expect is for them to appear on a blog by the Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club called Against the Grain. Then again, if you look at the web a fair amount, you probably will not be surprised by anything.
First published on ft.com 28 July 2006
First published on 02 August, 2006