The rising impact of social media

Updated: 2012-11-29 20:30

By Bi Yantao (China Daily)

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The recent Israel-Palestine conflict has highlighted the importance of new media in a war. On Nov 14, Israeli defense forces launched "Operation Pillar of Defense" both on the traditional and virtual battlefields, with the Palestinians fighting back on both fronts. It is thus more than evident that social media have become the second front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Warfare in the information age has changed dramatically. Traditionally, media campaigns have served only as a supplementary tool in a war. But today, the media play a crucial role in influencing world opinion and winning support.

To win wars in the information age, the United States has explored and exploited all possible options. In the Iraq War, the US army used an "embedded" information control strategy, allowing more than 600 journalists from around the world to cover news along with the combat troops. In fact, "embedded coverage" is a well-designed media experiment for using the media to give the world the US military version of a war.

With the advances made in information and communication technology, and given the popularity of new media, political and military campaigns have widely used social media. Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" showed how important a role social media can play in promoting political change. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, social media have been weaponized, which should be seen as the result of the evolution of warfare technology.

Because of its special national conditions, Israel has attached great importance to projecting its image since its foundation, though initially it mainly focused on the state's religious significance for Jews.

In 2005, with the help of American marketing executives, Israel launched "Brand Israel", a campaign to "rebrand" the country's image as "relevant and modern" instead of militaristic and religious. Now, Israelis and Palestinians both are trying to legitimize their policies and operations.

In October 2000, the Palestinians and Israelis resorted to cyber warfare for the first time. One year later, both sides extended the cyber war to the psychological and media battlefields. Israel said it was "disadvantaged" in this regard because of the lack of collaboration between the media and the government and because it was not well-prepared for a new type of war. Soon Israel established the National Information Directorate to coordinate between the media and different wings of the government, turning it into a platform for cooperation among all the agencies that deal with communication relations and public diplomacy. This automatically accorded social media a special status.

In December 2008, Israel's defense forces opened a military channel on YouTube. A year later, social media began playing an important and distinct role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in 2010, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spent $15 million for research into and application of social media.

Apart from seeking advice from US specialized agencies, the Israeli Foreign Ministry recruited civil Web specialists to participate in a secret social media war. At the same time, it encouraged patriotic personalities to help the government reshape the image of the country. These non-military, non-governmental Web specialists used the garb of ordinary Internet users to help project Israel's new image. Besides, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has also distributed a large number of pro-Israel photographs and videos among its citizens on the understanding that they would post them online.

The US is Israel's preferred target market to exert influence, followed by Russia and Europe. But Israelis and Palestinians have now opened a "battlefield" on China's twitter-like website of weibo, too. Israel is making greater efforts, though, to influence the movers and shakers across the world.

Through various new media platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Flickr, Israelis and Palestinians are trying to influence public narrative by providing "facts" to their respective liking. However, these media operations are part of a propaganda war, which mixes unverified network information with lies, slander, deceit and intimidation to manipulate people's perceptions.

Social media are inexpensive and easily accessible, and can be used by anyone to publish anything. Compared with the traditional media, social media are more decentralized, less hierarchical, and distinguished by multiple points of production and utility. In the foreseeable future, all wars will be accompanied by media wars to cover each period and corner.

Like traditional warfare, social media war also has strategic, campaign and tactical goals. So it should be evaluated according to different timings and events. But a social media war is a protracted war that demands constant resources and weapons. Otherwise, it will not produce the desired result.

In the public opinion war, Israelis have gained an upper hand because of their preparedness and proper strategies and tactics. In the war to gain the international community's support, a government must play an absolutely dominant role — it cannot expect to win a media war by being overly dependent on spontaneous civic actions.

The media war will continue as long as there are conflicts of interests between countries. China, too, faces opportunities and challenges in the age of information technology, and has to strengthen its communication capabilities and upgrade its concepts and models to communicate with the rest of the world.

In 2006, former US president George W. Bush coined the term, "kinetic action", which is a euphemism for "use of force". After that, "non-kinetic operation" began to appear frequently in US military files. To me, "non-kinetic power" means the strength to persuade, allure and coerce targeted countries (or organizations) to cooperate with the US. Therefore, China should make "non-kinetic action" an important part of its foreign operations.

China's peaceful rise depends on whether it can effectively integrate its official and unofficial, and military and non-military resources. In other words, promoting institutional innovation and establishing mechanisms to absorb the wisdom of the people is very important for China's peaceful rise.

The author is director of the Center for Communication Studies, Hainan University.