x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A conflict played out in cyberspace

In a week in which the tragedy of Gaza has dominated the news, the web has served as a second front line, with some bloggers referring to the development as War 2.0.

Second Lifers protest Israel's airstrikes against Gaza militants.
Second Lifers protest Israel's airstrikes against Gaza militants.

ABU DHABI // Hundreds of people gathered in protest this week around a memorial displaying photographs of the devastation inflicted on Gaza. A day later, the Israeli consulate in New York held a press conference defending the military operation in the face of vociferous questioning. In a week in which the tragedy of Gaza has dominated the news, these events, in themselves, were not unusual. What makes them out of the ordinary is that they took place within the virtual confines of the internet. Since the conflict began, the web has served as a second front line, with some bloggers referring to the development as War 2.0. Protests against the attacks have continued all week on Second Life, the virtual world website. The biggest gathering of avatars - the online identities adopted by visitors - took place at the newly established Palestine Holocaust Memorial Museum. Avatars gathered from Egypt, Morocco and the United States, among other countries, and were addressed by one of the protest organisers whose online moniker is Breathe Swindlehurst. He told them: "This is a statement for all the children who died in Palestine. "There is no place here for arguments on which country is helping, or which country is harming. Let's just agree that we want to send out a unified message to the whole world through Second Life that we are against what is happening here, and let's show them the pictures of everything happening so the world knows the disaster from our side." Following the Second Life protests, press chiefs at New York's Israeli consulate entered the online fray by fielding questions from the public over the course of an hour on the networking site Twitter. It labelled the event a "citizen press conference". The tone of the questioning was fierce, and the pitch of the response was equally vitriolic. The consulate posted online references to photographs or blogs that they said justified their stance. - "How many Palestinian lives are worth one Israeli life?" one member of the "citizen press" asked. "There is no equation," the consulate replied. "Every wounded or killed civilian is mourned. Israel is aiming only at Hamas terrorists." Rita King, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs think tank in New York, attended the Second Life protest through her avatar and posted photographs on Flickr, a photo-sharing website. She said: "The internet and social networks within it are diminishing the chasm between the state and the will of the people, which is extremely positive but also disruptive. "We are witnessing an evolution of human consciousness and an increased awareness and ability to assess the systems governing much of our lives and, in turn, to enhance those systems or create more effective ones." She said voices on the internet could be heard as loudly as those in any other medium, with boundaries and borders nonexistent. Recently, Ms King visited a Second Life synagogue with a Muslim woman interested in seeing what lay inside. "Avatars in Second Life are real people somewhere in the physical world," she said. "The platform offers a valuable opportunity for people to explore, in the absence of physical threats and violence, concepts related to identity and community. "Participation in Second Life can augment physical reality in a number of ways, such as by allowing users to share mixed media content with one another and to conduct sensitive discussions about controversial subjects." A conference, entitled Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds, will be held by Ms King on Second Life later this month. Esra'a al Shafei is the director of mideastyouth.com, a Bahraini website which has featured podcasts, blogs and videos from across the Arab world, and Israel, since the attacks. She said the internet allows users to see that not all Israelis support the military actions. "It is refreshing to see how Israelis feel about it, because for a long time, without the internet, it wasn't possible. "However, a lot of us are disturbed because there is almost a cheerleading attitude in the blogosphere. It is not just average Israelis taking part, but the Israeli consulate too, while most Gazans don't have electricity or the means to represent their side of the story." Miss al Shafei said the online reaction to the conflict was of "huge significance". "It is the first time maybe in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that we have seen the web being used. People are relying on it more so than CNN. "When I saw the news, I was outraged there were not more webcasts and podcasts representing Arabs, so I called my friends, who produced some." Material produced by her friends in Gaza was then used by CNN and two British newspapers. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) even set up its own YouTube channel this week, broadcasting footage of raids on Gaza. Some videos have since been removed by moderators. Maj Avital Leibovich, the head of the IDF's foreign press branch, was this week quoted as saying: "The blogosphere and new media are another war zone. We have to be relevant there." When one video was removed, the IDF wrote on its YouTube profile: "We are saddened that YouTube has taken down some of our exclusive footage showing the IDF's operational success in Operation Cast Lead against Hamas extremists in the Gaza Strip. "As the state of Israel again faces those who would see it destroyed, it is imperative that we in the IDF show the world the inhumanity directed against us and our efforts to stop it." Dozens of groups, some of which total more than 30,000 members, have been established on the Facebook networking website in support of Gazans. The groups originated from countries such as Norway, Tunisia and France. Facebook has also proved to be a valuable resource for groups organising marches in support of Gazans in cities as far apart as Nashville, in the United States, Auckland in New Zealand, Tromso in Norway and Cairo. "There are dozens of groups coming up on Facebook," said Miss al Shafei. "People are outraged about what is happening. "People are taking to the streets and burning flags, but we need to say we disagree with the war while putting a lid on extremism." rhughes@thenational.ae