OPINIONS

Wed 06 Dec 2023 3:14 pm - Jerusalem Time

Gaza and the Future of Information Warfare

By P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking


The Israel-Hamas war began in the early hours of Saturday, October 7, when Hamas militants and their affiliates stole over the Gazan-Israeli border by tunnel, truck, and hang glider, killed 1,200 people, and abducted over 200 more. Within minutes, graphic imagery and bombastic propaganda began to flood social media platforms. Each shocking video or post from the ground drew new pairs of eyes, sparked horrified reactions around the world, and created demand for more. 

A second front in the war had been opened online, transforming physical battles covering a few square miles into a globe-spanning information conflict.In the days that followed, Israel launched its own bloody retaliation against Hamas; its bombardment of cities in the Gaza Strip killed more than 10,000 Palestinians in the first month. With a ground invasion in late October, Israeli forces began to take control of Gazan territory. The virtual battle lines, meanwhile, only became more firmly entrenched. Digital partisans clashed across Facebook, Instagram, X, TikTok, YouTube, Telegram, and other social media platforms, each side battling to be the only one heard and believed, unshakably committed to the righteousness of its own cause.

The physical and digital battlefields are now merged. In modern war, smartphones and cameras transmit accounts of nearly every military action across the global information space. The debates they spur, in turn, affect the real world. They shape public opinion, provide vast amounts of intelligence to actors around the world, and even influence diplomatic and military operational decisions at both the strategic and tactical levels. In our 2018 book, we dubbed this phenomenon “LikeWar,” defined as a political and military competition for command of attention. If cyberwar is the hacking of online networks, LikeWar is the hacking of the people on them, using their likes and shares to make a preferred narrative go viral.


Many of the world’s militaries have acknowledged the growing importance of the information space, although their strategies for navigating it bear different names. Iran’s leaders are investing in “soft war” capabilities. Chinese defense forces place “cognitive” warfare at the center of their planning. The U.S. military has begun to integrate what it awkwardly refers to as “operations in the information environment.” In conflicts where weaponized information has already played a role, from Ukraine to Sudan, familiar patterns emerge. The first is a narrative competition to provoke outrage through a barrage of misinformation and deliberate disinformation. 

The second is a series of attempts to trivialize or co-opt an adversary’s framing of events. The third is a concerted effort by the materially stronger side, which is often at a disadvantage in the online space, to leverage its conventional sources of power (such as air superiority or influence within legal institutions) to take an adversary offline altogether. 

Although the link between conflict and social media is not new, the digital fight has reached new heights in both scale and intensity during the Israel-Hamas war. Not even in Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was so much real-time data available about every move on the ground. Never has so much falsehood flooded the Internet so quickly, either. The result is a swirling information conflict that turns every act of violence, from a terrorist attack to an airstrike to a firefight on the street, into its own micro-battlefield where the online response from Internet users across the globe both fuels old grievances and drives new acts of violence.


ANGER GOES VIRAL

A torrent of false or misleading information has flooded social media platforms during the Israel-Hamas war. Images of atrocities and mass death, often decoupled from their original context, are shared so widely that their sources are impossible to trace. This virality is not purely a result of social media algorithm design. In a seminal 2013 study, detailed in the journal article “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy,” researchers from Beihang University tracked 70 million messages on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and found that posts eliciting anger reached a considerably greater audience than posts eliciting joy or sadness. Emotion alone was not enough to spur web users to action. But if a report of criminality or injustice left them feeling outraged, they would be compelled to share. In times of war, anyone with an Internet connection can harness this power to provoke.

Fury permeates the narrative battle today to a far greater degree than it did in conflicts between Israel and Hamas in 2012, 2014, or 2021. Part of the explanation comes down to the sheer scale of the violence: within days of October 7, combined Israeli and Palestinian deaths had surpassed that of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that lasted from 2000 to 2005. Just as important is the deliberate cruelty of Hamas’s initial attack, whose horror was documented by both Israeli victims and, sickeningly, the Hamas infiltrators themselves. Perpetrators now routinely share proof of their crimes on social media; Hamas’s boastful posts of grisly murders mirrored broadcasting tactics used by the Islamic State, Mexican drug cartels, the Islamophobic Christchurch shooter in 2019, and American insurrectionists on January 6, 2021.Take how both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian narratives heavily emphasize the deaths of children. Each side aims to wield a seemingly unimpeachable rhetorical weapon that justifies its actions on the ground. Amid the real tragedy of the loss of innocent lives, however, is a font of false information. In the first month of the Israel-Hamas war, AI-generated images of child casualties circulated as if they were real evidence; an old, decontextualized photograph of a Thai child in a Halloween costume was used to accuse Palestinians of staging child casualties; and most perversely, photos of real dead children were incorrectly presented as fakes, with comments alleging that the corpses looked too doll-like to be authentic.

Misinformation has emanated from all corners. In one case, the Israeli government falsely claimed on X, formerly known as Twitter, that a photo of a dead Palestinian child was fake, only to delete that post without comment or correction after international media pushed back against the claim. In another, Turkey and many Arab governments organized mass demonstrations over a supposed Israeli airstrike that, by the time the protests began, appeared to have been neither an airstrike nor the work of the Israeli military. As governments endorse false or misleading claims, and platforms such as X become sanctuaries for conspiracy theories, the truth becomes ever harder to find. In an interview with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh, who tracked dozens of false claims in the first weeks of the war, said “the volume of misinformation” on X “was beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”


INFORMATION TACTICS

Amid this narrative tug of war, the combatants have used targeted influence campaigns, in many cases employing disinformation, to swing the contest in their favor. The goal is to weaken or invalidate the other side’s claims about the conflict. To this end, Hamas has worked to undermine the notion that the Israeli military is competent and capable of defending Israeli citizens. And it has gone beyond just celebrating its own wins and the other side’s losses. Right after the October 7 attacks, for example, Hamas sympathizers amplified false claims that the group had captured high-ranking Israeli generals. Hamas’s supporters simultaneously excused the group’s mass killings and denied its responsibility, asserting that Israel’s own military had killed the majority of Israeli citizens on October 7. As the war proceeded, Hamas produced propaganda videos of the apparent destruction of Israeli armor in close-quarters combat.

Israel’s information challenge is more difficult. Merely declaring that Hamas will lose a conventional military confrontation will help Israel little: Hamas’s military inferiority is already evident to everyone, including Hamas fighters themselves. Israel has also tried highlighting Hamas’s barbarity, including by screening its own supercut of the October 7 massacre for select audiences, including groups in the United States. Yet because Hamas itself documented and proudly shared much of this footage in the first place, both sides are effectively pushing the same message.

Hamas, for its part, has long taken advantage of strong sympathies for the Palestinian people by intermingling its military assets with crowded refugee camps and critical civilian infrastructure. As Israeli operations intensify, Palestinian deaths mount—and so does international anger at the Israeli military. 

In response, Israel has aimed to soften the distinction between Hamas militants and Palestinian civilians. This is why Israel has consistently amplified claims that Hamas uses tunnel complexes beneath Palestinian hospitals and endorsed video and audio recordings that reveal coordination between Hamas militants and Palestinian aid workers. Official Israeli statements have also sought to weaken the credibility of the reported Palestinian death toll, emphasizing that Gaza’s Health Ministry, which provides these numbers, is Hamas-controlled.


TAKING THE FIGHT OFFLINE

Although the rise of digital technologies at first seemed to give nonstate actors an asymmetric advantage in war, states have learned new ways to fight back. Israel began to develop its own counterstrategies in earnest after it lost the “Twitter war” that accompanied its foray into Gaza from late 2008 to early 2009. During that bloody 22-day operation, the Israeli military sought to control conventional media access and coverage but largely ignored the online conversation. 

As widely shared testimonies of Palestinians in harm’s way drove headlines and sharpened international condemnation of the civilian death toll, U.S. pressure on Israel increased. The Israeli military learned that it had ignored the Internet at its own peril.In the current war, Israel has adapted by using its conventional military superiority and vast organizational capacity to its advantage in the battle of information. Israel has strangled Gaza’s communication system, hindering Hamas’s command and control by targeting cellphone towers in airstrikes and denying electricity to Palestinian Internet service providers. By the end of October, Internet traffic across Gaza had dropped by 80 percent. During certain military offensives, Israel cut access entirely. 

The blackout strategy is not new; the Iraqi and U.S. militaries used both cyberattacks and traditional military strikes to block Islamic State militants’ access to the Internet during the campaign to take back Mosul in 2016–17, and the Russian military disrupted Ukrainian Internet access so effectively in its 2022 siege of Mariupol that journalists had to smuggle out photos and videos on memory cards.Shutting down Gaza’s Internet hardly silences critical voices—many pro-Palestinian digital activists live outside the Middle East—but it does prevent a consistent flow of reliable information and firsthand accounts from the conflict zone. This enables Israel to better control the focus, if not the tenor, of online conversation. And when Israeli sources release attention-grabbing videos and images of purported Hamas military facilities, Palestinians on the ground in Gaza have no way to quickly dispute their claims.The loss of connection has additional adverse effects in a world that has become reliant on the Internet. Witness accounts have underscored how losing contact with loved ones heightens the fear that people feel while under bombardment. And when they cannot access news and safety information online, civilians can end up fleeing toward violence instead of away from it, increasing their risk of injury and death.In addition to targeting communication infrastructure, Israel has undertaken an extensive legal and political campaign to pressure social media companies to remove war-related content. In the first month of the fighting, Israel issued roughly 9,500 takedown requests to Meta, TikTok, X, Google, and other services for posts that Israeli authorities say promote terrorism. Some posts contained graphic imagery or violence that celebrates Hamas; others made the list because they featured a song associated with a Hamas faction. The companies complied with 94 percent of Israel’s requests. This success attests to Israel’s ability, as a state actor, to pressure digital platforms. 

Hamas, as a nonstate actor and a proscribed terrorist organization, does not have the same capacity. Nor does the broader Palestinian diaspora, which lacks effective national-level representation.


THE FUTURE OF WAR

The information strategies that Israel, Hamas, and the broader pro-Palestinian community are wielding today will almost certainly influence the wars of tomorrow. A key lesson is that, in these fights, virality can trump veracity. Online debates, including those with limited relation to the truth, will continue to shape the course of offline events by altering public perceptions and guiding official decisions. These information battles will not replace the traditional practices of war, but they are becoming central to how modern conflicts are fought and won.Preparations for the next information conflict are already underway. As one of us (Singer) wrote recently in Defense One, researchers at China’s National Defense University have been studying how the People’s Liberation Army can prevail in so-called cognitive warfare on the way to winning a larger war. Effective tactics, the researchers argue, include engaging in a “discourse competition” that manipulates the emotions of a global audience; a push-pull process of “information disturbance” and “public opinion blackout” that involves seeding desired narratives and ensuring they go viral at critical moments; and “blocking information,” which refers to disrupting an adversary’s digital and physical communications and replacing them with China’s preferred messages. These proposed strategies mirror the ones at play in the current Israel-Hamas conflict. 

The Chinese military will almost certainly use them in any potential war in the Pacific.Not too long ago, it was possible to plan military operations without giving much thought to a real-time social media and communication strategy, just as it was possible to scroll through Facebook without having to dodge first-person combat footage and depictions of wartime atrocities. Any doubt that online information would be a central concern in modern conflict disappeared on October 7. Wars of the future will be information conflicts that span the globe, sustained and aggravated by likes, shares, and lies.

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Gaza and the Future of Information Warfare

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