Gilad Lotan
Aug 4, 2014 · 10 min read

Israel, Gaza, War & Data

social networks and the art of personalizing propaganda

It’s hard to shake away the utterly depressing feeling that comes with news coverage these days. IDF and Hamas are at it again, a vicious cycle of violence, but this time it feels much more intense. While war rages on the ground in Gaza and across Israeli skies, there’s an all-out information war unraveling in social networked spaces.

We’re not seeing different viewpoints, but rather more of the same.

A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem. As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we are optimizing not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public?

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Instagram co-tag graph, highlighting three distinct topical communities: 1) pro-Israeli (Orange), 2) pro-Palestinian (Yellow), and 3) Religious / muslim (Purple)

Media Constructs Reality

As I’m writing this post, details of an Israeli Air Force missile attack near the entrance of a United Nations school in Rafah are emerging. The attack killed at least 10, injuring many more. The IDF claims it had targeted three members of the Islamic Jihad riding a motorcycle near the school, not the school itself.

  • Google News: “US ‘Appalled’ by ‘Disgraceful’ UN School Shelling”
  • CNN: “U.N. Calls Strike near Gaza Shelter ‘Moral Outrage’”
  • Huffington Post: “State Dept: Israel Shelling ‘Disgraceful’”
  • Mako (Channel 2 News): “IDF General: ‘we will go in and destroy every tunnel that we discover’”. Not a single mention of the U.N. school incident.
  • Nana: no mention of the incident.
  • Ha’aretz: leads with an article about the U.N. school attack.
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This illustration originally created by Carlos Latuff, a cartoonist, artist and activist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was heavily shared amongst Israeli users on Facebook over the past month.

On social network sites

… the landscape is much more nuanced, and highly personalized. We construct a representation of our interest by choosing to follow or like specific pages. The more we engage with certain type of content, the more similar content is made visible in our feeds. Recommendation and scoring functions learn from our social connections and our actions online, constructing a model that optimizes for engagement; the more engagement, the more traffic, clicks, likes, shares, and so forth, the higher the company’s supposed value. Our capitalistic markets appreciate a growing value.

Facebook

Facebook plays a key role at disseminating information to the population at large. While some Israelis share news articles in their feeds, many use content sourced by a number of very popular Facebook pages. These are public pages that typically surface funny memes, or buzzfeed-style attention-grabbing images, highly shareable content perfect for Facebook feed-style interactions.

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https://www.facebook.com/lan2lan.StatusHunter/photos/a.10150231898867176.371151.260689792175/10152745311962176/?type=1&permPage=1

Twitter

The graph below represents Twitter accounts responding to a different incident at the UNWRA school in Beit Hanoun between July 25th and 30th. It is still unclear who is to blame for firing at the school, although someone clearly learned their Google SEO tricks (click here to see who comes up first on Google search).

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This network graph details the landscape of Twitter handles responding to the UNWRA school bombing.
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The “pro-Palestinian” side.
https://twitter.com/paulmasonnews/status/494419938275524608
https://twitter.com/Channel4News/status/494430760942571521

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The “pro-Israeli” side.

Instagram

On Instagram we see similar dynamics play out. The language used to describe pro-Israeli content includes tags such as: #IsraelUnderFire #IStandWithIsrael #PrayForIsrael and #Peace. On the other side of the conflict, we see: #FreeGaza, #PrayForGaza, #Genocide and #BoycottIsrael.

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The following tag cloud represents co-occurence of hashtags on Insragram posts. The larger a tag, the more times it appeared. The tighter-connected two tags are, the more times they appeared together.

Capitalism vs. democracy

Personalized online spaces are architected to keep us coming back for more. Content that is likely to generate more clicks, or traffic is prioritized in our feeds, while what makes us uncomfortable, fades into the ether.

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Choosing to ‘like’ the Israeli politician Miri Regev produces a list of similar politicians.

The underlying algorithmics powering this recommendation engine help reinforce our values and bake more of the same voices into our information streams.

An Experiment:

Facebook’s trending pages aggregate content that are heavily shared (“trending”) across the platform. If you’re already logged into Facebook, you’ll see a personalized view of the trend, highlighting your friends and their views on the trend. Give it a try.

Personalizing Propaganda

If you’re rooting for Israel, you might have seen videos of rocket launches by Hamas adjacent to Shifa Hospital. Alternatively, if you’re pro-Palestinian, you might have seen the following report on an alleged IDF sniper who admitted (on Instagram) to murdering 13 Gazan children. Israelis and their proponents are likely to see IDF videos such as this one detailing arms and tunnels found within mosques passed around in their social media feeds, while Palestinian groups are likely to pass around images displaying the sheer destruction caused by IDF forces to Gazan mosques. One side sees videos of rockets intercepted in the Tel-Aviv skies, and other sees the lethal aftermath of a missile attack on a Gazan neighborhood.

We used to be able to hold media accountable for misinforming the public. Now we only have ourselves to blame.

In Search of Sanity

I was surprised to find a relatively sane discussion happening in one social network — Secret.ly, an app that lets you share anonymous messages with your friends. The service published a page with a list of posts about the conflict. I found one of particular interest, not only for the topic, but the actual discussion that unfolded. The combination of anonymity and some proxy for social ties seemed to calm down the typically polarized and extreme tone of conversations.

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https://www.secret.ly/p/xdiohtncmuyrkspsnxxrwdghdy

In closing,

We need to be more thoughtful about adding and maintaining bridges across information silos online. In the Twitter example above, Ha’aretz is clearly positioned well in the network to make important impact on both sides, yet due to that, Ha’aretz also struggles to find its core audience, hence secure enough budget to operate and grow. If you made it this far down the article, you clearly care about the topic. There are two ways you can help:

  • Donate to 972mag.com (and its Hebrew counterpart — Mekomit.co.il), both provide fresh, original, on-the-ground reporting on events in Israel and Palestine, with a strong commitment to human rights and freedom of information.

i ❤ data

beautiful, insightful, touching, interesting stories with…

Gilad Lotan

Written by

Head of Data Science @buzzfeed| previously @betaworks, @microsoft | Adjunct Professor @NYU | @globalvoices

i ❤ data

beautiful, insightful, touching, interesting stories with data

Gilad Lotan

Written by

Head of Data Science @buzzfeed| previously @betaworks, @microsoft | Adjunct Professor @NYU | @globalvoices

i ❤ data

beautiful, insightful, touching, interesting stories with data

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