Gaza war intensifies — on Twitter

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Given how polarized the Israel-Palestinian issue already is in the region and around the world, the Gaza conflict of 2012 is proving increasingly hard to navigate in one key virtual battleground: Twitter.

The social media space has already become a key front in the battle for information and narrative sympathies in the two day old Operation Pillar of Defense, avidly used by journalists on the ground and foreign capitals, the warring parties, and hundreds of thousands of their followers and observers around the world, often using hashtags that signify the posters’ point of view (#Gazaunderattack #LifeUnderRockets #PillarofDefense). But beyond the accurate information offered from the ground in real time–reports of air strikes in Gaza City and air raid sirens in Tel Aviv, videos posted of the Iron Dome system firing to try to intercept Hamas rocket fire, and heartbreaking photos of children killed–the Twitter forum has also produced a dizzying stream of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, confusion, reports of rockets hitting Tel Aviv that didn’t, official accounts that seemed fake and fake accounts that seemed real.

In the deluge, even experienced journalists and ordinary observers were having trouble separating fact from fiction, real information from propaganda.

The Israel Defense Forces’ spokesperson, Avital Leibovich, has long used Twitter to promote the Israeli government public agenda. “#Breaking : a direct rocket hit in a house in #Israel,” Leibovich reported on Twitter Thursday at around 2am EST. “Initial report indicates that a few people were killed as a result of the rocket attack. #IsraelUnderFire.”

A Twitter account claiming to represent Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassem Brigades, whose commander Ahmed Jabari was killed in an Israeli air strike Wednesday, was no less active issuing a stream of angry posts boasting of its capabilities, and the growing range and lethality of its rocket attacks, not all of it accurate.

“Al Qassam publishing a video of launching ‘Fajer 5’ missile at ‘Tel Aviv’ Tel El Rabee city for the first time #Gaza,” the @AlQassemBrigades posted on Twitter Thursday.

One reader, Chris Recouvreur (@dese1ect) took to Twitter to accuse @AlqassamBrigade of “posting fake pictures and blaming the IDF.”

(One IDF Twitter account that looks real enough (@IDFSpokeperson) turns out to be fake; note the missing ‘s’ in the middle, Agence France Press Middle East correspondent Sara Hussein pointed out. While another IDF spokesman account that seemed suspect turns out to be real. “Wow,” Hussein tweeted Thursday, citing with incredulity #IDF spox RT @MajPeterLerner casually posting suggestions for the Twitter hashtag #HamasBumperStickers.”My car is a stairway to heaven, with a little help from #Israel #IsraelUnderFire,” Lerner wrote. Israeli diplomats and Hussein tell the Back Channel the Lerner account is real.)

Sometimes not disinformation, but plain old fog-of-war confusion caused misinformation to ricochet around the world in seconds.

As air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv after nightfall Thursday, there was confusion about what had happened with the rocket or rockets that had triggered the alarm. Some Israeli media reported Gaza media reporting that a rocket had hit Tel Aviv, and the claim was soon retweeted around the world, even by experienced foreign media. But no rocket hit Tel Aviv, Israeli officials said. The rocket fell into the sea.

The closest a rocket came to Tel Aviv as yet was 10 KM, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) told the Back Channel early Friday Israel time.

(Photo: KIRYAT MALACHI, ISRAEL – NOVEMBER 15: (ISRAEL OUT)  Israeli children run to a large concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on November 15, 2012 in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)