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.
Not only is there much more media produced, but it is coming at us at a faster pace, from many more sources. As we construct our online profiles based on what we already know, what we're interested in, and what we're recommended, social networks are perfectly designed to reinforce our existing beliefs. Personalized spaces, optimized for engagement, prioritize content that is likely to generate more traffic; the more we click, share, like, the higher engagement tracked on the service. Content that makes us uncomfortable, is filtered out.
"In a broadcast society, there were gatekeepers, the editors, and they controlled the flows of information. Along came the Internet and it swept them out of the way, and it allowed all of us to connect together, and it was awesome. But that's not actually what's happening right now."— Eli Pariser, the Filter Bubble.
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 optimizing not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public?
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.
Within the hour, top English-language news portals are leading with the story (see image gallery):
- The New York Times: "Airstrike Near U.N. School Kills 10″
- 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'"
When we take a look at some of the top Israeli digital media portals, there's little mention of the incident at all (headlines translated from Hebrew):
- Ynet: "IDF Redeploys Troops, Hamas Shoots 95 Rockets Today". There's a minor mention of the incident far below the fold.
- 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.
As you can see, there's almost no mention of the incident across major Israeli media portals. Ha'aretz does cover the story, but Ha'aretz also has less than 10% readership, as it is considered to engender extreme liberal views. In the fallout of this war, the paper is also losing subscribers angered by published articles critiquing the IDF.
Israelis are convinced that media around the world is one-sided, anti-Israeli, and heavily biased towards the Palestinian cause. Yet few come out against their own clearly biased, heavily concentrated and privately owned media (see: Mozes family , Sheldon Adelson).
The following illustration, created in 2012 in response to CNN's whitewashing of Bahrain dictatorship, has been popularly shared across Israeli Facebook pages over the past weeks. It depicts common Israeli sentiment towards western media, as irrational and detached from reality.
These very deliberate choices made by media outlets affect our reality, how well we're informed as a public. Should Israelis show more sympathy towards the U.N. school attack? And if so, who is to blame?
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 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.
StandWithUs (413k likes), an international non-profit organization dedicated to "informing the public about Israel and combating extremism and anti-Semitism" had no mention of the U.N. incident. The same goes for Kikar Hashabat (117k likes) and Tweeting Statuses (605k likes), a heavily followed humor and media curation page.
Instead, the following map of the Gaza Strip as a minesweeper grid was posted, with the following comment: "currently spreading on WhatsApp".
The group's moderator clearly received the image from a WhatsApp group, and posted to this public FB page, which received over 11k likes, hundreds of shares and so far, 133 comments, ranging from critiques to justifications; a highly polarized stream of comments.
Once again, the Israeli sources had not even a single mention of the U.N. incident. It wasn't covered by Israeli media, nor was it surfaced through popular Facebook pages.
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).
Nodes are Twitter handles, and their connections represents who follow relationships. The larger a node, the higher its centrality, the more followed that account is within this group. The closer together two nodes, the more connections they share. Different colors represent communities, effectively regions that display significant levels of connectivity; nodes of the same color are much more inter-connected compared to the rest of the graph.