In my previous article I discussed social media’s role in spreading anti-Semitism as a tool of war. I discussed the manipulation that was leading to anti-racism activists defending growing antisemitism rather than challenging it. This article looks at another danger, the use of social media to manipulate public perceptions and create support for action that will lead not to a cessations of violence, but to further civilian casualties in Gaza. In this case it is Guardian and local councils in Scotland who are ultimately being manipulated.
The Guardian (UK) recently ran a poll about the decision by two Scottish local councils to fly Palestinian flags over their town halls. Online polls can be problematic, and this was amply highlighted by the dramatic difference between early responses to the poll and the final results. The early result represents a sample of regular readers, while the final result reflects the work of online activists to alter public perceptions.
Between the two snapshots, shown below, the poll rapidly shifted from 40% support for flying the Palestinian flag up to 75%. Support for also flying the Israeli flag dropped from 38% down to 16%. If the first results are an accurate reflection of the views of Guardian readers, then it’s clear that People with a different point of view flooded the poll later on. Where did they come from?
The earlier snapshot of the poll:
The final results of the poll:
It seems the poll was a topic of discuss on a number of Facebook page. One of these “Halal or Haram”, with over 40,400 supporters posted the link with the comment: “So far the Palestine Vote is loosing. Get on it and share with as many! ?#FreePalestine ?#PrayForPalestine”. This post was shared 26 times and liked 125 times. A similar post on the page of Birmingham Boycott, a page with over 3,500 supporters, gives explicit voting instructions: “ANSWER AS BELOW: Q1. YES Q2. YES Q3. NO Q4. No So far the Palestine Vote is loosing. Get on it and share with as many! Poll close in 1 day”. This was liked by 71 people and shared by 15. Note the repetition of the call to action and the spelling error? It shows up again in this post, shared by 1 and liked by 38. This is the same message moving through social media.
These three posts already account for at least 276 votes in the poll. The real number will be far higher as this count ignores both those who saw the post and voted without clicking like or share, and those saw it indirectly as a result of the shares. It’s possible some liked the post on Facebook without actually voting on the poll, but it is unlikely this occurred very often.
An analysis found 35 pages in total which has shared the link to the poll with a call to vote. Of these seven were pro-Israel pages urging people to vote against the raising of Palestinian flags, and 28 were pro-Palestinian pages urging people to vote in favour. The post on the “Boycott Israeli Products” page, with over 12,700 supporters, called on people not only to vote, but to write to thank one of the councils. They also asked people to, “Please forward on to your contacts. Everyone vote on This ASAP and spread.. If anyone does something to support the Muslims ... We MUST support them”. The shift from this being a conflict between Hamas and Israel, to one between Palestinians and Israel, and then one between Muslims and Israel (or Muslims and Jews?), is deeply concerning.
The initial results show that some people who are against raising a Palestinian flag felt that, if you were going to do it, you should raise an Israeli flag as well. This is an argument for showing solidarity with the people of both Gaza and the people of Israel during the current conflict. This saw a dramatic turnaround in the final result where many of those who oppose the raising of the Palestinian flag said that if it is done, they would oppose raising an Israeli flag as well. This may reflect a group of people who want their local council to stick to emptying the bins and to stay out of international affairs. On the other hand, the data is so badly manipulated, its hard to draw any conclusions at all for this poll.
Returning to the Guardian itself, the article with the poll quotes David Ross, the leader of Fife council saying:
I hope that by flying this flag we can add strength to the public pressure for a lasting ceasefire which can help bring about peace and stability in the area.This action is not in support of any specific organisation, but simply in solidarity with the people of Gaza to show our concern for their suffering and to call for a lasting ceasefire.
That’s a fine sentiment but not what flying the flag of one side in a conflict conveys. Flying a Palestinian flag is not going to put pressure on Hamas to agree to a lasting ceasefire, quite the opposite. It will embolden them to keep putting their civilians in danger as a means to increasing international pressure on Israel. It will push them to keep fighting for their demand that the blockade on Gaza be lifted, allowing Hamas to rearm.
As the Guardian itself has reported, Hamas has said it is “inconceivable” they would disarm as a condition for the siege on Gaza to be lifted. The purpose of the siege is to stop Hamas re arming. Hamas want the siege lifted and they want to rearm. They have previously said they would only accept a two state solution as a temporary step toward Israel’s complete destruction. A lasting peace is not going to come through strengthening Hamas.
By Flying the Palestinian flag the Scottish councils strengthen perceptions such as that seen in this comment made in reply to the post on the Halal or Haram page:
The Guardian contributes to perceptions like this by allowing their polls to be manipulated for propaganda purposes. The skewed poll not only misleads readers, it can help mislead local government. This social media effort, which according to this post Israel is losing, can have a real impact. That impact is not only local, but also contributes to exactly the wrong kinds of pressure, the kind that will lengthen the conflict and lead to more civilians being killed.
Dr Andre Oboler is an expert in online public diplomacy and social media.