Rebecca Stein on War in the Smartphone Age

Rebecca Stein's new book explores how all sides of the conflict in Palestine are looking to shape the social media narrative.
Rebecca Stein's new book explores how all sides of the conflict in Israel and Palestine are looking to shape the social media narrative.

After Israeli police entered Jerusalem’s Aqsa Mosque in early May, following rising tensions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, news consumers around the globe watched in real time as conflict erupted in the region once again, and social media followed.

Across Twitter, Tik Tok and other platforms, viewers shared videos of Israeli police firing rubber bullets and Palestinian protestors throwing rocks, as well as images of Palestinian rockets and Israeli airstrikes. The conflict unfolding on the ground was paralleled with this online media war, fueled by the proliferation of images captured in the midst of battle and occupation.

Understanding the impact — and limitations — of those images is essential, says Rebecca Stein, associate professor of cultural anthropology and author of the new book "Screen Shots:State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine."

Drawing on ethnography to examine how actors on both sides use digital technologies as political tools, Stein argues that the imagery circulating on social media has important implications for the region and its political future. Trinity Communications spoke with Stein about her work, recent developments in Gaza and the role of anthropologists in understanding the Israeli military occupation.

 

Q: What perspective does an anthropologist bring to this issue?

STEIN: It's easy to think about this conflict on a macroscale, and that’s the vantage we are typically offered in the mainstream media. Anthropologists bring something different to the conversation by paying attention to politics at the microscale.

We begin at the scale of the individual as a way to make sense of political realities. For anthropologists of war and conflict, this approach helps us shift the focus to the ways that individuals and communities live with violence in the course of their everyday lives.

My research focuses on players on both sides, both Israelis and Palestinians, occupiers and occupied. For example, I have studied the experience of Israeli soldiers who have carried their mobile devices with them into military service, taking and sharing images while on duty in the occupied territories — everything from trophy images of Palestinian detainees to touristic landscapes.

These everyday soldier experiences help us understand the importance of digital technologies as tools of power, the ways that smartphones have become part of the military toolkit. But they also provide a window onto the ways that Israeli society has grown inured to the violence of military rule. We see this in moments when soldiers behave like tourists.

 

Q: What is the military’s official approach to social media?

STEIN: The Israeli military began their experimentation with social media as a PR tool during the 2008–2009 bombardment of the Gaza Strip. It was a highly improvisational effort and the military considered it a massive success, enabling them dominate global media coverage of their military operation — this at a time when Palestinian access to mobile digital technologies, and reliable internet, was still quite limited.

The military’s official social media project would grow massively from there. Platforms like Instagram and Twitter quickly became indispensable tools for making their PR case to the world. Today, they are considered integral to the military’s efforts to “win hearts and minds.”

 

Q: You were recently quoted in a Rolling Stone article about Israeli soldiers posting “thirst traps.” What is a thirst trap, and what is its relationship to the Israeli military?

STEIN: These are sexualized social media posts that are designed to maximize virality. Click-bait, essentially. In the Israeli military context, we are talking about young, female reservists who are posing in their military gear in sexualized poses, lip syncing to music, weapon in hand. This content gets a lot of views, as you might imagine.

Military spokespersons are quick to respond that this is not official military output and not condoned by military bodies. They note that they can’t control the behavior of reservists online. But in fact, such images are part of a long history of military image production. The female beauty toting a weapon has long been a crucial element of official military representation produced for export. It’s part of their efforts to both humanize their troops in the eyes of global publics and, effectively, to make militarism beautiful.

 

This is part of their PR solution to the problem of growing viral content from Palestinians under occupation — a phenomenon that was particularly evident during Israel’s latest bombardment of the Gaza Strip. Making the military beautiful works to mitigate their enemies’ visual content, helping them compete in the crowded social media economy. Or so they hope.

 

Q: Can you say more about the viral footage shot by Palestinians this year’s bombardment? Does this represent a change in the regional media economy?

STEIN: Without a doubt. In the early years of the military’s experimentation with social media, Palestinians living under occupation lacked widespread access to mobile technologies and reliable internet—a digital divide which was itself a byproduct of the military occupation. This was the case during Israel’s first bombardment of the Gaza Strip in 2008–2009.

During this operation, the military was using its new YouTube channel to share aerial footage of the assault, filmed from vantage of their weapons — footage which effectively reduced Gaza to the status of target. This footage went viral, while the Palestinian experience of the bombardment was largely unseen by global viewers, thanks to digital limitations. The military managed to control the wartime view.

Today, the military lacks such control. Now, Palestinians under occupation have far greater access to mobile digital technologies and regular internet connectivity, and this has produced a radical shift in the media landscape. During the most recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Palestinians were sharing intimate footage of military attacks in real time. The volume of such footage was unprecedented and helped catalyze a new phase in the global solidarity campaign for Palestine.

 

Q: How did the Israeli military regard this media shift?

STEIN: They were watching with alarm. And so was mainstream Jewish Israeli society, who regarded this media shift as a source of enormous concern. During the latest bombardment, even as bombs were falling, Israeli media experts were appearing on television to discuss the PR challenge (hasbara in Hebrew). That’s how important the issue was: so crucial as to merit air time in the very middle of the war.

As a scholar interested in the intersection of war and media, I'm interested in moments when political problems are mistaken as media problems. That is, when military analysts focus on image-making strategies, rather than on questions of occupation, human rights or political solutions.

The story often goes like this: If only we can get our PR right, if only we can produce the right hasbara content, then we can solve our global image problem. It’s a case of astounding political myopia, and a rich site of study for scholars.

 

Q: What can we learn from the Israel-Palestine conflict about the political impact of social media more generally?

STEIN: The Middle East has a particular lesson to teach us about the role of social media as a body of political tools. In 2010, we witnessed a set of popular, grassroots revolts against authoritarian leaders, starting in Egypt and Tunisia.

Many analysts argued that social media was an instrumental factor. These were hailed as Facebook revolutions. And at the time, we witnessed an activist and scholarly embrace of a utopian narrative about the capacity of social media to function as an organic tool of grassroots, popular anti-authoritarian mobilization. That dream would quickly crumble, alongside the collapse of the revolts’ political gains.

This corrective is germane right now, because we see a return to that same utopian sentiment. That is, I see many onlookers repeating the dreams of 2010: saying, now that there are so many cameras in Palestinian hands, now that the world can watch the Israeli attacks in real time, something will change.

This dream has a considerable history — at least as old as the camera itself. It’s a dream that if only the picture of suffering is clear enough, if only the footage is fast enough or the lens close enough to the victim and her suffering, then politics will shift. Once the picture is perfected, justice will follow. Alas, history teaches us that these dreams often fall short.

Today, both Israelis and Palestinians are asking: What are the lasting effects of this new media landscape? Can it actually deliver something new, politically, on the ground? It remains to be seen.