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Israel, Gaza, War & Data – The Art of Personalizing Propaganda

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

Instagram co-tag graph, highlighting three distinct topical communities: 1) pro-Israeli (Orange), 2) pro-Palestinian (Yellow), and 3) Muslim (Pink). Visualization created from Gephi.

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.

While war rages on the ground in Gaza and across Israeli skies, there’s an all-out information war unraveling in social networked spaces.

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.

The better we get at modeling user preferences, the more accurately we construct recommendation engines that fully capture user attention. In a way, we are building personalized propaganda engines that feeds users content which makes them feel good and throws away the uncomfortable bits.
 
We used to be able to hold media accountable for misinforming the public. Now we only have ourselves to blame.
 

Personalizing propaganda

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.

The founder of Avaaz.org and Chief Executive of Upworthy Eli Pariser warned in his TED talk about the Filter Bubble:

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. 

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 (for more 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).

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.

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.

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

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.

1-6Q5J5LKssMrpLxdJlv-1JQ

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.

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).

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.

This network graph details the landscape of Twitter handles responding to the UNWRA school bombing.

This network graph details the landscape of Twitter handles responding to the UNWRA school bombing. Visualization created from Gephi.

Network graphs are mathematical tools used to model relations between objects, and are incredibly helpful when working with social data. Analyzing their structure helps us gain insight into our culture and society. In this case, we see a clear separation between the two sides. On the right, a clearly “pro-Palestinian” group of activists (in green) as well as a variety of media outlets and journalists (in gray). The gray cluster of bloggers, journalists and international media entities is closely connected with the group of pro-Palestinian activists, which means that information is much more likely to spread amongst the two. This structural characteristic of the graph reinforces general Israeli sentiment regarding international media bias.

The “pro-Palestinian” side.

The “pro-Palestinian” side. Visualization created from Gephi.

Two of the most popularly forwarded posts from within this side of the graph are:

Alternatively, on the other side we encounter the “pro-Israeli” groups, including media outlets, Israeli public personas, and various American zionists (light blue), as well as American conservatives and Tea Party members (dark blue).

Pro-Israeli side.

Pro-Israeli side. Visualization created from Gephi.

Popularly shared posts within this group include:

There’s a clear difference in frame when we compare one side of the graph to the other. None of the information shared is false per se, yet users make deliberate choices about what they choose to amplify. This is a representation of their values, and the values of their connections.

Messages passed along in one side of the graph will never reach the other.

Certain nodes are more strategic when trying to bridge between the two sides. In this case, Haaretz accommodates the most connections on both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli sides of the graph, having the highest betweenness centrality.

Compared to all other nodes in the graph, Haaretz is most likely to spread throughout the wider network. It has the most potential for bridging across biases and political barriers.

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.

1-4grlsuXsRpy6q-GvTMAD4Q
Content and conversations on Instagram are split into several camps, where once again, we’re effectively all talking to people like us.

Call it Homophily, call it the Filter bubble, it is a prevalent phenomenon everywhere we turn.

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.

1-FaPueE4Yy3IqU1dKDKysxQ

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

We construct our social spaces — we may choose to follow a user, like a page or subscribe to updates from a given topic.

When we like a Facebook page we are recommended other similar pages (see: collaborative filtering) based on past actions taken by other users on the site. For example, when I chose to follow Miri Regev (left image), a conservative Right-wing Israeli politician, the system recommends other Right-wing Israeli politicians, many of which share her political agenda.

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

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.

Now open a separate browser window in incognito mode (Chrome: File->New Incognito Window) and navigate to the same page. Since the browser has no idea who you are on Facebook, you’ll get the raw, unpersonalized feed.

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.
1-S-Wz1k997CZFIM6nRWuqjg

It also helps that the service is still quite small, relatively speaking.

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:

  • Help make Ha’aretz financially stable by paying for an online subscription(less than $10 per month).
  • 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.

Thoughts? Comments? Find me here — @gilgul

New York City-based Gilad Lotan is the Chief Data Scientist at Beta Works. He's a visualization geek and he writes about data and Middle East politics.

Follow our in-depth coverage: #Gaza: Civilian Death Toll Mounts in Israeli Offensive

  • Eamon Davis Delaney

    Very interesting – and depressing. I was in Israel in 1982 and it was a very different, and better, place then.

  • http://t.co/AovdDcvhRc Elizabeth

    A very insightful piece. Made me think about my connections and how I can broaden them to avoid that much bias.

  • Larisa

    It’s a great article, but I wish as well as anti-Palestinian propaganda, there was balanced reporting regarding anti-Israeli propaganda as well; otherwise, I feel like this article is being a bit like the bias that it’s condemning. The BBC covered pictures of Syria used for the #gazaunderattack hashtag, and I’ve seen quite a few things online myself (for example, that well-known picture of the critically injured 10 month old Israeli baby from Kiryat Malachi, in the arms of an Israeli parademic with Hebrew writing on his shirt, was being passed off as a Gazan child; and a picture supposedly of Gaza before and after entitled “A beautiful city that was bombed for no reason”, the Before picture was Haifa, complete with the Bahai Gardens visible in the image, the After picture was a movie set)

    Both sides have a tendency to play the propaganda game, and you’ve mentioned that in the first paragraph of the article, but only really seem to have shown examples of it being played by the Israelis. There’s a lot of nonsense coming from both sides, but your focus seemed a bit lopsided to me.

    • Serg Azramenco

      Indeed. You can ask yourself why does CNN and BCC hardly covers how many rockets were shot at Israel that day? If you read some media outlets in Europe and US, it looks like Israel is pounding Gaza without any reason at al. And only children are dying.

  • leconfidant

    I saw a TED Talk “What Facebook and Google are hiding from you” which described this process.

    But I’ve also heard rather scholarly talks by expert academics like Naom Chomsky and Norman Finklestein. Finklestein’s opinion, after 15 years of top level academic involvement in the issue is that the conflict is NOT a complex issue which represents a maze of ethical dilemmas. Actually it’s really simple. Israel should withdraw and give the Palestinians some options besides fighting for their survival.

    Just because people are taking sides in self-reassuring information bubbles doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as right and wrong.

    Just because opinions differ doesn’t mean they’re all correct.

    • NewToTheGame

      And here, ladies and gentlemen, is THE perfect illustration of someone who has had their views reinforced by exposure to the media that says what they want to hear.

      • leconfidant

        And your claim to superior objectivity is ,,, what exactly?

        • Mitchell McCallum

          How about living in the United States, or Israel and looking at it from their perspective. You present some narrative that’s completely detached from reality. How about the Arabs, do they want “Arab land”? and before you go saying all of Israel is Arab land remember that the Israeli won 4 wars against their arab neighbors and have generations of Israelis living there currently. That’s an unbiased fact.

          • wideEyedPupil

            Exactly, won four wars in the last century. That’s a lot of seeds of violence just waiting to germinate on both sides of the conflict.

            I sometimes think of the Northern Ireland troubles and how intractable that seemed before amnesty and peace deals. Essentially it had nothing to do with religious differences any more even though that was how the MSM protrayed the issue in oat reporting of violence. It had become a conflict of vested interests of various orgs like unions, IRA and their political opponents controlling building sites, dealing in the international black markets especially in arms trading and maintaining the order of these paramilitary groups.

          • leconfidant

            Most people outside Israel regard it as something like South Africa or Pinochet’s Chile. The American media – not just Fox, which is insane, but CNN, CNBC, etc, are just awful. Intelligent Americans themselves are disgusted by it.

            And actually if you look at the UN votes on this, the US and Israel are completely alone in the United Nations. The opinion of every other country in the world – Iceland to Japan, Brazil to Bhutan – they refuse to support Israel’s aggression.

            I never said and never thought that ‘all of Israel is Arab land’, those are your words not mine. But if you say that whoever wins a war owns the land, then by that token, you have to admit that if the Arabs are now fighting for that same land, they are only doing what you yourselves have done. If effective violnce is your only measure of ethics, go ahead and kill Arabs. Just don’t ask for sympathy.

            The facts you list are indeed true, but the rest of the world looks upon Israel as a state created with the support of the UN to protect the Jewish race from future persecution in the wake of the Nazi holocaust.

            We expected them to build something beautiful there. Agriculture, technology, a strong Jewish culture. We really wanted this to happen since after WW2.
            We didn’t expect Israel launch an ethnic cleanse of the Arabs who originally lived in Israeli territory or treat them as second class citizens the way Hitler treated the Jews.
            We didn’t expect them to launch aggressive territorial expansion across that region, claiming that the Talmud made it theirs by God’s command.
            We didn’t think they would begin a holocaust of their own in Gaza.

          • Serg Azramenco

            Yes. ‘The holocaust’ argument. Nice, big beautiful fail
            So, tell me, how unbiased are you again?

          • leconfidant

            I never claimed to be unbiassed, I’m heavilly biased against mass killing of innocent people. Sorry about that.

            I disapprove of the killing of three Israeli young men because they were non-combatants. I also disapprove of Israel killing 2,000 civilians in response, 500 of whom were children. They were also non-combatants.

            I don’t really see any ethical difference between Hitler massacring Jews and Israel massacring Palestinians.

            Instead of saying ‘biassed’, why not offer me a factual or ethical argument to justify Israel’s behavior? How to you distinguish what Hitler was dong from what Israel is doing?

            I am biased, but I’m open to counter-argument.

          • Claudio Avi Chami

            Well, for starters, it is not 2000 civilians. You cannot know right now. On 2008 operations, during the operation, people would say just what you said. But 50% of the victims where civilians, the others were militants or police, and it took time for even Hamas to acknowledge this. Second, the Jews in Germany didn’t have a written plan to obliterate Germany and kill all Germans worldwide. But Hamas has, regarding Israel AND the Jews. And yet you dare to compare Israel with Hitler. Shame on you.

          • leconfidant

            We could fight about the 2000 figure, saying that
            On Palestines side all were civilians,
            and on Israel’s side, they were all targeted terrosists,
            We could play tennis about that.

            At least 500 of them were children,

            Secondly the bombs have landed all over Gaza hitting every kind of target, so there’s no evidence Israel are targeting anything at all.

            But most importantly, like Hamas, Israel have a stated official policy of killing civilians as well as combatants. This is called &Terrorism& That’s what terrorism means. Forget targeting combatants. Just kill everybody. That’s their policy official policy. Their officers have been given legal permission to kill as many unarmed civilians as they want to. This is historical fact.

            Regarding comparing the Zionists with the Nzis, I feel no shame. They do not consider the Arabs human at all, and do not allow them equal rights or even human rights. Like the Nazis, they pretend that they are the victims of the Palestinians, but in the current conflict, three Israeli young men were murdered and in response, 2000 have been killed. Even if they were all Hamas combatants and not small children at all, how can you call this normal justice or legitimate warfare by a modern democratic state?

            No. This is not self-defense at all and it is not justice.

            The Israeli occupation of Gaza is completely illegal by international law, by the treaties they themselves signed and indeed by their own domestic laws. They have no right to be there aat all and they should get out straight away.

    • mikCND

      Noam Chomsky is on record (google) for denying the Cambodian “killing fields” ever existed, saying if anyone did it it was the U.S. Not that the U.S. is a great democracy, but I’m a bit hesitant to believe anything by a person riding a wave of anti-Americanism for a living.

    • Ahmed Abul

      Hamas doesn’t want peace. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that if Hamas is gone, someone else will come take its place, the arab league has vowed to erase Israel from the map. That’s the agenda, and they use the various armed group the get to this goal. Qatar pays to arm Hamas. Iran pays to arm Hezbolla.

  • Pingback: Journalism » Mideast ‘Information War’ Fought in Social Media

  • David

    Gilad, thanks for this, it is really interesting. It looks like you are using directional relationships in the network graphs (they are busy but they look curved). I would be curious if you would generate a similar network graph tracking just the relationships from the “media outlets and journalists.” That would give a sense of the the information they are curating for themselves due to follow backs. I wonder if such a view would pull that cluster into the center more. Thanks for generating this.

    • http://giladlotan.com/blog giladlotan

      So this graph is dependent on who was “activated”- in this case, it was everyone who responded to the UN school bombing on Twitter. If we started to look at a wide array of events, and mapped out the aggregate network, we’d get an interesting, in-depth media map… you should do it!

  • Gregory Asmolov

    Hi Gilad, that is really fascinating article. What is missing is what media would you recommend to support on the Palestinian side. In order to bridge the gap and deconstruct the information cocoons you need a movement from both sides.

    • http://giladlotan.com/blog giladlotan

      I wish I could speak Arabic to do that work as well. But that’s what the awesome GV MENA team is for!

  • Pingback: Analysis: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter serve as siloed propaganda engines for Gaza news (Gilad Lotan/Global Voices) | Golden Gate Daily

  • Pingback: Analysis: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter serve as siloed propaganda engines for Gaza news (Gilad Lotan/Global Voices) | Killer Apps TV

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