Can social media be used to sell the unsellable? How war plays out on the Internet.

Written by John Birmingham on November 16, 2012

A day on the internet is not complete until you’ve had a WTF moment. Usually it’s the weird, half crazed edge of the online world that delivers, smacking you upside the head with failed porn stars cutting loose on a sache torte.

(Google cake farts if you really need to know).

And sometimes it’s the Middle East conflict.  You’re not entirely sure whether you’re watching Lateline, or playing CoD where thirteen year old boys are screaming at you for being a noob, a pussy and a phag. All at once.

Thirteen year old boys aren’t known for their grasp of classical nomenclature.

Or at least that’s what it feels like, just for a moment, when you follow the Israeli Defence Force twitter feed, and the world shunts sideways into a slightly alternate reality.

Something very old is happening in Gaza and Israel right now. Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other.

But something new and weird is happening online, where the IDF is talking smack and ragging on Hamas like a twitchy Call of Duty shooter addict.

Okay I’ll dial back that grotesque exaggeration, but damn if there isn’t something weird happening just beyond the outer limits of old school propaganda, at least on the Israeli side. For their part, Hamas are hitting back not just with Fajr-5 missiles, but with snarky hashtags (#IsraelUnderFire vs #GazaUnderAttack).

Normally a PR war is fought with anodyne, vanilla-flavoured bullshit, misdirection and breath-taking hypocrisy.

Plausible deniability is everything, whether you’re raining rockets down on someone or destroying a whole marine ecosystem with your poorly managed oil drilling operation.

The YouTube video of the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari, posted by the IDF, removed by Google, and reposted by Tel Aviv, wasn’t all that surprising.

No.  What broke new ground were the tweets, blog posts and spanky new Tumblr page that virtually tea-bagged Hamas.

A curious, possibly counterproductive warning, given how much easier it would be to target them if they did. But entirely familiar to gamers and consumers of the sort of action novels that improve with altitude as stock macho swagger.

Put aside the politics of struggle, because it’ll be kicking on long after you and I have uploaded our neural architecture to the Hivemind, and think about this as an evolutionary moment.

There’s no shortage of businesses kicking about online trying to sell their particular narrative to the public. It ranges from hyper-local to global, from totally engaged to totally bereft of any actual fuck they might give.

Most of the larger players are incapable, or perhaps justly wary, of allowing their online presence to evolve into anything other than a corporate avatar that does a passable facsimile of human engagement.

There are exceptions, but like the long suffering keyboard slaves of @Telstra’s twitter account, their exceptionalism tends to prove the rule.

At the other end of the scale, there are those small time spivs and pimps who are only too aware of the potential for monetizing our online conversations.

Why anybody selling marginal real estate in Florida would imagine I’d want my screen filled up with their screeching advertorial is beyond me. But they do, and every day more and more of these gimps follow me around online in the hope that I will follow back and respond to their latest offer to get suckered into a really shitty deal on Gulf Coast waterfront.

It is possible to use social media to make a quid without coming on as an amphetamine crazed greed head in a hallucinogenically loud plaid jacket.

But is it possible to sell the unsellable?

The people sitting at the keyboard tweeting and blogging for both Hamas and the IDF are true believers. Put them in a room together and they’d spill each other’s blood without hesitation.

In the past, anyone seeking to win friends and influence people when perhaps they’re weren’t really very friendly, well, they tended to be a little circumspect in how they engaged with outsiders.

In this instance, I think we see something new emerging.

Something Wired called a “hyper-pugnacious social media push”. Something a little harder and nastier than Samsung poking fun at Apple’s bleating flocks of sheeple.

Where does it come from, do you think? An emergent aesthetic thrown up by the nature of online communication? A generational change?

The maturing of a cohort who have grown up with digital jihad and flame wars and are comfortable translating their dynamics into something larger and more serious? Or something else again?

Strange times.

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About the Author

John Birmingham

John Birmingham tells stories for a living, some of them true, others... not so much. He writes a column called Blunt Instrument for the Fairfax Digital network and tries to get in some book writing every day.

You can also hang out at his personal blog Cheeseburgergothic.com or just go buy his latest ebook called Stalin's Hammer: Rome; the latest in his Weapons of Choice series of alternate histories.

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