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Researcher studies use of Twitter images in Mideast conflicts

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

LAWRENCE — People use Twitter to share pictures of everything from their breakfasts to their children and pets. Not surprisingly, the extremely popular social media outlet has also been picked up as a way to share images in an ages-old way: as propaganda during armed conflict. A University of Kansas professor has authored a study analyzing and comparing images tweeted by Israel and Hamas during their late 2012 conflict.

Hyunjin Seo, assistant professor of journalism, downloaded all twitpics posted by the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas’ Alqassam Brigades from Nov. 14, 2012, to Jan. 13, 2013. She and a pair of student assistants analyzed the photos and placed them in a series of categories based on the content and goals of the images. Seo presented the paper at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference this month in Washington, D.C., and won the second place Faculty Paper Award.

“I’ve always been interested in international conflicts and communication strategies. In November 2012 the fighting was particularly intense,” Seo said. “I was intrigued by the two sides’ use of social media in sharing their messages. I’ve followed this conflict for some time and was able to see a difference happening with their use of social media.”

Seo grouped the messages according to their frames: either analytical or emotional; overt or covert; human interest or not. She also created several message themes including unity, resistance, destruction, casualties of civilians, threats from the enemy, casualties of own soldiers and humanity. While both sides used images to spread the message that the other was the aggressor and that their own cause was just, there was a marked difference in the frequency with which they used various frames.

The Alqassam Brigades tweeted significantly more images of civilians as victims. Many graphic photos of children who were killed, grieving parents and civilians who were not soldiers but killed by Israeli air strikes or forces were posted. The Israeli Defense Forces, on the other hand, tweeted many more images with analytical frames, including infographics, statistics about casualties and related information.

The tactic the two sides shared was a call to action. Both frequently implored their Twitter followers to “favorite” or retweet the images to their followers. Seo’s previous research has shown that “secondary connections” or, in essence, the friends of friends online, can be just as important in spreading messages as primary connections. Both sides leaned heavily on their followers to help get their message out.

“They were very involved in the social media aspect of information warfare,” Seo said of the Israeli and Palestinian parties. “The use of visuals in propaganda has been going on for a very long time, but I think visuals have become even more important in the social media age. People consume information so quickly now, and images can be much more effective at getting peoples’ attention. Many of these images were very graphic.”

While propaganda is as old as war itself, Seo said the study is useful because there has been little theorizing about the topic in the information age. Analyses such as these can help build theoretical models that can help scholars and policy makers understand digital propaganda in times of armed conflict. For example, some age-old themes were used, such as appealing to emotion. The Alqassam Brigades used the tactic extensively, such as one Twitter image they sent with a picture of a female Israeli soldier with the text “Meet the terrorist Shot dead 17 Year Old Muhamad Salayme in Hebron on his Birthday, December 12, 2012.” Seo noticed another, newer method she called “gameification,” making war appear like a video game or using images like movie posters. Israel Defense Forces tweeted an image of Ahmed Jabari after he was killed with graphic text that said “Eliminated” and included a list of his alleged terrorist activities and the Israel Defense Forces logo.

“I think in this age of social media there is beginning to be a gameification of war. I think that’s something to be concerned about,” Seo said.

Seo plans to continue her research into digital propaganda during times of armed conflict. She next hopes to evaluate the effectiveness of the messages, whether they had the intended reactions with their target audience and how people perceived them. She also plans to evaluate which types of frames and themes were the most effective and which types were favorite and retweeted most often. The results from the 2012 Israel-Hamas conflict will be compared to other international conflicts as well. The results will be valuable to both scholars and policy makers.

“I think the first step is understanding,” Seo said. “Public information officers who share these sorts of messages often don’t have time to take a long-term look at what has happened. This analysis can provide a more nuanced understanding of what they do and the effects they have.”