Two stories, this past week. In the first story, the Israeli Defence Forces published a blog post aimed to show that Palestinians in Gaza – far from living in a state of permanent military siege and economic deprivation – are ‘out in force, enjoying themselves in sparkling new malls, beautiful beaches and hotels, and doing their shopping in pristine grocery stores and markets heaving with fresh produce’. To illustrate the point, the post included the photo (since removed) of a vast, modern and visibly bustling shopping mall. This one.
The problem with this image, as Ali Abunimah documented in a very detailed post at Electronic Intifada, is that no such mall exists in Gaza. The picture is actually of the Suria KLCC mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As Abunimah further showed, the image is routinely posted in islamophobic websites and Facebook groups, including one associated with Geert Wilders, and always to make the same basic point: that the Palestinians in Gaza are living the high life. Now the IDF is admitting to the fabrication, and calling it ‘an honest mistake’, which begs the obvious question of why the Israeli army feels the need to source its information from islamophobic and neofascist sites. It’s a question that is likely to remain unanswered.
In the second story, information leaked to Haaretz revealed the existence of a government scheme whereby Israeli students will receive scholarships in exchange for posting pro-Israel Facebook posts and tweets targeted at foreign nationals. The scheme is administered directly by the office of Prime Minister Netanyahu – which confirmed its existence to the press – and expressly requires the students to conceal the link between their targeted social media activity and the state propaganda machine that pays for their studies. This is not to say that the structure of the scheme is informal, however: the students are to be organised in units led by a chief-coordinator (receiving the highest level of funding), who will in turn oversee the work of three desk coordinators and a number of so-called ‘activists’ forming the base of the hierarchical structure. As for the official rationale, it is to ‘strengthen Israeli diplomacy and make it fit the changes in the means of information consumption.’
The two stories mesh in obvious ways: on the one hand, the ghost mall dreamed up by the IDF is shown to a worldwide English-speaking audience as a real indicator of life in Gaza; on the other, a covert and sophisticated mechanism is established to deliver propaganda in a capillary manner to unsuspecting friends and contacts overseas. Both efforts require that reality be either fabricated or concealed. Together, they provide a snapshot – such as you could get more or less on any given week – of the lengths that this particular state will go to in order to convince ordinary foreign citizens of the realities of life within its borders.
I’ve argued before that whilst propaganda of this kind isn’t new, there is something of a step change in the way Israel currently conceives it and executes it globally through social media. Think of it as the inverse of Prism, therefore not as a system to download information from the internet, but rather to upload information into it. The ultimate aim, however, is just as totalising: to have the main repository of the world’s knowledge sanction the heavily sanitised or downright false image of one of the defining conflicts of our epoch.
What would life be like inside of Gaza’s ghost shopping mall? Is there greater abuse of an oppressed people than to spread false rumours of its wellbeing and prosperity? Like all propaganda, this one too poses a fundamental problem of knowledge, concerning how we know that something is or isn’t so. Ali Abunimah was able to trace the image of the mall to its real source forensically, because it happened to depict a real place. But what of the other pictures in the IDF post, of places that are real – how is the psychological truth behind them to be ascertained? Or what if they had inserted a place that wasn’t real, like one of the fake shops at Belcoo? How do you prove those particular negatives – there is no happiness here, or: there is no such place here – if not socially, by asking for corroborating testimonies? This requires trust not just in a particular set of known people, but a broader trust in people whom one has no reason not to trust – say, this guy I know in Israel, who is studying philosophy at university on a scholarship and seems a genuinely good person.
The intersection of these two very ordinary stories outlines an architecture for manipulating truth in the social media field: by spreading misinformation for a transparent motive (the IDF); or running official lines for a concealed motive (the students). There is no comfort nor safety in how readily this architecture can be observed. It is the very ordinary nature of the propaganda, its utter, cynical banality – the posting of the mall picture was ‘an honest mistake’; the office of the Prime Minister won’t bother to quash rumours of the student scheme – that tells us how far we have come in enabling, in accepting this and of the difficulty of the challenge to recover the voices of those who bear witness.