I was a guest of CTV’s Express this morning. For a second Friday, I chatted with Dan Matheson about the role of social media in the Israel-Hamas conflict. This particular segment explored the notion of Social Media Warfare. However, as with most segments on magazine-style shows, there wasn’t much time to share many ideas. And, I paid particular attention to limiting myself to a few thoughts rather than rambling on forever.

I wrote earlier this week Social Media entering their third act of the year. So, perhaps this is a good time to outline the three acts.

ACT ONE: Share it forward

2012 began with a few very high-profile efforts to raise awareness and inspire action. Hélène Campbell’s A Lung Story propelled the young now-double-lung transplant recipient to international celebrity. More importantly, her efforts are directly credited for an exponential increase in organ donor awareness and donor registrations. A short time later, Invisible Children launched their KONY2012 campaign. It made news for a number of reasons including the fact that their 30-minute web-based video was watched, in full, by millions of people.

Both campaigns succeeded for two primary reasons.

First, both called for simple, scalable calls to action which did not begin with money. They asked for people to help spread a message; spread the word about organ donation, make Joseph Kony famous. Those are simple. If you watch the original call-to-action video from Hélène, you’ll note she never asks (or tells) the viewer to sign their own donor card. We did it because it makes good sense to do something now that could help save eight lives later. Hélène has since proven organ donation works which gives her efforts that much more meaning. Which is why people didn’t just tell others about organ donation, they actually signed up as organ donors.

Second, both made their causes are human and understandable. Hélène’s is a very relatable. That comes across in the video. She didn’t clutter her efforts with too much detail. Invisible Children used the metaphor of trying to explain psychopathic murderous behaviour to a child. They humanized an inhuman story. Their video made things clear and inspired millions of people not only to act, but to learn more about the issue. That’s why it spread. Forget the criticism that followed. Much of the fall out was misdirected particularly given the ROI of their financial and production investments.

ACT TWO: Dark Arts

Two very high-profile and very unethical stories about social media made or remade headlines this summer.

Last year’s exposé on Bell Pottinger proudly manipulating online sites was the catalyst for the Wikipedia reinforcing their policies and rules of engagement. The intent is to keep PR practitioners and agencies honest and eliminate conflicts of interest (PDF) where individuals and organizations are impacted by the content of articles. Those rules are necessary, of course. Though they may have made things too complicated. For an encyclopedia that prides itself of agility and responsiveness, I’ve witnessed a lot of situations where renewed adherence to rules and engagements is draging things out unnecessarily.

There was also Greenpeace’s Let’s Go Arctic campaign which inflected a bit of satire into a decidedly unethical campaign. Dubbed by many as corporate identity theft, Greenpeace launched a Shell-branded microsite and social media channels (Twitter and others) made to look as though they were run by inept digital know-nothings. The effort duped journalists into believing a hoax crisis as actually a real crisis. The campaign violated every PR code of conduct I’ve ever read.


In any campaign of adversaries there’s the air war, ground war and communication war. Well, the toothpaste is out of the tube. In the past two weeks social media evolved as channels of integrated wartime propaganda. I say integrated because traditional military communication tactics including airdropping leaflets are still very much part of the machine.

It was clear from November 14th, Israel had baked digital into the core of their communication efforts. Their goals were just as obvious: to ensure they played a prominent role in the narrative, and to ensure prompt and unmediated access to their base [audience] and the public at large. While their content may not have always been appreciated, or even accurate (on at least two occassions they issued follow-up correction tweets), the Israeli Defense Forces were remarkably effective at short circuiting the media and getting their messages heard.

They adopted many effective tactics as part of their communication and outreach strategy. The IDF both created and curated share-able content with a razor sharp focus on aligning content and context to each targeted channel. That’s a big way of saying, they pepared specific content for specific social media sites and making their ‘stuff’ easy to find, access and share. They’ve made the move from “feed the media” in 2008 to “be the media” in 2012… coupled with comfort enaging and sparring with the enemy online.

Hamas became more effective in their approach to social media, though they spent the early days of the conflict playing catch-up.

I have concerns with social media for warfare. Specifically, it was disturbing to read some of the vitriol between the pro-Israel and pro-Hamas folks online. The language and sentiment was exponentially more off-putting than the flamable breadcrumbs left around the web by trolls. The war porn published by both sides have made the conflict seem like a video game. One video embellished a fatality with musical flourishes. Instagram photos of young Israeli soldiers looked more like an album of friends gathering for summer camp rather than preparing for a potentially bloody ground battle.