by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary — Q & A with REBECCA STEIN:
Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford University Press, April 2015), by scholars Adi Kunstman and Rebecca Stein, has been called “a pioneering book, showing how information and communication technologies have turned into wartime arsenals, and the Internet and social networks into digital battlefields” and described as “a riveting guide to contemporary media strategies, improvisations, and accidents in the theatre of Israeli militarism.”
Kuntsman is a lecturer in information and communications at Manchester Metropolitan University whose work lies at the intersection of cybercultures/digital and social media; anti-colonial and feminist scholarship; queer theory; and social research on war, nationalism and colonialism.
Stein is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who studies linkages between cultural and political processes in Israel in relation to its military occupation and the history of Palestinian dispossession.
ISLAMiCommentary connected with Stein for this Q & A about their new book.
What is digital militarism and who named the trend?
This phrase — our own coinage — refers to the ways that social media tools, technologies, and practices can be employed in the service of militant projects by both state and everyday civilian users. Of course, digital militarism is a broad and flexible concept, with wide global applicability.
In this book, we consider the ways it has emerged in the context of Israel’s occupation. We are chiefly interested in everyday Jewish Israeli users, and the ways that social media functions as a toolbox for militarized politics – this within a society that has moved progressively rightward over the course of the last two decades. Digital militarism takes shape at the intersection of militant nationalism — now widespread in Israel — and very conventional, globalized modes of networked engagement: like liking and sharing, participating in meme culture, and posting a selfie. This interplay between nationalist violence and the social media everyday is at the core of our study.
When we began this study, digital militarism existed on the margins of social media — both in the Israeli and global contexts. Today, of course, it has become commonplace. We have become are accustomed to the integration of social networking into military arsenals, to calls for war issued en masse on social media platforms, to the presence of smartphones in military zones and battlefields, to social networking from scenes of atrocity.
In the Israeli context, we are now accustomed to damning Instagram images from soldiers, or to YouTube videos of violent confrontation between Israelis soldiers and Palestinians in the territories. Once, such events and media exposure surprised Israeli and international publics. Today, we have come to expect them. Digital Militarism is a chronicle of the emergence and naturalization of digital militarism as a social form.
What is the political and historical context in which the book was written?
Our research began in the aftermath of 2008-2009 Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip, a bloody military campaign that marked the Israeli military’s first efforts to employ social media as PR tools. As readers may recall, the military began experimenting with YouTube during this time, chiefly videos of their aerial bombardment of Gaza shot from the vantage of the weapon; employed to justify and sanitize the ongoing assault. The military deemed this a substantial media success, lauding these efforts as some of the first official military engagements with social media in any geopolitical context, while social media pundits mocked the military’s ineptitude on popular networking platforms. This was a foundational moment in what we would henceforth call “digital militarism” — the beginnings of Israeli military experimentation with social media as a PR tool. These efforts would expand and develop considerably during subsequent years. Soon, social media would occupy the center of the military’s PR and self-branding projects.
Our book was still in its initial stages during the Arab revolts of 2011. Like other observers at the time, we were dissatisfied with “Facebook Revolution” as an explanatory narrative for these popular uprisings. Our projects was enlivened by this moment; we realized that the Israeli case could be employed to counter this anemic narrative by illustrating the myriad ways that social media could function as everyday tools of militarism and authoritarian rule, a phenomenon we were watching take shape and expand in the context of Israel’s occupation.
Your book suggests that “ordinary tools of social networking have become indispensable instruments of warfare and violent conflict.” We’ve seen this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with ISIS. How is social media changing the terms of violence?
As we have noted, digital militarism is now a global phenomenon – and one that we see perpetually unfolding with the savvy social media work of ISIS. In the Israeli case, we are interested in the ways that social media enables violence and racist nationalism to emerge in very ordinary, everyday cultural forms in the hands of Israeli social media users. This is not the kind of militarism we typically associate with Israel’s repressive rule in the Palestinian territories. Rather, digital militarism takes shape through Facebook status updates, through ‘likes’ and shares, in the hues of the Instagram retro-filter and the visual language of the selfie — the latter being a particularly popular genre amongst Israeli soldiers and civilians. This is not to say that repressive violence is no longer at work in the Israeli occupation context. But now it is aided and abetted in social media domains, within the global language and aesthetics of popular platforms.
In fact you have a chapter on “selfie militarism.” Explain this concept.
Here, we look at the ways that routine selfie conventions were used by Jewish Israelis to mount calls for bloody revenge against Palestinians in the lead-up to the 2014 Gaza invasion. At work is the interplay between two seemingly incongruous forms: the selfie and violent calls for retaliation. This interplay is increasingly common in Israel today. And this is the subject of our book.
Selfie militarism also has a longer history — that is, one that precedes the “selfie” as global social media genre. In our book, we discuss an infamous episode from the Israeli context in which the seeds of selfie militarism were sown. In 2010, an Israeli female soldier used Facebook to archive and share images of herself posed — smiling and with a sexy pout — with blindfolded and bound Palestinians. This was the first viral incident of selfie militarism in the Israeli context, and we use it as a barometer to consider a field that would expand massively afterwards. These kinds of militarized mobile self-portraiture are now ordinary and predictable, part and parcel of the everyday fabric of Israeli social media usage.
How have the Palestinians used social media to further their cause? How successful have these efforts been?
Palestinian use of social media as a political tool has increased markedly in the last few years — a measure of both the increasing penetration of digital communications technologies and, in turn, digital literacies into the Palestinian territories, and the growing global investment in social media as a tool-box for political claims-making.
We saw this at work last summer (2014) during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. As Israeli bombs fell, and as civilian fatalities inside Gaza mounted, Palestinians live-tweeted updates from the ground, providing minute-by-minute images and accounts of the growing devastation. Many Palestinian social media users watched their international followers grow exponentially during the course of the Israeli assault. Among international anti-occupation activists and critics of the bloody operation, there was a prevailing sense of optimism. There was a sense that these viral jpegs of dead bodies and destroyed neighborhoods — circulating widely on social media — might make new kinds of international witnessing and accountability possible where Israel’s occupation was concerned.
But our findings suggest that such optimism may be premature. The viral social media output from Palestinians living through the bombardment in Gaza did little to temper the brutality of Israel’s incursion. Nor did it do much to alter Israeli social media output. Rather, it seemed to fuel digital militarism in Israeli hands. As images of dead Palestinian bodies and destroyed Gazan neighborhoods were captivating global audiences, most Israelis were using social media to support rather than challenge the war efforts. As bombs decimated Gazan homes, Israeli Instagram photo streams and Facebook status-updates celebrated the “righteous” victory. And many used their social media feeds to laud the mounting Palestinian death toll in very explicit terms, egging the military on.
These forms of Israeli digital militarism are a reminder that we should not be too hasty in proclaiming the liberatory capacity of Palestinian social media – its capacity to effect political change. For where most Israeli social media users were concerned, such images fueled popular militancy, rather than buoying the internal (and increasingly marginalized) anti-occupation Israeli left.
I recall that during the events of last summer there was “a war of hashtags” — #GazaUnderAttack for Palestinians and their supporters and #IsraelUnderFire for Israel and its supporters. Didn’t Palestinian use of social media, which included graphic images, ultimately succeed in turning the international community against Israel as the bombardments continued and the death toll mounted?
Indeed, Palestinians were considered the clear victors in the social media domain during the violent Israeli assault of last summer. And without a doubt, the images of Israeli inflicted violence in Gaza were more viral and available than ever to international audiences. But let’s not confuse such global visibility with a shift in the terms of the military occupation itself — with a waning of its repressive force. Nor did this sudden shift in the visibility of Palestinian victims and Israeli perpetrators within a global arena succeed in altering popular Israeli sentiment. Rather, Israeli racist militarism and calls for retribution against Palestinians was on the rise that last summer. It should be noted that many Israelis doubted the veracity of the images of Gazan devastation that were circulating on social networks, charging Palestinian social media users with widespread doctoring and falsification as a means of framing Israel. This charge has a very long history — one that we trace and discuss in the book.
There is a large body of scholarship on the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories. How is your approach to the long-running conflict different?
This book isn’t the standard story of the Israeli occupation. Both of us (Rebecca and Adi) have long been involved in activist campaigns against the Israeli occupation. This book is fueled by that activist project. But it is primarily a story about the very ordinary and banal ways in which Jewish Israelis live with, and perpetuate, Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories through every day cultural practices — in this case, social media.
We believe that this story about Israel’s occupation — about its reach into the heart of everyday Israeli living, beyond the territories — has been left in the shadows of much academic scholarship. Digital Militarism, then, is less about the spectacular violence of military occupation, than about the terms of everyday Israelis living with and participating in military occupation. We are arguing that this use of social media functions as a kind of ordinary Israeli complicity with the military occupation — complicity evident not only in the actions of the Israeli solider deployed in the West Bank, but also in the everyday networking practices of the Jewish resident of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, for whom the occupation seems to exist at something of a distance from his or her life.
We are interested in the ways that such Israeli everymen and women are retooling global social media culture to do militarized work — work that takes the form of selfie aesthetics, memes, and debates over digital doctoring. The means may be sanitized, but the message and sometimes the effects can be violent — as evidenced in the social media “revenge” campaign of last summer, when Israelis used Facebook to call for violent revenge against Palestinians following the murder of 3 settler youth.
Digital Militarism aims to shine a light on this ordinary domain of military occupation.
More About the Authors:
Rebecca L. Stein is the Nicholas J. & Theresa M. Leonardy Associate Professor of Anthropology at Duke University. She is the author of Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism (Duke, 2008); and the co-editor of Palestine, Israel, and the Politics of Popular Culture (Duke, 2005) and The Struggle for Sovereignty: Palestine and Israel, 1993-2005 (Stanford, 2006). Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford, 2015), co-authored with Adi Kuntsman, is her latest book. She is also core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Stein is currently continuing her research on the ways that new communication technologies are meditating the everyday Israeli relationship to its military occupation,with a focus on the role of new photographic technologies and viral image networks within this political context.
Adi Kuntsman is Lecturer in Information and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is the author of Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness, Migranthood, and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond (Peter Lang, 2009); the co-author (with Rebecca L. Stein) of Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age(Stanford, 2015); and the co-editor of Queer Necropolitics (Routledge, 2014); Digital Cultures and the Politics of Emotion: Feelings, Affect and Technologica Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); and Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/ Raciality (Raw Nerve Books, 2008). Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age (Stanford, 2015), co-authored with Rebecca Stein, is her latest book.