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Portraying Israeli and Palestinian identities on Twitter
It is 70 years since Israel declared its independence.
The process that lead to its foundation was characterised by horrific crimes against the Jewish people and disruption, displacement and occupation for Palestinian society. Almost forty years ago, Edward Said pointed out that Israelis and Palestinians had come to define themselves in an oppositional relationship. But, how is this oppositional creation of identity shaped in the information age?
In this context, we investigate how Twitter is being used as a medium to portray identities. Specifically, we look at how the Israeli Defence Forces (@IDFSpokesperson) and a Palestinian NGO, International Solidarity Movement (@ISMPalestine) tweeted about events. This gives us an insight into the frequency with which terms are being used to paint a picture, to the outside world, of how to understand the conflict. From this we can get an idea of how the opposing sides speak about each other, frame each other and themselves.
Tweets by @ISMPalestine
Table 1, created from the Palestinian NGO (@ISMPalestine) corpus of Tweets using Tweetvis, shows terms occurring in close proximity. The columns headed ‘co-occurrence score’ set out the strength of associations of terms that co-occur with ‘Israeli', with 1 being directly associated, and 0 having no association.
The Document Frequency (DF) score illustrates the number of Tweets in which the term appears. Across the corpus of Tweets ‘forces’ occurs 183 times. When we look at examples of terms paired within Tweets we find “#Israeli forces increase harassment of Palestinian schoolchildren” or “Israeli Forces firing dozens of stun grenades at bab al-zawwiva in #Hebron.” ‘Israeli forces’ and ‘Hebron’ are hashtags designed to diffuse the context, content and message to a wide audience.
The percentage column is the frequency of each term as a percentage of all 1,773 @ISMPalestine tweets in the period examined.
Table 1: Terms that co-occur with ‘Israeli’ in @ISMPalestine
Terms ‘Soldiers’ and ‘Forces’, whilst seeking to illustrate who is in conflict with the Palestinians, is telling, as they are a mark of legitimacy. A member of a legitimate military is referred to as a soldier, or a member of an armed force, whereas such terms do not appear when we analyze how @IDFspokesperson uses ‘Palestinian’.
Use of the term ‘apartheid’ seeks to link ‘Israel’ with white minority ruled South Africa (Zreik, 2004). This advocates boycott, divestment and sanctions, which were credited with assisting in the downfall of the South African regime (McMahon, 2014).
Tweets by @IDFspokesperson
The use of ‘Palestinian’ within the data set of @IDFspokesperson, portrays Israelis as victims of attacks from Palestinians.
The high frequency of terms such as ‘Stab’ (Table 2) points to the spike in stabbings of citizens, police or IDF members during the period of data collection. Within a broader context, attacks on the army or police, are portrayed as attacks upon the state. In Table 2, we can see same interval co-occurrences and tweet co-occurrences that point to a fundamentally different perspective on the conflict than @ISMPalestine.
Table 2: Terms that co-occur with ‘Palestinian’ in @IDFspokesperson
The most common co-occurring terms in @IDFspokesperson tweets are action words and weapons connected with attacks. The terms used are not employed to link to a broader context, as in @ISMPalestine, but relate to the reality on the ground from the @IDFspokesperson perspective.
Palestinians are neither ‘soldiers’ nor ‘forces’ in the @IDFspokesperson tweets. Instead, terms such as ‘attacker’ or ‘assailant’ are employed which highlight that the IDF see themselves as defending against ‘attackers’.
Comparatively,with the @ISMPalestine corpus, there is little use of political or historical terminology in @IDFspokesperson. Identity portrayal is focused on current events. A reason for this is the nature of the IDF, which operates as a military exempt from contextualizing situations. This is not to say that a broader political context is not contained within the tweets, but when referring to the Palestinians they place their actions within the context of a threat to the state.
We found that in the @ISMPalestine dataset, the Israelis are an aggressor, misusing their power to inflict pain and misery upon Palestinians. In the @IDFspokesperson dataset, the Palestinians are violent criminal types, seeking to cause mayhem and circumvent state power. The ramifications of such findings are that by understanding how you define your opponents, you can seek to understand who you think you are and who you actually are.
A fuller description of this research can be found in the article "The Self and Other: Portraying Israeli and Palestinian Identities on Twitter," in Irish Communications Review.
Jason Deegan is a postgraduate in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. John Hogan is a Research Fellow, Sharon Feeney is Head of Learning Development and Brendan K. O’Rourke is a Senior Lecturer in the College of Business, Dublin Institute of Technology.