ONLINE ACTIVISM IN PALESTINE: A DIGITAL DIVIDE AND CONFUSION BETWEEN TOOLS AND TARGETS

August 9, 2014 OPINION/NEWS

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By Tala Halawa

The internet age has raised numerous questions and discussions concerning audience, goals and impacts of online communications. One of the most recent arguments among activists is the efficiency of online activism.

Recently in Palestine, a number of online campaigns have arisen. This article tackles one of the latest social media campaigns on Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli occupation jails, specifically where they were on a hunger strike for 63 days in rejection of the Administrative Detention policy. This campaign, under the hashtag of ‘#water_and_salt’, is an example to scale on general Palestinian online advocacy.

This is a relatively new issue in the Palestinian atmosphere because of the newness of advocating through social media in the area. In addition, many years ago when television first appeared, researchers in the media, politics, psychology and sociology fields spent years investigating the impact of television on people, be it positively or negatively.  Social media is now therefore the new trend in research and will naturally take time before results are known regarding the impact of advocating and mobilizing through it.

What makes this argument a trend in the Middle East is referring the so called ‘Arab Spring’ emersion to Social Media activism, as far as people were using online platforms as a communication tool to call for an offline action. However; this argument is similar to the chicken and egg first creation dialectical question!

On the other hand, communication tools, after all, need a sender, a receiver and medium to make a full communication process.  Yet, social media needs the same components. Nevertheless, specifying the target audience on social media may perhaps be more complicated and exposed to different societal factors.

Social Media is of course linked to internet services and user awareness of web tools and practices. Thus, do all Palestinians own direct or have personal internet connections? Are they really aware of the practices of its tools?

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics and the Palestinian Ministry of Telecom and Information Technology joint statement on 17/05/2013, the percentage of families who have an internet connection is 32.1% for 2012. This percentage represents an indication of the digital divide within the Palestinian society, explained by the economic situation and cultural character of the local communities. As a result, an internet connection is popular in a limited level among a specific group of people that share similar societal characteristics.

So, who is the imagined audience in Palestinian online activism campaigns?

General discourse in Palestinian online campaigns target foreign audiences; be they Arabic or other nationalities. However, targeting these audiences is fundamental, but is not as important as targeting the local audience most affected by the occasion. We look again to the ‘#water_and_salt’ campaign which aimed to support the demands of political prisoners, in terrible conditions after 63 days of a hunger strike. Did this campaign reach the audience mentioned in its goal?

Nonetheless, regarding the positive subtraction of social media usages as a new trend of struggle against occupation, focusing on online activism without mobilizing to offline actions can easily cause confusion among activists, between social media as a tool and social media as a goal itself. To summarise, social media is a communication tool combined with other older tools; however it does not represent the goal, the target or an alternative for offline action.

Advocating through social media effectiveness cannot be deniable, but it is important to bear in mind that internet connections are not available for all communities, especially among third world countries. Therefore, the use of social media as a communication tool parallel with other tools is vital, in addition to ensuring that offline action is not turned into an online demonstration, targeting a specific group within the community that shares the same characteristics, not representing every social class also.

Despite the huge flow of information on the internet regarding Palestinian political prisoners, exchanging information among a closed circle of internet users will not create public opinion towards it unless offline action takes place. However, the newness of this tool affords a margin of error and exaggeration of its influence is therefore justifiable and presented.

 

Tala Halawa

 

Tala Halawa: a Palestinian journalist and researcher based in occupied Palestine, holds a master’s degree from the University of Leeds in International Communications, and hosts a morning show in a local Palestinian radio 24FM.  

 

 

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