Media, War & Conflict
2018, Vol. 11(1) 107–
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1750635217727312
The role of the media in
violent conflicts in the digital
age: Israeli and Palestinian
leaders’ perceptions
Gadi Wolfsfeld
The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Israel
The role of the news media in violent conflicts is a topic that has received a great deal of scholarly
attention especially in the field of political communication. A major issue that has emerged in
recent years asks about whether the advent of the digital age has led to any significant changes
in the role the media play in such confrontations. In this article, the author focuses on two
research questions that seem especially important. The first asks: Has the advent of the digital
age had any impact on how political leaders view the ability of weaker antagonists to compete
politically with the more powerful side in asymmetrical conflicts? The second asks: To what
extent do political leaders involved in violent conflicts think that the changes associated with
the digital age have led to the media playing a more positive or negative role in attempts at
peace and reconciliation. The author tries to provide some initial answers to these questions
based on 30 interviews with Israeli and Palestinian political leaders. In answer to the first
research question, he did find some convincing evidence that the digital age has improved the
ability of weaker challengers to compete with their more powerful antagonists. The spread of
camera phones and the inability of the authorities to keep secrets help explain this change. The
answer to the second research question is also fairly clear. If the political leaders interviewed
are to be believed, the advent of the digital age represents a tremendous boon for spreading
hatred and intolerance. Revealingly, this is an area where almost total agreement among both
Israeli and Palestinian leaders was found.
INFOCORE, media and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, media and peace, new media and conflict,
news and violent conflict, social media and conflict
Corresponding author:
Gadi Wolfsfeld, The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Tel Aviv 972999, Israel.
727312MWC0010.1177/1750635217727312Media, War & ConflictWolfsfeld
Special Issue Article
108 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
The role of the news media in violent conflicts has received considerable scholarly attention,
notably in exploring the role of the media in uprisings and revolutions (Cohen and
Wolfsfeld, 1993; Wolfsfeld, 1997; Wolfsfeld, Frosh and Awabdy, 2008), terrorism (Hess
and Kalb, 2003; Norris et al., 2003; Liebes and Kampf, 2007; Papacharissi and De
Fatima Oliveira, 2008; Yarchi et al., 2013) and wars (Bennett et al., 2008; Wolfsfeld,
1997, 2004). Other studies have investigated the role of the media in conflict resolution,
especially the role of the media in peace processes (Hackett, 2006; Lynch and McGoldrick,
2005; Saleem and Hanan, 2014; Sheafer and Dvir-Gvirsman, 2010; Spenser, 2005;
Wolfsfeld, 2004; Wolfsfeld, Alimi and Kailani, 2008).
The vast majority of these studies dealt with the impact of traditional media, but this
article focuses on what has changed in the digital age, which can perhaps be best defined
as changes that have taken place in the collection and dispersion of information since the
invention of the personal computer and the development of the internet.1 Chadwick (2013)
presents perhaps the best description of these changes as a ‘hybrid media system’.
Chadwick’s major point is that it is critical to see the new communication environment as
one in which older and newer media not only feed off and influence each other, but also
have an ongoing impact on the overall flow of information among citizens. Chadwick
notes: ‘Internet-driven norms of networking, flexibility, spontaneity, and ad-hoc organizing
have started to diffuse into our politics and media, and these norms are generating new
expectations about what counts as effective and worthwhile political action’ (p. 210).2 Van
Dijk and Poell (2013: 3) make a similar point by noting: ‘Social media logic is increasingly
becoming entangled with mass media logic.’ Modern political leaders have little
choice but to adapt to this new media environment. This is a broad topic, so the current
study focuses on two research questions that touch on important areas where researchers
dealing with this topic might reasonably expect to find significant change.
The first question concerns the relationship between political power and power over
the news media. When it comes to these two variables, it is generally agreed that ‘the rich
get richer’ and the ‘poor [at the very least] remain poor’ (Wolfsfeld, 1997, 2015). The
advantages the powerful enjoy in the domestic arena also apply in the international
sphere (Golan, 2008; Jones et al., 2011; Kim and Barnett, 1996; Segev, 2014; Wolfsfeld,
1997, 2004). The first research question is: Has the advent of the digital age had any
impact on how political leaders view the ability of weaker antagonists to compete politically
with the more powerful side in asymmetrical conflicts?
The second area of interest concerns the role of the media in the resolution of conflict.
There is widespread agreement that traditional news media usually plays a negative role in
attempts to promote peace and reconciliation between antagonists (Lynch and McGoldrick,
2005; Sheafer and Dvir-Gvirsman, 2010; Wolfsfeld, 2004). One reason for this is that violence
and conflict are more likely to be considered news than any attempts at reconciliation.
Therefore, the second research question is: To what extent do political leaders involved in
violent conflicts think that the changes associated with the digital age have led to the media
playing a more positive or negative role in attempts at peace and reconciliation?
Scientific review of the literature
A basic, theoretical assumption in the literature is that the politically powerful have much
better access than the less powerful to the news media (Bennett, 1990; Bennett et al.,
Wolfsfeld 109
2008; Entman, 2004, 2007; Wolfsfeld, 1997, 2004). When it comes to internal conflicts,
the advantages the powerful enjoy are particularly obvious. The authorities have regular,
almost automatic access to the news media as legitimate sources, while weaker antagonists
must prove their newsworthiness, often through acts of disorder. Wolfsfeld (1997,
2015) referred to this imbalance as the difference between gaining media access through
the front door, while the rear door is intended for deviants who provide sufficient drama
to be admitted. Consequently, more powerful actors are more likely to be covered as
legitimate, while their challengers are more likely to be portrayed as deviants.
This principle can also apply internationally. One of the most obvious indicators concerns
how journalists are assigned to cover international affairs. It is not surprising that the
United States is the most covered country (Wu, 2000), or that the major European countries
host the greatest number of foreign reporters (European Federation of Journalists, 2015).
The richer and more powerful the country, the more likely it is that reporters from other
countries are permanently assigned there. This leads to an ongoing, routine flow of stories
from those countries that include both orderly news (such as elections and decisions about
policy) and disorderly news (such as violence and natural disasters). The mainstream media
in Western countries usually only covers the poorer parts of the world if something terrible
happens. Even then, a terrorist attack in Paris, Brussels, or the United States will receive far
more international coverage than one that happens in Beirut or Tunisia.3 However, the relative
wealth of a country is not the only reason for such editorial decisions about attention.
Other factors can include a country’s strategic interests, amount of perceived threat, and the
cultural proximity between the countries (Hawkins, 2011).
Some people believe that things have changed in the digital era. For example, pundits
point to the power of social media in the 2010 Arab Spring. The conventional wisdom
was that the emergence of social media provided protesters with the necessary tools to
bring down Egypt’s long-ruling Mubarak government. However, Wolfsfeld, Segev and
Sheafer’s (2013) study of 20 Arab countries and the Palestinian authority provided convincing
evidence of a negative correlation between the amount of social media penetration
and the outbreak of violence. The primary reason for this is that the wealthier Arab
countries had no shortage of internet and social media access, but very little political
discontent. In addition, the data showed that people joining social media were much
more likely to follow the outbreak of political unrest than to precede it. In short, the
political situation provided a far better explanation for the outbreak of violence than the
advent of the digital age.4
Nevertheless, it has become clear in recent years that those in power are finding it
increasingly difficult to control the flow of information. The development of the internet
meant that the entire world now has access to information and images that would not
have seen the light of day in the past. Mobile phones play a similar function in poorer
countries (Pierskalla and Hollenbach, 2013). A major reason for this is the massive proliferation
of smartphones, allowing users to record events as they happen and immediately
upload the images to YouTube and similar platforms (Allan, 2013;
Andén-Papadopoulos, 2013; Gregory, 2015). In keeping with Chadwick’s (2013) thesis,
it is critical to emphasize that we are not referring just to information that flows through
newer media. Such events receive their greatest amplification when they are picked up
and publicized by more traditional media.
110 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
Although there have been many examples of this phenomenon in recent years, perhaps
the best known is the massive increase in videos of police brutality in the United States,
which has led to major public debate about the issue (Antony and Thomas, 2010; Goldsmith,
2010; Gregory, 2015; Robinson, 2011; Wilson and Serisier, 2010). In the field of political
communication, this change is sometimes referred to as the transition from ‘institutionally
driven’ to ‘event-driven’ news (Lawrence, 2000; Livingston and Bennett, 2003).
The difficulties that modern authorities face in the digital age are not limited to the
proliferation of cameras. The fact that activists can now break into the most secure databases
and spread their information worldwide has made it much more difficult for
authorities to keep secrets. The best-known examples of this include Wikileaks
(Chadwick, 2013; Sifry, 2011), the Snowden affair (Gurnow, 2014) and the Panama
Papers.5 This suggests that weaker antagonists now have tools enabling them to compete
with their more powerful adversaries, especially when these stories are picked up by the
mainstream media. Nevertheless, gaining public attention is quite different from bringing
about significant policy or regime changes.
Seeking peace in the digital age
The second research question looks at leaders’ perceptions about possible significant
changes concerning the mostly negative role the media plays in peace processes. It is
noteworthy that there is much more literature on media and violent conflict than on the
role the media can play in resolving conflict. Wolfsfeld (2004) argued that there is an
inherent contradiction between the needs of traditional news and the successful completion
of a peace process. With some exceptions, traditional news media is likely to make
an excellent tool for waging war but a poor one for bringing peace.6
The question is whether or not the advent of the digital age has improved this situation.
Some optimists might assume that the fact that groups working for peace are in a better
position to use social media for mobilization might lead to a more positive outcome. In
addition, the ability to communicate directly with people living on the other side of the
divide might also provide opportunities for reconciliation that were previously
However, initial research findings are far from encouraging. As with traditional
media, the internet and social media appear to primarily be used to spread hatred, intolerance
and violence, rather than peace. Gabi Weinman (2006, 2015) carried out extensive
studies about the ability of terrorist groups to exploit new media, not only for recruitment
but also to pass on information about building more lethal weapons. Social media also
enables other types of hate groups to spread their message (Chau and Xu, 2007; Citron
and Norton, 2011; McNamee et al., 2010). Extremists, who might have felt socially isolated
in the past, now find themselves in virtual communities with thousands of people
who share their views.
The same reasons why traditional media focuses on conflict and violence also explain
the popularity of similar content on the web. Audiences are drawn to drama, and ISIS
videos of prisoners being decapitated are far more likely to go viral than reports about
peace groups meeting to find common ground. The cliché ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ is probably
just as true in the digital world as it is in traditional journalism. This is a good
Wolfsfeld 111
example of where traditional media logic influences how newer media operates
(Chadwick, 2013; Van Dijck and Poell, 2013). While some virtual communities promoting
peace have been created, the initial evidence suggests that hate groups have benefited
far more from the dawn of the digital age than those promoting hope and reconciliation.
This research was conducted as part of INFOCORE, an international collaborative research
project funded under the 7th European Framework Program of the European Commission.7
The data here is based on one specific interest of a larger research project focused on the
ongoing interactions between political leaders and the media. Fifteen interviews were conducted
with Israeli leaders and another 15 with Palestinian leaders. Not all interviewees
were elected officials. Some were officials involved in diplomacy, while others were leaders
of political organizations. The major criteria for selection were that interviewees must be
somehow involved in promoting a particular political agenda and had ongoing contact with
the media concerning the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. All interviewees were promised anonymity,
so only a general description of their role and status is noted when they are quoted.
The Palestinian–Israeli case is an excellent place to start when asking these research
questions. It is clearly an asymmetrical conflict that often involves violence and has
generated an enormous amount of international political and media attention. In addition,
given that there has been an extensive amount of scholarly work on the role of traditional
media in this conflict, it provides a useful place to see what has changed.8
The interviews were all semi-structured and focused on a core set of questions.
However, the interviews were allowed to go in interesting directions that emerged in the
course of the interview. In this analysis, we specifically focused on four core questions
related to the two research concerns discussed above:
1. Many people have talked about the fact that people walking around with camera
phones have changed the nature of the news, meaning much more stories start
from the field. Do you think this new development has affected the news and the
conflict itself?
2. Can you think of other ways in which news or politics has changed because of the
creation of the internet?
3. Do you think that the internet in general, and social media in particular, have been
more beneficial for the forces of hate or the forces of reconciliation?
4. When it comes to violent conflict, can you think of any positive developments
associated with the dawn of the digital age?
The one-hour interviews were all conducted in person in 2015, in either Hebrew or
Arabic. They were recorded, transcribed, and then translated into English
The discussion begins by considering the first research question: Has the advent of the
digital age had any impact on how political leaders view the ability of weaker antagonists
112 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
to compete politically with the more powerful side in asymmetrical conflicts? In general,
the political leaders who were interviewed believed that things had changed and that the
new media environment was more advantageous for weaker antagonists. Although the
technological changes have not eliminated the advantages that the political powerful
enjoy, the new media environment has improved the ability of weaker challengers to compete
with their more powerful adversaries.
One of the most important indicators of an antagonist’s ability to manage the political
environment surrounding any conflict is the extent to which they can control the flow of
information and images. In asymmetrical conflicts, a loss of control by the more powerful
antagonist can provide opportunities for the weaker side to bring third parties into the
conflict as allies and reduce disparity (Wolfsfeld, 1997).
It was apparent from talking to Israeli and Palestinian leaders that the former group
saw recent technological changes as a threat, while the latter saw these changes as an
opportunity. The most obvious, powerful change in this area has been the revolutionary
rise in the number of ordinary Palestinians and human-rights groups using camera phones
to record and upload abuses by Israeli security forces. The Israelis also have their own
cameras, which sometimes worked to their advantage, especially when capturing
Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, the interviews made it abundantly
clear that the Palestinian leaders are far more enthusiastic about these changes than are
their Israeli counterparts.
A perfect example of this phenomenon occurred in March 2016, when an Israeli soldier
shot and killed a Palestinian attacker who was lying, wounded, on the ground.9
Someone connected to the B’Tselem human-rights organization videotaped the incident
and uploaded it to the web. The film led to a major public debate, both inside and outside
Israel, about whether or not the shooting was justified. The solider was arrested and
charged with manslaughter.10
Of course, there are similar examples of powerful videos that embarrassed authorities
long before the digital age. The powerful scenes of the Selma, Alabama, police beating
black protesters during the American civil rights movement (Lee, 2002; Roberts and
Klibanoff, 2008) is one of the best-known examples. The fact that these occurred during
the early days of television may have significantly increased the impact that those horrible
images had on the American public and political leaders. There have also been similar
examples in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the best-known of these took
place in September 2000, when a petrified 12-year-old, Mohammad Al-Durrah, was
filmed hiding behind his father during a gun battle between Palestinians and Israelis. The
prevailing assumption was that the boy was killed by Israelis soldiers.
Nevertheless, the dramatic changes that have occurred in recent years cannot be
ignored. In the first intifada (Palestinian uprising), which broke out in late 1987 and
killed hundreds of people, not one incident was captured on film and shown in the news
(Alimi, 2007; Cohen and Wolfsfeld, 1994; Wolfsfeld, 1997).11 In addition, the al-Durrah
incident took place during the first days of the second intifada. Despite hundreds of
Israelis and Palestinians being killed, it would be difficult to find a similar episode
recorded on film.12
However, almost everyone today has a camera and can instantly upload their videos to
the internet. Such videos also originate in thousands of public surveillance cameras.
Wolfsfeld 113
Almost all Palestinian and Israeli leaders who were interviewed noted this change. Most
Palestinians saw this as a tool for revealing Israel abuses. The remarks of a Palestinian
leader, who also served in a senior position at a Palestinian university, were typical. When
asked about whether the proliferation of cameras affected the conflict, he responded:
Yes, it has a big influence. The public has started to practise media-related activities. They
monitor events and capture them with their smartphones. This explains why the Israeli army
assaults Palestinian civilians carrying their cameras more than Palestinian journalists. Media of
the public, so to speak, has a positive impact on spreading the Palestinian cause. But for the
Israelis, of course, it plays a negative role. (Pal 005, 1 December 2015)
A Palestinian director for a major political organization responded in a similar, if
somewhat exaggerated, manner:
Yes, it changed and left an influence. Instead of traditional media outlets becoming the source
of the news, social networks have become the main source of news. Sometimes they even
become more reliable sources when an event is immediately captured on camera and instantly
published on various social network sites. Therefore, social networks have superseded
traditional media outlets in becoming the source of news. (Pal 004, 27 November 2015)
None of these political leaders suggested that the flow of information exclusively runs
through social networks, but rather that newer media becomes an important new source
for all forms of media. A number of the Palestinian interviewees specifically focused on
the power of YouTube to make their case to the world. A head of a major Palestinian
organization said:
YouTube has helped a lot in disseminating news worldwide. It is the most influential and the
easiest method. For instance, some four months ago, Israeli soldiers attacked a young Palestinian
boy, 12-year-old Mohammad Tamimi from the village of Nebi Saleh, north of Ramallah. The
assault was captured on video cameras and immediately posted on YouTube. It reached all
corners of the universe and revealed the volume of Israeli violence in assaulting a little kid. It
also showed how the family tried to protect their kid during the attack. Moreover, Facebook has
a significant effect on disseminating news as information passes through in no time and with
minimal effort. (Pal 009, 28 December 2015)
One Palestinian interviewee, in charge of public relations for one of the ministries,
had a different view, talking about the more negative aspects of the spread of cameras:
Well, sometimes it is useful and has a positive impact on news-gathering as well as on the
conflict itself. But, on the other hand, almost 99 percent of images captured are taken in a
wrong way, leaving a negative impact that helps the Israelis more than the Palestinians. This is
the most serious element in dealing with social networks. Shots and videos should be captured
properly in a way that helps and serves the Palestinian cause and refutes the Israeli version of
the event. (Pal 007, 10 December 2015)
This quote reminds us that the ubiquity of cameras can also work to the disadvantage of
the Palestinian cause. The Israeli police and army employ trained photographers who
114 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
accompany many units. They sometimes release these videos to reinforce official claims
about Palestinian terrorism. During the 2015–2016 wave of violence, videos of knifewielding
Palestinians attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians, before being shot, were far
more common than more controversial videos, such as those discussed previously.
The question remains as to why the proliferation of cameras is more of a problem for
the Israelis than the Palestinians. The answer brings us back to the international political
environment that opposes the Israeli occupation. The problem for Israeli political leaders
is that, from a strategic perspective, no news is good news. The Israeli government would
prefer that the conflict remain as far under the international radar as possible. Also, while
images of Palestinians attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians work to the government’s
advantage internally, many international audiences may consider such attacks understandable
or even justified.
The advent of the digital age has led to some changes regarding Israeli behaviour on
the ground, especially when war broke out. Again, the presence of cameras recording the
deaths of Palestinian civilians is nothing new. Indeed, an attempt to gauge the impact of
such images on international opinion and policy would more likely point to two historical
events: the 1982 Lebanese war and the first intifada that erupted in December 1987
(Wolfsfeld, 1997).
Nevertheless, concerns about the increasing presence of cameras on the battlefield
and the inability to control the flow of information have a significant impact on how the
Israeli military and political leadership think about military operations. Many Israeli
leaders talked about the bitter lessons they learned about this problem during the second
Lebanese war in 2006. The conventional wisdom was that one reason why the war
against the Hezbollah went so poorly was the continual flow of bad news coming from
the battlefield, especially from soldiers using their cellphones during the fighting.
Rapaport (2010: 52–53) convincingly wrote about the changes the Israeli Defense
Forces (IDF) made when they again went to war in Gaza in a conflict called Operation
Cast Lead:
Regarding operational discipline, a great improvement has occurred since the 2006 war. A
number of examples illustrate this: (1) The use of cellular phones during operational missions
has been forbidden completely, and this is enforced. (2) Leaks to the media have been reduced
significantly. Checks of telephone conversation emissions that were conducted after the second
Lebanon war revealed that dozens of senior officers had been in contact with journalists. The
scope of this phenomenon began to decline the moment Ashkenazi [the Chief of Staff] decided
to instate heavy penalties for media leaks. It appears that the Chief of Staff’s threats, along with
other factors, have been effective, as a check that was conducted of 550 officers during Cast
Lead found that none of them leaked information or conversed with journalists without the
mediation of the IDF spokesperson.
This conclusion did not mean that the Israelis felt in complete control of the flow of
information during the Gaza War. Many difficult images of the destruction were easily
uploaded to YouTube. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had people working full time to
respond to those images, particularly those it believed were staged or faked. The new
technology also made it easier for journalists and government officials to verify usergenerated
Wolfsfeld 115
The lack of Israeli control over the flow of information is not limited to the proliferation
of cameras. It can also be attributed to the massive number of communication channels
that now enable the general public and leaders around the world to share information
and opinions about the conflict. Here too, it is important to emphasize that the ongoing
interdependence between older and newer media is one of the reasons the changes seem
to have had such an effect on general perceptions of the conflict. While this development
has provided Israel’s defenders with some helpful tools, most Israeli leaders view these
developments more as threats than opportunities. A leading official from the Israeli
Foreign Ministry talked about the difficulties Israel faced in the new media
Our main problem is facing your opponent, which is much more than the Palestinians, but all
those organizations that are on social networks. There is significance to mathematics. In
traditional media, let’s say, in front of the Washington Post, you and your opponent are going
with the story of the newspaper, and the situation is that either I managed to get the story or not.
In social media, the story is how many people you succeeded to reach and will pass on your
story. For example, in Europe, in France, there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews, and at
least 10 times more Muslims. Not all Muslims are automatically active in this anti-Israeli
activity. So, for example, in the Netherlands, Britain and other countries, demographics play a
role. The point is that, within the French-speaking space, there is a large majority of people
whose natural environment is against you. Therefore, this new media presents us with the
challenge of their control in numbers. (IS009, 16 August 2015)
It can be argued that the Israeli interviewees often found themselves constantly
involved in damage control. A useful metaphor would be a ship in which the sailors are
constantly attempting to plug leaks as the water keeps rushing in. The problem facing
the Israelis and other powerful antagonists is that the number of leaks has grown exponentially.
New leaks seem to emerge every day, and plugging them all becomes almost
impossible. The Foreign Ministry professional’s description provides an excellent
example of what happens as political leaders move from the news cycle to the much
less institutional, but more dynamic and fragmented political information cycle
(Chadwick, 2013).
The question remains as to if any of this has any significant long-term effect on the
conflict itself. It is helpful to consider two types of possible effects on the level of
restraint the Israeli military exhibits and the extent to which the international community
makes significant attempts to resolve the conflict.
First, the interviews with Israeli leaders suggest that they are more reluctant to engage
in military operations that involve massive civilian casualties. Some readers may be
skeptical of this conclusion, given the high number of Palestinian civilians killed in the
2014 Israeli–Gaza conflict, which suggests that the Israeli military is willing to pay the
price of international condemnation if it believes the alternatives on the ground are
worse. It is also likely that there are other factors at work, such as changing international
norms about civilian casualties. However, there is little doubt that all Israeli leaders take
the new media environment into account when planning such operations. At the very
least, they agree that the current political and media environments have increasingly
shortened the amount of time they have to carry out such operations.
116 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
Turning to the second indicator, there is little evidence of significant changes in
the international community’s willingness to intervene in the conflict. While there
have been repeated international condemnations of Israel’s treatment of the
Palestinians, and a growing hostility towards the Jewish state, it would seem that a
good deal of the world has reached the conclusion that this is an intractable conflict.
It is also worth noting that many other recent international conflicts have been far
bloodier than the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Given the constant flow of horror emanating
from places such as Syria and Southern Sudan, the videos from Israel and
Palestine pale in comparison.
This suggests that, although the advent of the digital age has enabled the Palestinians
to compete on a more equal basis with Israel on the international stage, there is scant
evidence that this has led to any significant changes in the nature of the conflict or the
chances of any resolution. This pessimistic conclusion receives further support as the
discussion turns to the second research question.
Peace and hatred in the digital age
The second research question asks: To what extent do political leaders involved in violent
conflicts think that the changes associated with the digital age have led to the media
playing a more positive or negative role in attempts at peace and reconciliation? In
exploring this question, we found significant agreement among Israeli and Palestinian
interviewees. Interviewees perceive that the internet, like traditional media, is far better
at spreading hate and extremism than promoting peace and reconciliation. If accurate,
there is good reason to believe that the internet has made things worse. There are certainly
significant differences in the way Israeli and Palestinian leaders relate to this issue,
but they seem to agree that the internet in general, and social media in particular, have
made the chance for peace even less likely.
The discussion begins by considering the views of Israeli political leaders. One point
that frequently arose in the interviews was the conventional wisdom in Israel that a major
cause for the 2015–2016 wave of Palestinian violence was the incitement that spread
through the social media. This idea resonated within the Israeli populace, particularly
given the extremely young age of many of the perpetrators. The general consensus surrounding
this issue can be demonstrated by the fact that the speaker of the Knesset talked
about it during his annual Independence Day speech in May 2016:
Israel’s enemies incited against us without stop and sowed the seeds of hate and death. Social
media played a major role in spreading the wild incitement against us. It’s ironic that it [social
media], which is meant to join together, to bring countries and people together, has served those
who want to do us evil, to divide, distance, and break [us] up.13
Study of public discourse on this issue in Israel also revealed that claims about incitement
were not only adopted by the right-wing parties in power, but also the parties from
the centre, and even some who would normally be considered part of the peace camp.
One interesting comment on the issue of incitement came from a Knesset member of the
opposition, who surprised us by comparing what was going on among the Palestinians to
Wolfsfeld 117
some of what he learned in school about the more extremist Jewish movements who
fought against the British occupation of Palestine. He started by supporting the government
position on this issue:
It’s true … When you see an ISIS ‘snuff’ film, and they took your parents away and the like,
and it may not be nice to say, but it reminds me of the books I’d read as a child about Etzel and
Lechi, which would fill me with pride. Everyone always says that when God forbids someone
to commit suicide, you shouldn’t publicize it because it could lead to a chain reaction. Here, the
chain reaction works through the internet. On the internet, you learn everything: How to hate,
how to use weapons, everything.
Interviewer: So you think that has an influence on extremist groups?
Absolutely. Those forces become more powerful because to hate is easy, and to love is difficult.
(IS014, 25 November 2015)
A Knesset member who had extensive experience in both the military and Israel’s
attempts at public diplomacy expressed a more nuanced view of this issue. When asked
if he accepted the claim that incitement was a key factor in the recent wave of attacks, he
I can’t tell exactly which factor has more weight. Obviously, incitement is one factor in
encouraging violence, but it is not the only cause of violence. It encourages violence, but if
there was no infrastructure or political situation that has an effect on people, then incitement
wouldn’t do that. Propaganda can influence only when people have already mentally prepared
to take these actions. That’s how I see it. From all sources of incitement, what I think is most
effective in the Arab society is still television. It is true that this thesis about social media exists,
but in the Arab society it is still the television. I am talking about domestic and international
media, like Al-Jazeera. In the local media, there is an impact of the Palestinian Authority and
we can also influence them, so they are more cautious. But when it comes from Al-Jazeera and
many other similar TV channels and from others that dominate our sky, it does all the work.
(IS012, 1 November 2015)
This particular reply is particularly insightful with regard to two issues. The first is
that those who make claims about Palestinian incitement while ignoring the political
situation are deluding themselves. The idea that politics comes first was the central argument
in the article about the role of social media in the Arab Spring (Wolfsfeld, Segev
and Sheafer, 2013). The second insight is a further reminder to pundits and researchers
who hope to understand the role of the media in conflicts to never ignore the power of
television. This is probably especially true when it comes to the power of Al-Jazeera and
other Arab satellite news stations within Palestinian society (Lynch, 2006; Samuel-
Azran, 2013).
Another Israeli Knesset member was interviewed because of his high level of knowledge
and experience in diplomacy and dealing with the international media. He talked
about the ways in which the internet was also a boon for extremist groups among Israelis
and Palestinians. He specifically mentioned the Israeli right-wing group Lahava. News
118 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
reports suggested that this Jewish anti-assimilation group was on the verge of being
declared a terrorist organization by the defence minister.14 The Knesset member was
asked about the major changes that had taken place since the dawn of the digital age, and
It changed in two major ways. The first way is that digitalization has increased the power of
Lahava groups to recruit and to indoctrinate, and to even instruct militarily building bombs.
And rather than advancing the cause of peace, almost invariably, the internet serves as a tool of
excitability and building bombs. It hasn’t brought understanding because usually people tend to
look at sites that confirm their ideas. They’re not looking to challenge their ideas on the internet,
and they get indoctrinated and instructed. We know that lone-wolf terrorists are people that
have been indoctrinated and instructed via the internet. I often say that the ones who benefit the
most from the internet are the people who are opposed to peace, not the ones who are in favor.
Because their message is easy to carry, and they were isolated, and now they’re not isolated. I
think they are much more likely to help hate groups, and terrorist groups, and Nazis, and
Islamic fundamentals. I think they have gotten the most out of the media revolution. And it’s
sad, but I really think that’s the case. (IS010, 20 August 2015)
There is one more Israeli viewpoint on this issue that is worth noting. One of the
Knesset members quoted earlier was a close associate of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
when he was involved in the Oslo peace process. The Knesset member’s thoughts about
what had changed since then are significant:
I’m not sure today that Rabin would have gone for Oslo. I mean he would have been bombarded
with millions of emails and the like, and that is a big deal. (IS014, 25 November 2015)
Assuming there is some truth to this point, it suggests that the digital age may create
similar problems for leaders who hope to either initiate peace negotiations or go to
war. The inability to control the flow of information from either negotiations or the
battlefield represents a serious obstacle to success. Add to that the increasing ability
of protest movements to quickly and massively mobilize against the government, and
one begins to appreciate the difficulties modern governments face in waging either
war or peace.
It was not surprising that the Palestinian leaders we interviewed were less likely to see
a problematic link between social media and the 2015–2016 wave of violence. When
they did talk about the violence, they either said it was invented by the Israelis as an
excuse for killing Palestinians or that it was a justified form of resistance to the Israeli
occupation. However, many interviewees did talk about the ability of more radical
groups to exploit the internet to achieve their goals. Consider the following comments
from a major figure in the Palestinian academic world:
The internet has contributed to spreading chaos, wars, and hatred much more than it has helped
in the educational or cultural spheres. At least this is how I see its influence in the Arab world.
I see no positive developments that serve the Palestinian cause. I read or watch real news in
traditional media outlets. As for social media, I see it as a tool for misleading people, confusing
their beliefs, and spreading lies in all directions. (Pal005, 1 December 2015)
Wolfsfeld 119
A similar sentiment was expressed by another Palestinian leader, a director of a semigovernment
organization that deals with the conflict:
The dissemination of frightening images of murder and killings have contributed a lot to
increasing hatred, while digital media should have been used and guided towards ending wars
and not increasing them. The digital age has allowed the spreading of news on destruction. It
gave all parties the chance to blame each other. It allowed a fast means of action and reaction,
blame and counter-blame. (Pal 004, 27 November 2015)
Some Palestinian interviewees also talked about how the internet had been a boon for
their enemies. Interestingly, Israel was not the only enemy that exploited digital tools
against the Palestinians. A political leader who was also involved in conflict-related
issues referred to both Hamas and Israel:
Unfortunately, the internet has played a major role for the bad more than for the good. Based on
the experience in Gaza, it served as a tool to threaten civilians and suppress their aspirations.
Yet, it all depends on the user. Hamas, for example, thought it could control the public through
social media or digital media, as it allowed it for some and prohibited it for others. At the same
time, the Israeli army used the internet and social media to recruit informers, and to frighten and
intimidate the civilian population. (Pal003, 17 November 2015)
Only one of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders disagreed with this pessimistic view of
the digital age. This exception concerned the attempts of the Israel Foreign Ministry to
reach citizens living in the Arab world. Their not-so-hidden agenda was to promote
Israel’s viewpoints in the Arab world. Many would argue that these attempts had nothing
to do with peace, but should really be seen more as a form of propaganda. They are certainly
seen by the Israeli government as a type of public diplomacy.
Nevertheless, one can also not ignore the number of Arab citizens around the world
who positively responded to these efforts. One official who was heavily involved in these
digital efforts noted:
As soon as we talk about digital media, you have more tools to measure, and have more ability
to keep track of things with hashtags, some kind of search or another. What we see at the microlevel
is that we reach people. We see who is following us because these studies have showed
that we are doing is not bad. It’s not just Israelis, and it is not only non-Israelis. We can see and
identify information that goes away and really comes to other media outlets. Important
examples come from those who are not considered pro-Israel. We have from the Arabic page
that, in terms of ‘likes,’ is our most popular, with 320,000 likes.
Interviewer: How can there be so many Arabs in this group?
Because it is working correctly. When we started, it was around 70,000.
Interviewer: Which Arabs are they?
Very diffuse. A lot from Egypt, Iraq and so on. They are involved and responsive, which is
important to us. The guys who work in Arabic, the message trickled down to them, and they
invest a lot of time in answering, do not leave the page without commenting, stimulate dialogue,
120 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
and a lot of interesting things come out. It changes the situation very much compared to
traditional media. You have a real dialogue with the Arab population, which is amazing. (IS001,
1 February 2015)
It is noteworthy that this was the only positive comment we heard in all the interviews
we conducted. While there may be more exceptions, whereby some movements working
for peace are able to exploit the new technology for good, the overall impression suggests
that new media has made a bad situation even worse. If the leaders are to be
believed, both newer and older media appear to be far better at spreading hate and violence
than any voices for reconciliation.
The initial evidence presented in this article points to some interesting conclusions about
how the role of the media may have changed since the dawn of the digital age. The
increasing difficulties that powerful antagonists have in maintaining control over the
flow of information works to the advantage of the weaker side. The proliferation of people
with cameras seems particularly significant in this regard.
However, this does not mean that these changes have a significant impact on conflict
outcomes. There was some evidence that Israeli leaders had become increasingly
concerned about how more aggressive military actions would be covered in the
news. Nevertheless, the massive number of civilian casualties being caught on film
from conflicts around the world suggests that many have come to the conclusion that
military benefits of such actions outweigh any short-term costs to their image. We
should be careful about generalizing from this case because the Israeli–Palestinian
conflict receives an unusual amount of international attention. In addition, we need
to bear in mind that the findings in this study reflect leaders’ perceptions. Further
analysis is required before drawing any firm conclusions about the actual role of the
media. In any case, any other effects on asymmetrical conflicts will be gradual and
long-term. It will be up to historians to assess the overall impact that the internet has
on violent conflicts.
With regard to the second research question, results are extremely pessimistic. There
was nearly total agreement among the interviewees that social media is much more likely
to spread violence and hate than aid in any attempts at conflict resolution. It would be
important to look further into this issue using content analysis and the impact of this traffic
on various public groups. As with traditional media, we may find some exceptions to
this general rule, but there is no current good news on that front.
The research path forward is clear. First, we want to look at other violent conflicts and
see if these conclusions also help explain the role of the new media in other contexts.
Second, there is a need to look beyond leaders’ perceptions and attempt to use additional
methodologies to better understand the changing role of different types of media. Finally,
the two research questions asked here have barely scratched the surface in terms of the
issues that need to be addressed. The effects of technological changes will be minimal in
some areas and are likely to be more significant in others. The goal of research in this
area is to learn much more about such differences.
Wolfsfeld 121
I wish to thank my research assistants, who did most of the heavy lifting for this project: Yarden
Ben-Ami, Tom Dibon, Linor Tsfroni, and Elias Zananiri.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: This research was conducted as part of INFOCORE, an international
collaborative research project funded under the 7th European Framework Program of the European
Commission under Grant Agreement No 613308.
1. It is clear that the term digital age is a misnomer because all forms of media rely on digital
technology. Nevertheless, the fact that this term has become the most common way of
describing the changes that have taken place in recent years leads to the conclusion that the
advantages of using this term outweigh the disadvantages.
2. Some other important works on this topic include Miskimmon et al. (2014), Bennett and
Segerberg (2012), and Hood and Margetts (2007).
3. See
4. These results are not meant to suggest that social media cannot be used as an important tool
for mobilization, especially in places where the mainstream media is controlled. However, the
necessary condition for protest (especially when protesters can be killed) is an intense sense
of political dissatisfaction.
5. See:
6. For a better understanding of these exceptions, see Wolfsfeld (2004).
7. For details see:
8. Some examples include Bishara (2013), Peterson (2014), Kampf and Liebes (2013);
Tenenboim-Weinblatt et al. (2016), Wolfsfeld, (1997, 2001) Wolfsfeld, Frosh and Awabdy
9. See:
10. It also led to a major dispute between the Prime Minister and his defence minister, which some
believe was one of the reasons for the defence minister being replaced a few months later.
11. There were videos of Palestinians being beaten that led to serious problems for the Israeli
government (Wolfsfeld, 1987).
12. There was no shortage of horrible video images in the aftermath of violence, including terrorist
attacks by suicide bombers. However, the al-Durrah incident seemed to be the only one
where the killing was filmed.
13. See:
14. See:
Alimi EY (2007) Israeli Politics and the First Palestinian Intifada: Political Opportunities,
Framing Processes and Contentious Politics, Vol. 4. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Allan S (2013) Citizen Witnessing: Revisioning Journalism in Times of Crisis: Hoboken, NJ: John
Andén-Papadopoulos K (2013) Media witnessing and the ‘crowd-sourced video revolution’.
Visual Communication 12(3): 341–357.
122 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
Antony MG and Thomas RJ (2010) ‘This is citizen journalism at its finest’: YouTube and the
public sphere in the Oscar Grant shooting incident. New Media & Society 12(8): 1280–1296.
Bennett WL (1990) Toward a theory of press–state relations in the United States. Journal of
Communication 40(2): 103–125.
Bennett WL and Segerberg A (2012) The logic of connective action: Digital media and the personalization
of contentious politics. Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 739–768.
Bennett WL, Lawrence RG and Livingston S (2008) When the Press Fails: Political Power and
the News Media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bishara A (2013) Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics. Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
Chadwick A (2013) The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. Oxford: Oxford University
Chau M and Xu J (2007) Mining communities and their relationships in blogs: A study of online
hate groups. International Journal of Human–Computer Studies 65(1): 57–70.
Citron DK and Norton HL (2011) Intermediaries and hate speech: Fostering digital citizenship for
our information age. Boston University Law Review 91: 1435; University of Maryland Legal
Studies Research Paper No. 2011–16. Available at SSRN:
(accessed 20 August 2017).
Cohen AA and Wolfsfeld G (eds) (1994) Framing the Intifada: People and Media. New York: Preager.
Entman RM (2004) Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and US Foreign Policy.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Entman RM (2007) Framing bias: Media in the distribution of power. Journal of Communication
57(1): 163–173.
European Federation of Journalists (2015) Available at:
london-the-world-capital-of-foreign-correspondents/ (accessed 20 August 2017).
Golan GJ (2008) Where in the world is Africa? Predicting coverage of Africa by US television
networks. International Communication Gazette 70(1): 41–57.
Goldsmith AJ (2010) Policing’s new visibility. British Journal of Criminology 50(5): 914–934.
Gregory S (2015) Ubiquitous witnesses: Who creates the evidence and the live(d) experience of
human rights violations? Information, Communication and Society 18(11): 1378–1392.
Gurnow M (2014) The Edward Snowden Affair: Exposing the Politics and Media behind the NSA
Scandal. Indianapolis: Blue River Press.
Hackett RA (2006) Is peace journalism possible? Three frameworks for assessing structure and
agency in news media. Conflict & Communication 5(2): 1–13.
Hawkins V (2011) Media selectivity and the other side of the CNN effect: The consequences of
not paying attention to conflict. Media, War & Conflict 4(1): 55–68.
Hess S and Kalb ML (2003) The Media and the War on Terrorism. Washington, DC: Brookings
Institution Press.
Hood CC and Margetts HZ (2007) The Tools of Government in the Digital Age. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.
Jones TM, Van Aelst P and Vliegenthart R (2011) Foreign nation visibility in US news coverage:
A longitudinal analysis (1950–2006). Communication Research 40(2): 417–436.
Kampf Z and Liebes T (2013) Transforming Media Conflicts: The New Face of War. New York:
Kim K and Barnett GA (1996) The determinants of international news flow a network analysis.
Communication Research 23(3): 323–352.
Lawrence RG (2000) The Politics of Force: Media and the Construction of Police Brutality.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolfsfeld 123
Lee T (2002) Mobilizing Public Opinion: Black Insurgency and Racial Attitudes in the Civil Rights
Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Liebes T and Kampf Z (2007) Routinizing terror: Media coverage and public practices in Israel,
2000–2005. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 12(1): 108–116.
Livingston S and Bennett WL (2003) Gatekeeping, indexing, and live-event news: Is technology
altering the construction of news? Political Communication 20(4): 363–380.
Lynch J and McGoldrick A (2005) Peace Journalism. Stroud: Hawthorn Press Stroud.
Lynch M (2006) Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today.
New York: Columbia University Press.
McNamee LG, Peterson BL and Peña J (2010) A call to educate, participate, invoke and indict:
Understanding the communication of online hate groups. Communication Monographs 77(2):
Miskimmon A, O’Loughlin B and Roselle L (2014). Strategic Narratives: Communication Power
and the New World Order. New York: Routledge.
Norris P, Kern M and Just MR (eds) (2003) Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government
and the Public. New York: Routledge.
Papacharissi Z and De Fatima Oliveira M (2008) News frames terrorism: A comparative analysis
of frames employed in terrorism coverage in US and UK newspapers. International Journal
of Press/Politics 13(1): 52–74.
Peterson L (2014) Palestine–Israel in the Print News Media: Contending Discourses. New York:
Pierskalla JH and Hollenbach FM (2013) Technology and collective action: The effect of cell
phone coverage on political violence in Africa. American Political Science Review 107(02):
Rapaport A (2010) The IDF and the Lessons of the second Lebanon War. Tel Aviv: Begin-Sadat
Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University.
Roberts G and Klibanoff H (2008) The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the
Awakening of a Nation. Visalia, CA: Vintage.
Robinson DF (2011) Bad footage: Surveillance laws, police misconduct, and the internet.
Georgetown University Law Journal 100: 1399–1435.
Saleem N and Hanan MA (2014) Media and conflict resolution: Toward building a relationship
model. Journal of Political Studies 21(1): 179–198.
Samuel-Azran T (2013) Al-Jazeera, Qatar, and new tactics in state-sponsored media diplomacy.
American Behavioral Scientist 21(11): 172–198.
Segev E (2014) Visible and invisible countries: News flow theory revised. Journalism 16(3):
Sheafer T and Dvir-Gvirsman S (2010) The spoiler effect: Framing attitudes and expectations
toward peace. Journal of Peace Research 47(2): 205–215.
Sifry ML (2011) WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency. New York: OR Books.
Spencer G (2005) The Media and Peace. New York: Springer.
Tenenboim-Weinblatt K, Hanitzsch T and Nagar R (2016) Beyond peace journalism: Reclassifying
conflict narratives in the Israeli news media. Journal of Peace Research 53(2): 151–165.
Van Dijck J and Poell T (2013). Understanding social media logic. Media and Communication,
Weimann G (2006) Terror on the Internet: The New Arena. Washington, DC: The United States
Institute of Peace.
Weimann G (2015) Terrorism in Cyberspace: The Next Generation. New York: Columbia
University Press.
124 Media, War & Conflict 11(1)
Wilson DJ and Serisier T (2010) Video activism and the ambiguities of counter-surveillance.
Surveillance & Society 8(2): 166–180.
Wolfsfeld G (1997) Media and Political Conflict: News from the Middle East. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Wolfsfeld G (2001) The news media and the second intifada: Some initial lessons. Harvard
International Journal of Press-Politics 6(4): 113–118.
Wolfsfeld G (2004) Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wolfsfeld G (2015) Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political
Communication. New York: Routledge.
Wolfsfeld G, Alimi EY and Kailani W (2008) News media and peace building in asymmetrical
conflicts: The flow of news between Jordan and Israel. Political Studies 56(2): 374–398.
Wolfsfeld G, Frosh P and Awabdy MT (2008) Covering death in conflicts: Coverage of the Second
Intifada on Israeli and Palestinian television. Journal of Peace Research 45(3): 401–417.
Wolfsfeld G, Segev E and Sheafer T (2013) Social media and the Arab spring politics comes first.
International Journal of Press/Politics 18(2): 115–137.
Wu HD (2000) Systemic determinants of international news coverage: A comparison of 38 countries.
Journal of Communication 50(2): 110–130.
Yarchi M et al. (2013) Promoting stories about terrorism to the international news media: A study
of public diplomacy. Media, War & Conflict 6(3): 263–278.
Author biography
Gadi Wolfsfeld is a full professor of Political Communication at the Sammy Ofer School of
Communications at IDC, Herzliya. He is also an emeritus professor of Political Science and
Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests focus on the role of
the media in conflicts and attempts to achieve peace. His most recent book is Making Sense of
Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political Communication (Routledge, 2011). In 2017,
Professor Wolfsfeld was awarded the Murray Edelman lifetime achievement award by the Political
Communication section of the American Political Science Association.