Changing Status in the Middle East

The social media have dominated the geo-political realm while evolving into a primary tool in social and political revolutions. Intelligence agencies admit - these media are difficult to monitor. Ephraim Lapid on the hottest trend of revolutionary politics

Changing Status in the Middle East

any regard the social media revolution as the modern equivalent of the revolution that followed the invention of print in the 15th century. Today, these media offer an efficient, readily-available, inexpensive and convenient communication channel for private users, government and business organizations, states and non-state terrorist organs worldwide. This phenomenon is a part of private and public life and elaborating on it would be superfluous, but one will be well-advised to note the evolution of social media, the role they play in our life and their ever-increasing popularity.

Facebook still tops the list as the world's leading social network with 1.5 billion users worldwide and 4.5 million users in Israel. If Facebook was a state, it would be the world's third largest, right after China and India. Twitter, with 500 million user accounts, is also growing steadily with millions of additional users joining daily. Twitter enables its users to distribute short text messages, and when the user initiates an update, the information is sent automatically to the followers associated with that user – sharing at its best. In this way, users within the same organization, unit or settlement may be kept up to date, in addition to various other applications that are added and upgraded all the time. The social media abolished the monopoly of the formal news channels.

WhatsApp, recently acquired by Facebook, has evolved into a popular communication channel at the expense of traditional SMS messaging. WhatsApp groups provide effective communication options for common interest groups among youngsters, within organizations and settlements or for individuals sharing a special interest.

This list should be augmented by YouTube as a platform for short and effective visual messages. Every second, an hour's worth of visual contents are uploaded to YouTube. The Google search engine occupies pride of place within the virtual range, along with Wikipedia. These monumental databases influence the content world of schoolchildren, students and the general public and the number of people enjoying and benefiting from the power of global knowledge increases daily. The international version of Wikipedia currently contains 154,000 encyclopedic entries. Additionally, every communication medium, be it a newspaper, a TV network or a radio station, is backed up by a dynamic social media website. Journalists and reporters submit their information to the communication media where they are employed, but at the same time, they publish it on Twitter of Facebook, thereby infinitely empowering and duplicating the exposure of their information through the "standard" media.

The social media enable specific publicity campaigns intended to bring about a change of status, in politics as well as in business. These campaigns target the users' emotional receptors by using images, caricatures and visual symbols. The information passing through the social media is very different. Youngsters consume mainly music and a lot of photographs and exchange short, emotional messages regarding practically everything they encounter.

Organizations utilize these platforms for maintaining professional links, for exchanging information and for advertising and promoting products and concepts. For this reason, the social media have evolved into a hunting ground for elements involved in general intelligence and in business-competitive intelligence. The current web world is a world of sharing information within the immediate time range (the current term for what we used to call "real time").

In the past, most users were required to use computers at home or in public places (for example Internet cafés), but today – and even more so in the future – smartphones and tablet computers have overcome all of those difficulties. These devices may be used to receive and transmit practically any type of information, and this state of affairs has evolved into a major hindrance for elements attempting to intercept sensitive, dangerous information. Today, smartphone devices may be regarded as an extra limb, especially among youngsters.

About 54% of the "surfing" activity on websites and the social media is currently done using cellular telephones. The average worldwide social media surfing time is about 6.5 hours per month. In Israel – 9.5 hours, in Russia – 10 hours and in Turkey – 8 hours per month. The average worldwide number of friends per surfer is 130 and in Israel – 235.

In the Arab world, most users belong to the younger generation (aged 16 to 40), and they provide an important field of activity for agitators promoting terrorism and unrest in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Syria and Egypt. In the Palestinian Authority, the social media serve as an important channel for incitement toward the use of terrorism and violence. Arab youngsters are exposed through the web to a consciousness change at the individual level. Shared with friends, this change evolves into the "Voice of the Masses". Some people in the Arab world refer to the social networks as a "civil atomic bomb": a leader-less underground discourse that sweeps the masses with it.

In the Arab world, Facebook is a news medium primarily and a social medium secondly. The news media of the Arab world maintain websites as well as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels. To monitor news items we no longer need to get the actual newspaper delivered to Allenby Bridge or to erect giant dish antennae in order to pick up Syrian TV. The statements made by Haled Mashal in Qatar during the recent operation in the Gaza Strip reached Israel at the very same instant they reached Gaza. Hamas exploits every terrorist attack of the last few months to glorify their abominations using photographs and powerful visual messages in order to influence public consciousness around the world, in the West Bank and among Israelis. Cyber warfare attacks against such websites often prove futile and ineffective, as another website will emerge almost instantly in this day and age, when the task of establishing a virtual web presence is easily accomplished and no longer requires the services of highly-qualified professionals. Hamas maintains a virtual information center that promptly distributes information about current events, monitors the Israeli media and responds to its reports. They regard the web as an effective front through which they can influence public consciousness in Israel and around the globe.

Elements from around the world that operate in cyberspace regard the processes therein as a means for altering consciousness or damaging vital systems. The ability to operate in cyberspace is almost as fast as the speed of light and nearly totally free of any traditional geographic restrictions. Covert activity in cyberspace has established that attackers can operate without a "signature", without leaving any identifying evidence.

Collecting open-source information by monitoring the social media is an excellent, non-invasive means which can obtain information while avoiding any intrusive operations. The progress made globally and in the Arab world offers new opportunities for collecting information that would be beneficial for coping with the risks and identifying additional opportunities. 

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