As war rages in the Gaza Strip, a parallel stream of cyber combat grinds on in perhaps today’s most populated Web forum and networking hub, Facebook.com.
Two hours after the first Israel air strikes against Hamas on Saturday, American-Israeli public relations leader and Israel Defense Force veteran Joel Leyden created a Facebook “group” titled “I Support the Israel Defense Forces In Preventing Terror Attacks From Gaza.”
By Monday afternoon, the group had 7,300 members.
Opposition Facebook groups that call for an end to the Israeli shelling in Gaza are also growing in numbers.
“Public opinion has a direct affect on lives on the ground and a direct affect on the morale of Israel’s soldiers,” Leyden said. “It also has a direct affect on the morale of the citizens and on our government leaders as well. [Israel is] facing a deluge, a tidal wave of criticism, for defending our very basic right to exist.”
In addition to using Facebook, Leyden employs Google News and the video-sharing mechanism YouTube. Only through such mass media barrages can Israel’s supporters transform public opinion and put down the voices of their opponents, such as the hundreds of anti-Israel protestors who gathered at Rockefeller Center on Sunday, according to Leyden.
Other organizations, such as The Jewish Internet Defense Force, are also organizing Facebook counter-protests and are launching rallies in cities worldwide.
For Leyden, Facebook is certainly his most “potent” outreach tool.
“Facebook is the largest social networking Web site,” he said. “Its reach is the most powerful of any other medium in the world today.”
In Leyden’s support group for the IDF, discussions range from questioning “what we are fighting for” in Operation Cast Lead, the IDF’s name for the Gaza operation, to addressing whether or not President-Elect Barack Obama will support Israel in its continued fight. Through public “wall posts” on the group’s page, strangers write each other multi-paragraph-long essays with their heated opinions, knowing that they must remain reasonably polite in order to maintain their Facebook accounts.
On Monday afternoon, one member called another a “stinky Arab” and another commenter called the Jews “heartless kill[ers],” who “love blood.”
Though unsophisticated jibes like these are exceptions among the chains of educated conversation, nearly all of the discussions seethe with anger, coming from Israeli, Palestinian, American and countless other perspectives worldwide.
“This room is more dangerous than anything I have ever done in the IDF,” Leyden said.