The abduction of three young Israelis unfolded across the Internet, even as newspapers in Israel were barred from reporting it. What does social media mean for both democracy and security?
TEL AVIV — First, some basic facts. We have absolutely no idea what happened Thursday night. All we know is that Friday morning the Israeli police rushed to issue a gag order about the possible news of an abduction of three young Israelis, after an avalanche of rumors spread on social networks and the WhatsApp mobile application.
Israeli media outlets were forced not to report on the case, even though everybody in the country knew something was going on. Therefore, the human brain — which cannot tolerate a state of emptiness — started to fill in the blanks, leading to an even more massive number of rumors.
The most incredible rumor was that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) had successfully rescued the three boys in a heroic operation in an Arab village in the West Bank, killing five armed men and wounding two others.
This rumor went all the way to the WhatsApp list of military correspondents at major news outlets, accompanied by a message saying the official announcement by the Israeli military would soon follow. In the meantime, the IDF spokesman kept saying “No comment” as loud and clearly as he could.
This kind of unraveling mess, which put the entire country in a complete frenzy, had not been seen since the vast gag order during the 2002 battle of Jenin. But today it shows how completely pointless it is to restrict information in our hyperconnected world.
Palestinian media outlets, meanwhile, reported Friday morning that a large number of Israeli military forces were conducting vast searches in the Hebron area for three abducted Israelis. They even published photos, which only surfaced in Israel a good 24 hours later. The photos were found by the Palestinians on Facebook posts of the worried families.
So if the objective of the gag order was to prevent the information from getting out to the Palestinians, it failed miserably. Besides, a Palestinian can just stick his head out of the window to see that something unusual is going on, and look it up on the Internet and get the whole picture in a matter of minutes.
On Friday, a new Facebook group appeared where people uploaded photos of themselves with a sign reading “Bring Back Our Boys.” It was an attempt to make a link to the abduction of the girls in Nigeria and the subsequent “Bring Back our Girls” campaign across social media outlets. In response, pro-Palestinian Internet users took the opportunity and published in a Facebook group photos of young Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
The conclusion we must draw then is that gag orders simply cannot exist anymore in the digital age. But it also raises another question — when you realize that the gag order was not meant for Palestinians, but was really directed at the Israeli people: Was it in fact an attempt to cover up a huge mistake?