The rise of Islamic State (IS) heralded a new wave of important research on violent extremist groups’ use of digital communications tools. IS’s reliance on social media, led supporters of its ideology to be universally vilified and expelled from social media en masse. But the international community and social media platforms have been slower in reaching a consensus on what constitutes a terrorist organisation and how to regulate them. Lines become blurred, agreement is sporadic, and certain groups continue to freely operate online. These dynamics are especially pertinent for violent extremist groups that also have a political arm. How should social media companies address groups that simultaneously act as political entities and incite terrorist violence?
Hamas is an ideal case study for understanding this phenomenon. Hamas has been active in Israel and the Palestinian Territories for over 30 years. Founded in the late 1980s during the First Intifada, for the first fifteen years of its existence Hamas operated as a non-state violent Islamist group that extensively used terrorism as a tactic. In January 2006 as part of the “Change and Reform” block, Hamas won a majority of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC). Despite initial agreements between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas’s June 2007 takeover of Gaza resulted in two entities governing the Palestinian people: Hamas controlling Gaza and the Fatah dominated Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank.
There is no consensus in the international community about whether Hamas in its entirety is a terrorist organisation. As the debate endures, particularly in Europe, policymakers and practitioners continue to attempt to identify the core principles that unify the group and its ideology. For example, only the military wing of Hamas – Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades or, more simply, Al-Qassam Brigade – has been designated a terrorist organisation by Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. In contrast, both the political and military wings of Hamas have been designated as terrorist entities by Canada, the European Union, Israel, and the United States. As the next section shows, international dissensus regarding Hamas’s status has led to ambiguity on the part of social media providers in their response to the group’s exploitation of their platforms.
Hamas’s strategic communication
Hamas operates a clear and unified communications strategy across multiple media platforms, including newspapers, a television station, a radio station, and numerous websites in Arabic, English, French, and Hebrew. For the past decade, Hamas has used social media to gain attention, and convey their messages to international audiences in multiple languages. For example, both the political and military wings of Hamas operated official accounts on Twitter. However, in 2014, the al-Qassam Brigade had its official account closed by Twitter. Facebook and YouTube also took steps to shut down all official pages associated with Hamas, from both its political and military wings.
While the decision to shut down these accounts was important, questions arose over how the group was able to operate on the platform for so long. Why did Twitter allow accounts to operate for almost four years, even after other social media platforms shut the group’s accounts down? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that unlike the Islamic State, there is no international consensus over whether the entirety of Hamas should be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation, or only its military wing. In order to demonstrate why this differentiation between the military and political wings of Hamas is meaningless, one needs only to look at Hamas’s own narrative on its English-language Twitter account.
Hamas’s Twitter Narrative
Using thematic content analysis, this research project examined the first 2,848 tweets sent by Hamas’s official English-language Twitter account between March 2015 and March 2018. This insight is based on an academic paper, “#Hamas: A Thematic Exploration of Hamas’s English-Language Twitter,” published in Terrorism and Political Violence. The study identified Hamas’s main narrative themes, and how these themes changed over time. Once coded, five overarching themes emerged from the data to comprise Hamas’s narrative: diplomacy (34%), governance (27%), victimisation (21%), enemy (11%), and resistance (7%).
For example, “diplomacy” made up the largest of Hamas’s narratives, and refers to the way the group presented its external relationships with other Palestinian factions, such as the Palestinian Authority and Islamic Jihad, but also with the international community. These tweets employed emotional diplomacy, interactions with international bodies, or even engaging in bilateral relations with countries around the world. Hamas used these tweets to establish international legitimacy through modern means.
Hamas’s struggle to be perceived as legitimate is addressed in its “governance” tweets, which Hamas used to demonstrate its governance of Gaza, and its ability to operate as a legitimate political actor. These tweets included those in which Hamas discussed engagement in traditional institutional practices including drafting legislation and operating public services, as well as the organisation’s own governance strategy.
In addition to portraying itself as a legitimate actor, Hamas sees itself as a victim. It consistently characterised itself as the victim of aggression at the hands of others. The ‘other’ could be Israel, the international community, or Palestinian rivals such as the PLO. Significantly, Hamas leveraged its perceived victimisation as a justification legitimising its use of violence as a defensive action. For example, after a terrorist attack at a Tel Aviv cafe in June 2016, Hamas tweeted “Hamas, factions hail Tel Aviv operation as natural response to Israeli crimes” (19 June 2016).
Furthermore, when discussing its perceived enemies, Hamas has made no secret of its views of Israel as its main adversary. However, its history of using the terms “Jew” and “Israel” interchangeably has gotten the organisation in trouble in the past. Hamas has at times used its Twitter account to try and distinguish between Israelis and Jews. However, Hamas’s Twitter account has continued linking Jews, money, and a global conspiracy, weakening the group’s argument that it does not subscribe to anti-Semitic tropes.
Finally, the theme of resistance is vital to Hamas’s narrative, and is reflected in how the group refers to itself in English, as the Hamas Islamic Resistance. Resistance can be both ideological and physical, with tweets ranging from the use of violence by the military wing of Hamas to the non-violent boycott movement. Often the tweets used by Hamas are ambiguous, such as, “Hamas calls resistance to avenge blood of executed woman, teen” (28 April 2016). These tweets purposefully walk the line between ideological and physical confrontation.
But other tweets by Hamas did not, such as praising the Tel Aviv terror attack in June 2016, or holding a question and answer session with Abo Obaida, the spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigade in March 2015. It even used its Twitter account to argue that “[a]rmed resistance [is] a strategic choice against occupation” (2 November 2015), and note that Hamas’s leader “Haniya stresses importance of sustaining Jerusalem’s Intifada” (18 October 2015). Hamas used the theme of resistance to frame itself as a protector and normalise its defence of all Palestinians.
Findings and Implications
The findings of the study indicate that Hamas used its English-language Twitter account to convey its strategic decision making in an attempt to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Using the narrative of victimisation to justify its resistance, Hamas framed itself on Twitter as a legitimate political actor. Beyond that, this research shows the group glorified and justified violence, and used anti-Semitic tropes.
Hamas used Twitter to respond to real world events and to emphasise its policy changes. Big events led to an outpouring of tweets, and Hamas used its Twitter account to present its policy changes quickly to an extensive audience (over 76,000 followers), before directing its followers to receive more in-depth information from its official website in English. In fact, over 55% of Hamas’s tweets on its English-language Twitter linked to further information on its official English-language website. The use of Twitter, a widely used platform, allowed Hamas to engage with both its supporters and detractors, some of whom might not have felt comfortable visiting the group’s website, or who were blocked from access to Hamas’s website due to VPN issues in their home countries.
Twitter’s decision permitting Hamas to operate on its platform for so long allowed it to be used by Hamas for purposes that are clearly against Twitter’s own established rules and policies. Despite Hamas’s push to be perceived as a legitimate political actor, it used its Twitter account to glorify, and call for, violence.
While members of the international community might continue to seek to disaggregate Hamas’s political and military wings, this research shows that even in its own tweets Hamas acknowledged that its military wing is indivisible from its political wing. The decision to differentiate between the political and military wings of the group highlights a lack of understanding of Hamas, its ideology, and even its social media rhetoric. Violent extremist groups that also operate as political entities need to be held accountable for continuing to incite terrorist violence.
This insight is based on an academic paper “#Hamas: A Thematic Exploration of Hamas’s English-Language Twitter” published in Terrorism and Political Violence. Using thematic content analysis, this research examined Hamas’s official Twitter account in English to explore the first 2,848 tweets sent between March 2015 and March 2018.