February 20, 2011 | Op-ed
Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) has released the first-ever study mining the Arabic-language Palestinian social media environment to determine Palestinian public sentiment and its potential impact on U.S. foreign policy. The report, entitled “Palestinian Pulse: What Policymakers Can Learn From Palestinian Social Media,” used military-grade software to cull information from social networks.
In 2005, Washington supported Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006. “Decision-makers trusted polling data that all but guaranteed a victory for the secular Fatah faction over Hamas,” says FDD Executive Director Mark Dubowitz, who co-authored the report. “In retrospect, it was a grave error. Hamas won the election by a wide margin. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later admitted, ‘It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.'”
“If the online environment is even a remotely accurate indicator of Palestinian public sentiment, the Obama administration's Middle East peace initiative may encounter more challenges than expected,” Dubowitz continues. “The United States cannot discount the impact of deepening Palestinian rejectionism.”
“The data we analyzed was disheartening,” FDD Vice President of Research Jonathan Schanzer, the report's co-author, continues. “Fatah, which represents the Palestinians in U.S.-led peace talks, is in disarray, and about half its constituents continue to support terrorism against Israel.”
“The three-year conflict between Hamas and Fatah is not likely to end soon,” Schanzer continues. “In fact, our research found that Hamas showed more interest in reconciling with radical Salafist factions than with Fatah. Palestinian reform factions also have little influence, raising red flags about the trajectory of Palestinian society.”
At FDD's direction, the Washington, D.C.-based web analysis company Constrat viewed approximately 10,000 Palestinian social media entries between May 3 and August 3, 2010, of which it analyzed approximately 20 percent for relevancy. In the end, the company analyzed 1,788 statements contained within 1,114 unique posts across 996 threads written by 699 authors.
On the basis of the report, FDD recommends that Washington continue conducting research in the Palestinian online environment. The web could prove to be a more valuable barometer of politics on the ground than Palestinian polls, which provide no anonymity. FDD also recommends that the White House increase funding for the U.S. State Department's Digital Outreach Team, which puts Arabic speakers in the U.S. government in direct contact with Palestinians in online conversations.