On Friday, March 30, Israeli troops killed more than 20 protesters and wounded more than 700 after the March of Return protest approached a fence dividing the Gaza Strip and Israel. Clashes recurred during protests the following Friday. The confrontation between activists in Gaza and the Israeli military captured global attention and put a spotlight on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, the crisis did not dominate the Arab media to the extent one might have expected. The events erupted in the middle of a crowded regional political agenda. In previous Arab-Israeli crises, popular Arab media outlets would have typically broadcast wall-to-wall coverage accompanied by furious talk shows and mobilizational programming, drowning out all other issues.
This time, while most Arab media did cover the Gaza protests and subsequent violence, many key outlets covered it as one issue among many. These changes are rooted in fundamental alterations in the structure of the Arab media and the underlying political conflicts that have evolved since the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The Arab media landscape is now far more segmented and polarized than it was before the uprisings, and broadcast media in particular are ever more state-controlled. The crisis faced competition for attention from wars in Yemen and Syria, the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to the United States, the chaotic drama surrounding the Trump administration and the potential end of the Iran nuclear agreement. This complex and crowded regional environment afforded key Arab states — and their media empires — every opportunity to prevent public attention from being monopolized by Gaza or to see public pressure force them into a more confrontational posture with Israel.
Twitter feeds offer a window into the Arab media
Those watching Arab television broadcasts could easily see the tone of Arab media coverage. As one way to demonstrate the trends in a more systematic way, I used the Twitter output of two key Pan-Arab television stations: the Saudi station al-Arabiya (@alarabiya) and the Qatari station Al Jazeera (@ajarabic). These are two of the most popular television stations across the Arab region, with widely followed social media feeds, and they represent the two major poles in today’s sharply polarized Arab public.
There are good reasons to be wary of the representativeness of Twitter for studying public opinion, of course, particularly given recent trends in the use of bots, fake followers and other forms of information warfare. For the purposes of this analysis, however, those concerns are not particularly relevant. These official Twitter feeds represent the choices of the station’s management over what content to feature and publicize. I use these official Twitter feeds as an indicator of the self-presentation and editorial priorities of those stations, not as a barometer of public sentiment.
Using a tweet capture tool developed by my colleague Deen Freelon of the University of North Carolina, I captured every tweet by and metadata for these media organizations between March 30 (the day of the first major Gaza protest) and late evening on April 8 (the day after the second). In all, I examined 619 tweets by Al Jazeera and 643 by al-Arabiya. At the time of the collection, those Al Jazeera tweets were retweeted a total of 49,612 times, while al-Arabiya’s were retweeted of 23,186 times. I then coded each tweet to see if it focused on Gaza, one of two other heavily covered major regional crises (Syria or Yemen) or other.
Al Jazeera vs. al-Arabiya
The divide between Al Jazeera and al-Arabiya could not be more stark. Approximately 18 percent of Al Jazeera’s tweets in the data set were about Gaza, retweeted 8,166 times, while 2 percent of al-Arabiya tweets were about Gaza, with 253 retweets.
Mirroring Saudi priorities, al-Arabiya focused far more heavily on Yemen and Syria than on Gaza, along with heavy coverage of the Mohammed Bin Salman’s visit to the United States. This low level of attention to the Gaza protests aligned well with Saudi and United Arab Emirates foreign policy priorities, as they sought to align with Israel against the Iranian threat, combat Islamist movements such as Hamas and prosecute their war in Yemen.
Al Jazeera, for its part, maintained a much higher pace of tweets about Gaza, naturally peaking each Friday with breaking news of the clashes, while sustaining coverage at a lower level during the week. Al Jazeera issued 24 tweets about Gaza each Friday, while averaging just over six a day midweek. Al Jazeera clearly placed a much higher priority on the Gaza clashes and sought to keep it in the forefront of the Arab public agenda. Such coverage allowed Qatar to paint a clear contrast with its Gulf rivals by portraying itself as a champion of Palestinian territories, while aligning with its enduring affinity for Islamist movements such as Hamas.
It is worth noting, however, that this relatively high volume of tweets about Gaza did not mean the kind of single-minded focus which characterized Al Jazeera’s coverage of earlier Palestinian-Israeli clashes. Eighteen percent of tweets is a far cry from full time, round-the-clock attention. Most of its Gaza tweets were of breaking news rather than emotional appeals or obviously mobilizational content. Syria topics have outweighed Gaza by 6 to 1 over the past two weeks on the station’s nightly “Behind the News” talk show program. Though Al Jazeera offered far more attention than did its Saudi competitor, Gaza by no means monopolized its agenda.
Shades of 2006
Key elements of the dynamic are quite familiar. On the Saudi side, the trend is similar to the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah, when pro-Saudi media initially minimized hostile coverage of the conflict and focused more criticism toward Hezbollah. After about a week and a half, its coverage was forced to shift at risk of losing viewers. Al Jazeera took full advantage, aligning with the broad attitudes of the Arab public and covering the conflict intensively and in a highly mobilizational way.
Now, the big difference is not the divide between the two ideological poles, but that Al Jazeera no longer dominates the center of Arab media and politics as it did in 2006. In those days, Al Jazeera was more than the first among equals in the Arab public sphere. During times of conflict, Al Jazeera became the first source for most Arab viewers, glued to its professional but sensational news coverage and fiery talk shows. This was the conflictual, vibrant heart of an Arab public sphere.
Today, that is no longer the case. Arab audiences are now sharply divided along sectarian, national and ideological lines, and no station today is capable of dominating the landscape.
Al Jazeera came to be identified with Qatari foreign policy during the heated politics of the Arab uprisings, and even more during the seven month old Saudi-UAE-led campaign against Qatar. Al Jazeera today is still popular, but it resonates and appeals primarily within its own constituency. This division of media into relatively insulated bubbles, along with the much more crowded agenda of regional conflicts, creates a very different dynamic than in 2006.
This new Arab media landscape, and the underlying regional political divisions, means that it will likely prove difficult for the clashes in Gaza to generate widespread, enduring mobilization in support of Palestinian rights. Arabs clearly still care about Palestinian territories and were clearly infuriated over the attack on protesters in Gaza. But while Arab media will continue to pay attention at the moment of crisis, they will not sustain that focus at the expense of other issues and interests.