Media-Jacking or the Role of Media Events in the Digital Age

In the late 1980’s Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz developed their theory of Media Events. They argued that certain high-profiled Media Events may have prolonged societal impacts. The two scholars were influenced by the historic visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel in 1977. Dayan and Katz argued that this Media Event altered the mindset of Israelis, who for the first time could imagine peace with Egypt. Importantly, Media Events can impact societies only if they attract enough viewers who together undergo a collective ceremony that shapes worldviews and beliefs. One could argue that the moon landing in 1969 was also a Media Event as television viewers from across the world witnessed America’s victory in the space race, and its technological superiority. This may have had a profound effect on people’s belief that the US would also win the Cold War.

Dayan and Katz focused their attention on conciliatory events, such as historic peace summits or meetings between feuding leaders. According to Julia Sonnevend, for an event to qualify as a Media event it had to meet 8 criteria: It had to (1) be broadcast live by television, (2) constitute an interruption of everyday life and everyday broadcasting, (3) be preplanned and scripted, and (4) be viewed by a large audience. There should also be (5) a normative expectation that viewing was obligatory and (6) a reverent, awe-filled narration, and the event had to be (7) integrative of society and (8) mostly conciliatory.

In the 20th century, Media-Jacking, or using a Media Event to further a certain cause or narrative, was more difficult. Indeed, Israelis viewing Sadat’s 1977 visit heard only the narration of the Israeli Broadcasting Service. There was no additional commentary offering perspectives from other Arab States, foreign governments or even activists. Yet in the digital age, Media-Jacking is possible and may even prove an effective digital strategy to promote certain causes and narratives. This is true due to three reasons.

First, even today Media Events are pre-planned and scripted. Second, they still attract mass attention. Third, they still constitute an interruption to daily life. Media Events thus allows digital activists and social media pundits to prepare for a Media Event and, once it begins, hijack it to promote their own purposes. As the event draws mass attention, Media-Jacking enables activists and pundits to leverage a trending event, such as a historic peace summit, and use it to attract attention to their cause. In other words, by referring to a Media Event on social media, and using relevant hashtags, activists and pundits can increase their digital reach and the reach of their cause. Last week offered an interesting case study in Media-Jacking as Israel’s President visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the first time in history. The Israeli State Visit was part of the Abraham Accords which led to the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE.

Much like Sadat’s 1997 visit, the 2022 visit to the UAE attracted mass media attention both in Israel and across the world and it was live broadcast both online and on television. Global news networks covered the visit as did regional news stations. Yet once the Media Event began, there was a barrage of tweets published by different actors each hoping to promote a different cause and a different narrative.

For instance, Israeli and “pro-Israel” activists focused their attention on the historical significance of the event highlighting the fact that for the first time ever, Israel’s national anthem was played in the UAE. Many activists suggested that the visit was a testament to the Arab World’s decision to accept Israel as a legitimate state in the Middle East. Some even drew attention to the fact that Israel’s President received authorization to fly over Saudi Arabia, another sign of possible integration in the region. Though not explicitly mentioned, the acceptance of the Israeli President in the UAE was cause for celebration as it signified that normalization was possible, even though Israel has not resolved its conflict with Palestine.

Next, former members of the Trump administration and Trump supporters Media-Jacked the event to highlight the achievements of President Trump which facilitated the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE. In these tweets, the historic significance lay not in Israel and the UAE but in the Trump Presidency which ushered a new dawn in the Middle East. Tweets were published by former US Ambassador to Israel, former Trump negotiators and former Trump-appointed diplomats.

At the same time, current American diplomats and members of the Biden Administration also Media-Jacked the event to re-iterate the administration’s support for  normalization of ties between Israel and its regional neighbors.  As current Secretary of State Blinken tweeted, the US welcomed the historic visit between two friends of America. Blinken did not mention which administration facilitated the Abraham Accords.

The same was true of Israeli activists who support former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently being tried for bribery.  According to these activists, it was Netanyahu who facilitated the Abraham Accords thanks to his close ties with the Trump administration and his “glorious” statesmanship. These activists marveled at how such an important Israeli leader could be dragged to court while he should still be serving as Prime Minister.

Other activists who Media-Jacked the event emphasized that during the visits, Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen launched missiles at the UAE. According to one source, the missiles were deliberately fired during the Israeli visit thus highlighting regional tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other states. There were even those that Media-Jacked the event to draw renewed attention to the Iran nuclear negotiations. The jackers focused on security cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE who all oppose the idea of a nuclear Iran.

Finally, the Israeli President’s visit was Media-Jacked by Palestinian activists. These argued that the normalization of ties harmed the cause of Palestinian independence as normalization was supposed to motivate Israel to end its conflict with Palestine. Indeed, the allure of the two-state solution was that Israel would enjoy the financial fruits of regional acceptance if it withdrew from Palestinian territories. Others attacked the UAE and argued that despite the UAE’s betrayal of the Palestinian cause, “from the river to sea, Palestine will be free”.

That different actors offer different narrations of the same event on social media is not new. Indeed, according to some social media users Russia is planning to invade Ukraine. According to others, Russia is merely preparing for military exercises while still others assert that the West is trying to entrap Russia and harm its national interests. Yet Media-Jacking is more than mere narration as it entails hijacking a high profiled and pre planned event to advance one’s cause and obtain virality. Indeed, most tweets attacking the UAE, or emphasizing Trump’s role in the Abraham Accords, used trending hashtags relating to the Israeli state visit including #Israel, #UAE and #Herzog (the name of Israel’s President).

Media-Jacking is thus a deliberate, and even sophisticated digital strategy. 

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