When did a news report last change your mind?

By Jennifer Lipman, April 14, 2011

As Shakespeare never wrote, what's in a tweet? Truth, analysis, reasoned argument? Or merely speculation and rushed judgment?

After a big news event - from an explosion or earthquake to a celebrity feud - Twitter is the first port of call for the media-savvy. Best for breaking stories and real-time information, it functions as a modern-day water cooler, a venue for the opinionated to air their views about what's happened and happening. The Romans had their public forums; we have 140 characters and a wireless connection.

It's not just Twitter, of course. Facebook, blogs - not to mention newspaper comment pages --- offer ample opportunity for us to pass judgment on the decisions of politicians, the behaviour of dictators and the song choices of X Factor contestants. If René Descartes was writing now, his famous refrain would probably read: "I publicly opine, therefore I am."

Amid all this news-and-views cacophony, Israel seems to be the modern soap-box orator's subject of choice. The cries of applause and dismay after Judge Richard Goldstone's bizarre about-turn in relation to his Operation Cast Lead findings - Israel did not intentionally target civilians, he realised, two years too late - were deafening.

While some hailed it as a turning-point for the Israel-obsessed UN Human Rights Council, others derided Goldstone for giving in. For every editorial praising him for vindicating the IDF, scornful commentators condemned him for issuing Israel with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Whatever it was, everyone, everywhere, had an opinion

I don't know what made Goldstone tell the Washington Post that his findings no longer applied, but then swiftly decline to retract them. Genuine regret? A desire to return to the public eye? An urge to stick two fingers up at the HRC?

In any event, reducing his motives to a two-sentence tweet, a vitriolic blog-post or a sanctimonious editorial won't bring us any closer to finding out, nor will it change the mind of anyone who had an opinion on Gaza in the first place.

Descartes today would probably say: I opine therefore I am

For the man or woman in the street, Goldstone's reversal and the subsequent outpouring of analysis was fish-and-chip wrapping or, at most, a footnote in yesterday's browsing history.

Beyond a cursory glance at yet another Israel story, the likelihood is that most people wouldn't have a clue who Goldstone was, what his 2009 indictment of Israel meant, or what his mea culpa entailed.

But they would certainly have a one-line opinion to share; coverage of Israel enjoys such a prominent role that most would have a vague recollection of the conflict and even the report. Yet, two years on, the intricacies of who, and why, and when? Hardly.

It's not just Israel; unless we make the effort to care, our knowledge of everything in the news remains superficial. How many of us could say more than a few lines about a conflict that didn't directly involve us -- Sri Lanka in 2009, the riots after the Kenyan election of December 2007, or Ivory Coast today. For an instant, a mere few weeks ago, the Tunisia uprising grabbed world attention. In two years' time, how many of us will be able to name the main players, the causes or the effects?

Bold, visceral headlines about warmongering and vast picture-spreads of anguished mourners - the statements that one-by-one chip away at Israel's reputation - are what stick, not the stories behind them, and certainly not the responsible, reflective analysis, such as it is.

Rather than being a revelation, the Goldstone Report confirmed the views of those who had any - as did its author's change of heart. Minds were made up long before the UN gave them food for thought. So Goldstone's volte-face is not so much a vindication of Israeli actions as an exercise in semantics.

Similarly, last month's closure of a Facebook page calling for a third intifada was basically cosmetic. Those who contributed to, or approved of it will not have had their minds changed because a counter-group drew attention to the hateful content.

There is a place for hasbara on Twitter and similar forums, for challenging untruths and pernicious attacks. Many of the aforementioned columns and comments on Goldstone made for engaging reading and for those already grabbed by the topic, there are worse ways to pass the time than an online sparring-match. But, unless we have a vested interest, when it comes to the news most of us are not interested in specifics.

We can tweet, blog, scream and shout as much as we like, but let's not pretend that all this hot air can sway the argument. The fact is, those on the receiving end already know what they want to hear and will accept or reject accordingly.

Jennifer Lipman is a JC reporter

Last updated: 2:15pm, April 14 2011