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No truce in social media trenches as Israel-Hamas conflict continues unabated online


Politics-by-meme, social media posts and celebrity advocacy have driven recent social movements, particularly ones about race and social justice

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When Israeli actor Gal Gadot posted a message on Instagram praying for peace in the Middle East, she was attacked.

“Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation. Our neighbors deserve the same. …I pray for our leaders to find the solution so we can live side by side in peace. I pray for better days,” she wrote on Instagram.

Former adult film actress and Lebanese-American Mia Khalifa tweeted to her nearly four million followers that Gadot, the Wonder Woman star who previously did mandatory service in the Israeli military, was a “Genocide Barbie.”

Gadot’s name started “trending” on Twitter, which U.S. journalist Ben Jacobs called “an interesting euphemism on Twitter’s part for being bombarded with vile and anti-Semitic attacks online.”

The backlash eventually led Gadot to disable replies on her Instagram post.

While a truce this week has quieted the Israeli-Hamas conflict, at least in its early hours, the social media war seeking to shape the narrative about the clashes continues unabated.

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The Instagram account @impact, which shares “digestible & socially impactful content” to 1.6 million followers, posted screenshots of tweets proclaiming “we remain far from justice” and that the fight to “save Palestine” continues.

Hamas-Israeli tension is nothing new. But hundreds of millions of people around the world have new access to perspectives via all sorts of apps, such as Instagram, TikTok and Tumblr.

Much of it is biased. Much of the sourcing is unclear. And it’s inflaming hatred against Jewish people.

“Firstly, the increased reach of news social media platforms, especially apps like TikTok and Instagram, have allowed misinformation and hatred to circulate like wildfire,” said Michael Mostyn, chief executive officer of B’nai Brith Canada.

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Politics-by-meme, social media posts and celebrity advocacy have driven recent social movements, particularly ones about race and social justice. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, Indigenous anti-pipeline protests or information about gender pronouns, multiple accounts — many of them leaning towards the political left — offer their ideological views.

Ahmed Al-Rawi, a professor in the school of communication at Simon Fraser University, said “no one controls the narrative anymore.”

“With Black Lives Matter and the increasing awareness about human-rights issues, I think people are now feeling more empowered,” said Al-Rawi.

For context, at the time of the 2014 Gaza war, Instagram had roughly 200 million active users. Now, more than one billion people are using the app. And another app that has had considerable discussion of the conflict, TikTok, is primarily used by those under the age of 30. It now has roughly 700 million users, but it didn’t even exist in 2014.

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Mostly young social media users sympathetic to the Palestinian cause are also effectively leveraging the same social media politics that drove last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests to portray the Israeli-Hamas conflict in the popular language of social justice, with Israelis cast as the oppressors, and Palestinians as a persecuted minority.

“One cannot advocate for racial equality, LGBT and women’s rights, condemn corrupt and abusive regimes and other injustices yet choose to ignore the Palestinian oppression,” says one post shared on a number of prominent Instagram accounts, including by Vogue model Gigi Hadid, who is of Palestinian descent and has 67 million followers.

People watch the removal of unexploded ordnance as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect on May 21, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza.
People watch the removal of unexploded ordnance as a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas came into effect on May 21, 2021 in Gaza City, Gaza. Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images

And, while pro-Palestinian voices say that social media is one of the only ways to make their case to the English-speaking world, many in Israel have raised concerns about it, to the extent that Benny Gantz, Israel’s justice minister, met with executives from Facebook and TikTok recently, telling them that the violent clashes between Israel and Hamas were “intentionally stirred through social media by extremist elements,” Gantz’s spokesperson told The Associated Press.

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Gabriel Weimann, a communications professor at the University of Haifa, put it this way: “Since no one controls, regulates or checks these videos, you can post whatever you want,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “There are a lot of lies.”

Among the most prominent and condemned responses to the violence came from Veena Malik, a Pakistani film star, who tweeted a quote often (but mistakenly) attributed to Adolf Hitler: “I would have killed all the Jews of the world … but I kept some to show the world why I killed them.” The quote stayed up for hours, uncensored by Twitter, which claims to restrict hate speech, until Malik deleted it.

Martin Sampson, vice-president of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said “Palestinian national aspirations are entirely legitimate and supporters of the Palestinian cause have every right to express their support online and in public.”

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“However, when actions cross over to hate speech, threats, and violence, they must be condemned by both civil society and political leaders, and when they occur online, must be removed by social media providers,” Sampson said. “What we have observed is a troubling increase in antisemitic incidents on and offline. Invocation of Nazi imagery, demonization of Jews, misinformation about Jews and Israelis, and deliberate misinformation about the conflict all represent real challenges to those who aspire for peace.”

On TikTok, there have been more than 625 million views of videos under the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah. Sheikh Jarrah is a predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, and longstanding disputes between Jews and Arabs over property rights, sometimes leading to evictions, was one of the issues that sparked the latest conflict.

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Similarly, on Instagram, there were more than 900,000 posts with the same hashtag, and another 1.2 million posts with the hashtag #savepalestine and 2.6 million for #freepalestine.

Some users, such as the account @nevtalkspolitics, offers explainers on TikTok about what’s happening and how people can help the Palestinians. Other videos mock Israeli forces, or praise celebrities who have supported the Palestinian cause or showcase pro-Palestinian rallies.

Bella Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, shared a video with her 41.7 million Instagram followers that says there has been “73 years of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.” She also marched in a pro-Palestinian rally last weekend in Brooklyn, prompting the official Twitter account of Israel to tweet that “When celebrities like @BellaHadid advocate for throwing Jews into the sea, they are advocating for the elimination of the Jewish State,” the tweet said.

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Language alleging that Israel is engaging in “ethnic cleansing” against Palestinians is used frequently in these posts, having spread far from its original source.

One post, entitled “How to be an ally with the Palestinians,” seems to have first been shared on an Instagram account called Paliroots, telling people to use terms such as “apartheid” and “colonialism” and “ethnic cleansing,” instead of “eviction,” “conflict” or “war” and urges people to join a boycott, divestment and sanction movement against Israel.

That post was shared by Black-ish star Yara Shahidi, who has 5.8 million Instagram followers.

There are, of course, celebrities with pro-Israel accounts, although they tend to be less confrontational and are inevitably less popular among other celebrities and influencers.

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On TikTok, the user Yael-Deri1 has nearly 957,000 followers and millions of views, many featuring her dancing and lip-synching in full military getup.

And, on Instagram, the account StandWithUs, which has more than 300,000 followers, has been spreading information about rocket attacks on Israel and pushing back against the narratives spreading on social media with its own infographics.

Israeli writer Hen Mazzig has been posting infographics to his 34,000 followers. One reads: “Before you post about Israel-Palestine, take a break and ask yourself: Will this statement move us closer to peace?”

• Email: tdawson@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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