Israel-Palestine Conflict: The Dangers of Social Media Discourse Regarding October 7th
On the 7th of October, Hamas entered Israel and slaughtered over 1,200 (predominantly civilian) Israelis. As news and disturbing footage of the atrocities flooded social media, so did a peculiar phenomenon. I began to see posts - with tens of thousands of likes - being circulated by people I know personally, claiming that reporting on these events was ‘manufactured propaganda’ and ‘lies’ propelled by Western media. Interrogating this social media discourse leads one to uncover, in part, why this subject has become so profoundly divisive.
One post claimed that ‘manufactured propaganda’ was being created by Western media to ‘condition’ viewers to ‘accept the mass-killing of Palestinians just like you were conditioned to accept the mass-killing of Iraqis’. Without going into depth, the comparison to the Iraq war is not analytically helpful. The Iraq war was a poorly conceived political decision that occurred due to the Bush administration’s dubious claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a decision that resulted in tragic consequences. The comparison suggests that the October 7th attack on Israel is ‘propaganda’ just like the fabricated weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We have all seen the footage, verified by third parties, of the slaughter and kidnapping of Israelis on this day. For the sake of truth, this is a nonsensical and dangerous parallel to draw.
In tandem, a video began being widely circulated claiming that reports of 40 beheaded babies, the rape of Israeli women and 260 dead at a festival were ‘lies’. The argument goes that in the absence of footage of such events, these reports must be ‘false’. It is worth noting that in the absence of video footage, we cannot logically conclude the reports are lies; we can only conclude that no videos are available to supplement the report. It is unlikely that every atrocity will be caught on film, and thus it is common in media reports to rely on witness statements. The first report was initiated by first responders, but has not been verified by international media outlets. It is therefore not possible to conclusively name the report accurate or inaccurate. On the second report, a growing body of evidence has emerged regarding Hamas’ use of rape and mutilation in their attack on Israeli women. This is not a ‘lie’. Finally, the third report regarding the festival massacre has been confirmed by video evidence, and verified by independent international media outlets. Denial of these deaths is baseless.
Suggesting reporting over actual deaths is a ‘lie’ is gravely insulting to the lives lost and is an incredibly dangerous rhetoric to push. This is especially true given there is a broad history of claims that past attacks against Jews are ‘fabricated’; most infamously Holocaust denial. Furthermore, accusations of some Western media conspiracy are an antisemitic dog-whistle, echoing the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and is a direct reference to the Zionist Occupation Government conspiracy theory. It is due to this relentless rhetoric that Jews, throughout history and today, face discrimination.
Equally as important, the video goes on to narrate that the ‘lies’ act as ‘atrocity propaganda’ crafted to ‘convince you that Palestinians are barbaric animals’. Such rhetoric is also dangerous. This post conflates Hamas and the actions of Hamas with Palestinians. Whilst Hamas does have some support within the Palestinian population, an equally significant number of Palestinians do not support Hamas. There are various Palestinian political parties who compete for a mandate to rule, most notably Hamas and Fatah. Hamas and Fatah regularly disagree on how Palestinians should seek statehood; indeed, they came to a military conflict in the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas is generally understood to be an extremist group, seeking to commit genocide against all Jews worldwide, according to their 1988 charter and recent public statements. Equating Hamas with all Palestinians shows a concerning lack of basic understanding of the stakeholders in the region. Most importantly, it paints all Palestinians in a bad light for the actions of a few, and the two ought to be separated. To be clear, any suggestion that Palestinians are inherently violent should be dismissed with disgust and vigour.
The main lesson to learn by picking apart these posts is the dangerous discourse floating around social media. Posts on my feed have too often read as conspiracy theories to deny the deaths which occurred on October 7th, or were created to drive polarisation forward. This leads to my conclusions. I believe the immediate social media reactions to Hamas’s slaughter of Israelis act as microcosms of a broader phenomenon which renders this subject so polarising on an international scale.
Having been to the border with Gaza, and met both Israelis and Palestinians, it is clear to me that many civilians living near the border do not hold hatred in their hearts and simply wish to live in peace. Indeed, one of the casualties of the Be'eri massacre, Vivian Silver, was amongst Israel's best-known campaigners for peace and the empowerment of Gazans. Yet, far from Gaza, located in an online space, the story is very different.
Social media is dominated by zero-sum thinking that has given the limelight to discourse unconducive to peace. For example, the notion that one must pledge allegiance to one side and entirely ignore the suffering of the other. This is not a realistic strategy for a peace settlement, and this popularised narrative should be challenged. Some have even taken this further, arguing the October 7th massacre was a win for Palestinian liberation. To make this clear, support for the murder of Israelis, which sets peace talks back by decades, does not benefit anyone living in or around Gaza. It only benefits online extremist discourse. Most of those posting such divisive content will not ever have to face the terrifying lived reality of Palestinians and Israelis living on either side of the Gaza border, yet it is this position that paves the way for irrationally abusive and unhelpful discourse. Those who take pleasure in the October 7th massacre are not aiding the already precarious road to peace sought by Palestinians.
When the deaths of civilians attending a festival cannot be reported on without accusations of lies and conspiracy, you know you have a problem. When Israelis cannot mourn the murder of their children, elderly grandparents, or even household pets without thousands of accounts flooding in to tell them they ‘deserved it’, you know you have a problem. Are children or household pets really personally responsible for the development of the conflict?
Social media has acclimatised many to equate criticism of the Israeli government with indifference to the death of its civilians. Too often will individuals circulate posts without considering the profound effect it may have on any Palestinian, Israeli, or Jewish followers. They may not consider how the rhetoric they circulate is at odds with a realistic peace strategy. Nor do they consider how blind denial of events will lead to graphic images having to be shared as proof, re-igniting trauma for those affected.
Israelis should have been given a respectful online space to mourn this - very real - immeasurable loss. Innocent civilians, including families, children, and elderly adults, absolutely did not ‘deserve’ to die in their homes. I am profoundly concerned for innocent civilians - families, children, and elderly adults - in Gaza, who equally absolutely do not deserve to die. I feel anxious about what lies ahead. In short, civilians deserve an online space to mourn their losses with respect instead of facing whataboutery, accusations of propaganda and hatred. None of these statements should be controversial.
Eleonora Guaschi is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.