I manage the progressive, Jewish political advocacy Instagram page @jewishliberal, which has close to 16,000 followers. We discuss antisemitism, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, and intersectional causes in the U.S.
Political platforms like mine provide instant, digestible content aimed at sharing information. However, with a platform comes the propagation of false credibility, misinformation, and even hate. Many of my readers don’t know–though I hardly hide the fact– that I’m 16 years old. Still, my opinions are awarded a level of authority associated with my follower count, which scares me.
There’s an undeniable imposter syndrome that often warrants forfeiting my platform; however, this feeling is quickly dissolved by the efforts of other users to spread false, antisemitic information. People exploit the false credibility social media provides to spread blood libel through uninformed masses. Hate that would usually be restricted to one’s sphere of influence is now emboldened by the obscure anonymity given to commenters.
For many, the few seconds they view my posts are their main source of information. Few people consider my credentials or judge my first-hand experience; so, while I sit at my desk in New Jersey, thousands of miles from Gaza, I receive dozens of messages questioning every minute detail of my commentary on a conflict far more nuanced and complex than what can be dissected under Instagram’s ten-slide limit. I’m criticized for my bias as though I pretended to be an objective source. My followers create a false sense of credibility, encouraging users to accept my personal accounts as first-hand information.
Recently, I’ve seen “progressive” organizations in New York City advocating for the targeting of Zionists. I’ve seen videos of attempted lynchings performed under the false guise of social media-defined “wokeness.” Like in Soviet Russia, “Zionist” is being employed as a word to replace Jews, as now blatant antisemitism is less culturally acceptable. But a simple swap of a word reveals the same violent threats that terrorized my family, only now, it’s being spread through my peers.
Social media also transforms the real-life suffering of Israelis and Palestinians into a game. People choose sides debating the legitimacy of states they can’t even find on a map. They fill my comments with flags and “free Palestine,” as though I have the Israeli Prime Minister on speed dial. As if I— a 16-year-old American teenager— am responsible for violence in the Middle East. Meanwhile, fellow Jews call me self-hating and hypocritical for speaking up about Palestinian trauma. Across the political spectrum, people engage in debate as though the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians is hypothetical. Determining the legitimacy of a people is now a pastime of intellectual discourse. This will not accomplish peace.
Social media undoubtedly provides its benefits in relation to the conflict. As I see news updates of bombs, I can also instantly communicate with my cousin, who is currently living near the Gaza Strip, in order to verify her safety. I have found new perspectives and have been given a platform to combat what is false. But these platforms have also created an “us versus them” mentality comparable to sporting events; one in which buzz words are used to frame opposition as unilaterally responsible for the decades of suffering.
It’s easy to be consumed by debates of injustice, and equally simple to be blind to the faults of those we agree with. In his book discussing campus debates about the Israel-Palestine conflict, The Conflict Over the Conflict, Kenneth S. Stern quotes social psychologist James Waller, who wrote that “human minds are compelled to define the limits of the tribe… We construct this knowledge by categorizing others as ‘us’ or ‘them.’
We tend to be biassed towards ‘us’ and label ‘them’ — those with whom we share the fewest genes and least culture — as enemies.” Stern analyzes this quote in the context of campus hostilities — how the identity and ethnic components of the Israel-Palestine debate breed tribal-like affinity — but unlike on campuses, accountability for hateful or inflammatory speech is hard to come by.
Online, it is nearly impossible to be critical of one’s own stance, and one can never omit fault publicly, thus adding heightened hostility to this debate. During conversations about complex and long-standing conflicts, like that of Israel-Palestine, we could reduce rampant hate that divides us if we were only to admit when we might be wrong. It would shift the discourse from disagreement over the facts of history towards solutions for the future. It would reduce the notion that violence in the Middle East translates to tensions between Jews and Muslims. It would move us towards peace.
I’m not advocating for censorship; I’m glad that young people, like myself, can access news easily and develop their own opinions. However, we must be careful in how we conduct these discussions; we must assess whether or not words add fire to thousand-year-old flames, analyze our role in spreading information, and carefully screen what we read. Antisemitism will not liberate Palestinians, nor will Islamophobia protect Israel. Until online users recognize this false dichotomy, social media can prove dangerous for those affected by the Israel-Palestine conflict.