The recent conflict in Israel and Palestine has been one of enormous tragedy and loss for not only the innocent civilians in those areas but many around the world who have friends and family there. And, as has become the norm with fraught political issues of our time, social media has become the chief forum that hosts discourse about the subject. I’ve heard from Jewish friends who have spent time in Israel that some members of the Israel Defense Forces have asked those abroad to spread awareness online of the realities of the Hamas attacks.
In theory, this is good. Ideally, the Internet is a place where many have the opportunity to share their voices to people and places around the world where they otherwise couldn’t reach. This is still true and important. However, the most productive discourse will never happen in an online, virtual forum.
While we argue about the inhumane tragedies of the world, we manage to forget our own humanity as well. I have never seen something so powerful as the force of social media to dehumanize those around us; it’s the best vehicle of hatred accessible to mankind. The veil of anonymity, coupled with the lack of in-person human interaction, enables us to see those online as almost unreal or very distant adversaries.
We have seen this polarization unfold in real time in the United States, as the current domestic political mood is the most divisive and bleak it has been in decades. We saw it materialize during the Black Lives Matter movement, too. The black square started from a place of solidarity but quickly became a performative act that flooded the #BLM hashtags with useless non-informational black squares. We must take this, and other examples, as a lesson that social media can only be a small tool in the avenue that we want to create change.
Our sole, or even chief, reliance on social media activism promotes a lousy form of engagement with current social and political issues and also is a massive vessel for misinformation. Furthermore, false news travels much faster than true news, specifically six times faster than true news on X (previously Twitter) which is likely due to the fact that it contains more alarming and inflammatory material. Wartime is already infamous for secrecy and deception, which is only further reinforcing the rampant misinformation and disinformation that we are seeing now shaping views on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
We must remind ourselves of this fact when faced with an overwhelming amount of opinions and material online. Not only do posts lack the humanity behind conflicts when they are technologized on social media, it is nearly impossible to decipher what is true and what is not. Furthermore, social media reposts help limit activism to reposting an infographic and nothing else. The very same and unwanted performative activism is perpetuated by the looming force of feeling judged or punished by not posting an infographic.
I’ve also noticed a tragic pattern in those who do post. Once someone posts in allegiance to one side of the conflict, all following posts maintain that same allegiance. But the suffering on both sides of the conflict is incomprehensibly tragic. Both deserve recognition as such. I thus assert that social media reposting forces us into oppositional binaries that discourage us from expressing sympathies for innocent civilians who deserve our support and sympathy, regardless of religion, race, or nationality.
I accept that social media does have a space in the activism world, especially for communities that have their voices suppressed or marginalized otherwise. However, it should be far from an end-all be-all method to resolve disputes. It’s unlikely that anyone thinks that social media should be end-all-be-all, but the reality is that for some it has become that.
Furthermore, social media should not be viewed as a perfectly authentic extension of the self in any context. Therefore, it’s unfair to set expectations about how people politically engage on social media.
I prefer to discuss heavier topics in person, where nuance and emotion are more easily and accurately captured. I believe what’s more important than a performative box to virtue signal is doing the legwork that it takes to be educated and enduring the emotional labor of discussing these issues and topics with friends, family, and loved ones.
It’s true too that hearts and minds have probably never been changed by any of these infographic activist posts — and I would assert that at times they simply ignite more division and confusion. We have seen this unfold on Penn’s campus already, as a video posted by @jewishbreakingnews claimed that pro-Palestine protesters were chanting “we want Jewish genocide.” However, Penn Against the Occupation asserts that protesters were actually saying “we charge you with genocide.” As a social media user, it is virtually impossible to differentiate truth from falsehoods, especially in video format.
We must stop letting social media dictate how we view others we barely even know — or worse, make assumptions about their character and their beliefs. I have refrained from posting about this conflict online. My silence has not come from a place of complacency but rather one of respect. I view social media as an inadequate forum to discuss issues that deserve more than a lackadaisical repost of an infographic.
Let’s return to the forum of human discussion and interaction. Let’s never underestimate the power of real conversation. Let’s trust in legitimate sources that have been backed by reputable organizations. Let’s ask our friends who have different backgrounds than us their lived experiences and perspectives.
This conversation would be incomplete without mentioning Penn’s lack of adequate reaction to these recent tragic events unfolding in Israel and Palestine. President Magill released a delayed message condemning Hamas but did not offer much else. There has been little effort to provide a forum for Jewish and Palestinian students who desire to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. All students deserve to feel safe in their identities at school. We need to encourage conversations that embrace nuance but reject antisemitism and Islamophobia. We need conversations that can differentiate religion from distinct political regimes.
And for those of us who are still trying to learn the complex and nuanced history, Penn has failed us too. As a world-renowned institution with a strong Jewish community and international community, this is the least they could do to support students connected to one of the most tragic and horrifying geopolitical and religious conflicts of our time. We need to be reminded of our humanity as much as can be possible in a time dominated by virtual communication.
ALLISON SANTA-CRUZ is a College junior studying communications from Jackson, Miss. Her email address is email@example.com.