May 18, 2021 - Technology

Israeli-Palestinian fight spills over into social media

Credit: Data: Zignal Labs; Chart: Axios Visuals

As outrage about the conflict in Gaza and misinformation about clashes between Palestinians and Israelis snowball online, social media companies face yet another test of their capacity to manage their platforms.

Why it matters: Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians haven't been this high since the last round of combat in Gaza in 2014, and social media has become a much larger part of our everyday lives and media diets since then.

Driving the news: Images from the conflict are bringing it directly onto people's phones and screens as activism spikes and some users are finding their posts removed or their accounts frozen.

  • Videos of Israel's "Iron Dome" air defense intercepting rockets across the sky in Gaza circulate daily.
  • The world watched as a building housing the Associated Press and Al Jazeera in Gaza was blown up by the Israeli army, citing Hamas militants inside.

Last week, a spokesman for Israel's prime minister tweeted a video purporting to show Palestinians launching rockets in a civilian area of Gaza — but the video was actually from 2018 and located elsewhere, per the New York Times.

Other widely circulated posts falsely claimed that Israeli troops had invaded Gaza.

  • Some of those were prompted by official statements on Twitter and to the media from the Israeli Defense Forces suggesting that Israel had sent troops in.
  • Israel later said the reports were a mistake, but some Israeli press reports said were a deliberate tactical deception.

By the numbers: New data from Zignal Labs provided to Axios shows social media support online for both sides spiked dramatically over the course of last week.

  • Specifically, there's been an increase in use of the hashtags #freepalestine and #savepalestine, according to the Zignal data.

What to watch: Israeli officials charge that extremists are exploiting the situation online.

  • Last week, Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Facebook and TikTok executives that extremists were spreading disinformation about the conflict and urged them to take action to prevent violence.

The other side: Pro-Palestinian activists have cited many instances of their content being taken down by Facebook and Instagram.

  • Because Hamas, which governs Gaza, is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, some social platforms' rules — notably, Facebook's — bar posts by the group.

The big picture: The social media battlefield has become an inevitable adjunct to every international conflict.

Between the lines: This newest round of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis pushes social media companies onto treacherous terrain in two different ways.

  • The bright line against terrorist groups gives content moderators an easy-to-apply reference point against Hamas, but for many supporters the wider Palestinian cause is a human rights issue.
  • Meanwhile, angry debate over Israel's role can sometimes slide into broader slurs against Jewish people, which are forbidden by social media policies against hate speech.

Our thought bubble: This bitter conflict is decades old, and long before there was a Facebook or a Twitter, people on both sides had trouble keeping arguments about it from getting out of hand.

  • Efforts to police misinformation and keep discourse civil online are most at risk when the two sides of a conflict see entirely different facts and harbor generations-old hostility.
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