You may have noticed over the past few weeks that your Facebook news feed has morphed into a furious scroll of articles, rants, poems, and pages railing against Israel, Hamas, media bias, the Israeli Defense Forces, Bibi Netanyahu, and more. Acquaintances from high school pop up to warn you not to get sucked in by propaganda. Friends post graphic photos of dead children; other friends comment to argue they’re faked. Family members share links they swear will expose the REAL truth about what’s going on in Gaza.
Facebook is becoming increasingly important in how people get their news. A recent Pew poll found that one in three Americans get news through their Facebook feeds. And after weeks of this particular news cycle, many people are getting fed up. As anyone who has spent time on social media knows, online arguments tend to be more damaging than productive. Conveniently, Facebook makes it easy to “hide” upsetting posts without breaking off ties completely. But the ability to create a selective news feed may pose more problems for an already polarized debate. Several people on different sides of the conflict that ThinkProgress spoke to have begun muting or blocking people on Facebook over Gaza-related posts.
What exactly are people weeding out of their news feeds?
“Stuff that has more racial tones, more religious arguments,” Sarah Hagi, a 23-year-old Muslim Canadian living in the United Arab Emirates said. “Things that were too based on, Jews say this, Muslims say this. That doesn’t really help this conversation.”
“I think anything that glorifies the military or war really upsets me,” said Sarah Seltzer, a freelance writer and blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward. “I mean, you can even support the war, but to my peacenik lefty heart, it’s horrifying to see war sanctified.”
“Posts that make Israel out to be a genocidal machine, purposely killing as many children as possible, comparing us to the f—ing Nazis,” Adir Cohen, a musician living in Tel Aviv, told ThinkProgress. “Those posts are pure hatred and makes this whole situation just worse.”
“When I see somebody post some God-given grant to realty, I’ve silenced that,” said Chase Simon, a lawyer based in Ohio. “Usually they’re simply quoting the Old Testament or Jewish scriptures emphasizing a divine right to Palestine. That bothers me.”
“Social media has been very, very important,” Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian peace advocate, blogger, and co-executive of George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution says. “I don’t think I’ve seen it used as much as it has in the past month.”
Facebook enables a flood of different media sources and opposing opinions traditionally left out of established media sources.
“You’re hearing accounts from the ground from people who are experiencing it firsthand. You’re hearing the story [of Gaza] in a way I certainly can’t remember hearing before,” Timothy McCarthy, a historian and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School said. “I can’t remember any time in the past where the alternative representation to the mainstream media is getting airtime. Social media is wreaking havoc on the way we perceive divisive political issues.”
To narrow down the firehose of information, users have to curate their friend groups and news feeds. But finding a balance between muting upsetting posts and staying well-informed can be a challenge.
Kate Doyle, a graduate student currently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also differentiated between simple disagreement and extreme rhetoric. “In general, I’m fine with posts that don’t agree with my opinion — I come from a background that’s very opposite my own politics, so I have a lot of friends and family who disagree with me,” she said. “But posts that call people to action and to outrage without any room for debate will make me block someone.”
Unfriending or blocking someone is considered extreme, and very few people do it — less than 5 percent, Pew Research found. But Facebook makes the decision to avoid someone easier with the “hide” button. That little button can keep people from expanding their views or learning beyond what is comfortable.
The emotional intensity surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leaves little room for nuance. Many people told ThinkProgress they disliked the pressure to pick a side. “If you asked me if I was pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, I would disregard the premise of the question,” Tina Wexler, a medical student in Tel Aviv, said.
Also in Tel Aviv, Adir Cohen argued against the people he found offensive in his feed, but felt the arguments were casting him in a role he didn’t want to play. “I stopped posting things or answering because it threw me to a side even though I’m in the middle about a lot of things,” he said. “I had to delete Facebook from my phone.”
That lack of nuance is taking a serious toll on people’s personal relationships.
Losing Your Humanity
For Tim McCarthy, the last straw was when a close friend endorsed an article claiming Palestinians were an invented people who should instead be called “adjacent Jew-haters.”
“I responded to this post and said this breaks my heart,” McCarthy told ThinkProgress. “It’s really hard to see someone that I love and care about say things that are really hateful. And he responded that it broke his heart to see someone that he loved and cared about say things so twisted by false representations of history, that kind of thing.”
McCarthy penned a Facebook post shortly afterward, saying he was stepping back from social media because he felt he “was witnessing the worst of human nature.”
“For me, it represented my friend losing a part of his humanity,” he said, and pointed to “a larger lack of empathy that I see on every side of this issue, from lots of different kinds of people who are otherwise really thoughtful and decent people, who have gotten pulled in by the violence of this situation.”
His situation is unfortunately common. Incendiary Facebook posts can be surprisingly damaging to friendships. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota and Georgia Institute of Technology found that the vast majority of people, 73 percent, have disagreed with a friend online. And nearly 20 percent of them end up unfriending or blocking someone because of it, effectively ruining their relationship.
Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, told ThinkProgress that when it comes to social media, people weed out what they don’t like much like they do in real life.
“When someone has a worldview quite different from our own, we experience the emotional discomfort of cognitive dissonance,” Rutledge said. “The only solutions are to change our opinions or stop listening.” And sometimes it’s simply easier to avoid someone than work to change your perspective.
People like feeling accepted, and tend to surround themselves with people who share common backgrounds or beliefs online and in real life, the Minnesota study found. That can create an echo chamber in which the same opinions reverberate over and over, shutting out any dissenters.
That self-sorting also means people are not used to talking through opposing viewpoints. Instead they seek reinforcement of their own beliefs.
“People who talk too much about themselves — and sharing your opinion too frequently without listening to others is the same thing — tend to not want to talk with you,” online or otherwise, Rutledge said. And since social media is all about fostering and maintaining relationships, that involves two-way exchanges.
Huma Ashraf, a graduate student in New York, finally unfriended a college friend for constantly posting strident defenses of Israel. “I almost never unfriend people on Facebook but he was just posting every hour. There was a lot of discussion in the comments and I read them because it was a lot of people I went to school with,” she said. But even though the comments were raising other points, “he just ignored it as opposed to actually engaging. He was just kind of ranting a lot.”
Ashraf was surprised to discover this side of her friend. “I hang out with him…I know him well. I didn’t expect that his views were so different — he’s a hippie!” she said. “It’s weird, I feel like I’ve had conversations with him that are on a different level.”
Most people assume that their friends will share similar views. According to the Minnesota study, most social media users believe they were at least 71 percent similar to their online friends. That assumption creates tension during politically divisive news events, when someone you thought you knew posts something offensive that’s out of sync with your personal beliefs. A Pew survey found that 58 percent of Facebook users have been surprised by a friend’s or family member’s opinion about an event in the news on the site.
These experiences caused significant struggles, from trying to rationalize the behavior of a friend to deciding whether to terminate the friendship,” the study found. The disagreements at minimum changed the way friends saw each other — some cut ties entirely.
It’s easier to cut off casual acquaintances — long lost schoolmates, people who grew up with you, or old co-workers. It’s a more complicated calculation when it comes to family or close friends.
Alex Nagler, a 26-year-old New Yorker, said he was usually very vocal about political issues, but was staying quiet on Gaza in part for the sake of his family. “I’ve got a pair of very conservative older Jewish grandparents who are somewhat Facebook-savvy,” he explained. “I know this is a cop-out but sometimes it’s easier for my own sanity to not rock things there.”
Much of the delicacy of the discussion stems from those stronger ties. “Everyone knows someone connected to the conflict,” — a friend or a relative who was killed or injured, Abu Sarah said. So when online discussions went south, he said, “it was more than propaganda…it was personal.”
Israel-based musician Adir Cohen agreed — almost to the word. “I have two family members who died as soldiers — 18 and 19 years old…I have friends in [the army] protecting my ass while I’m sitting in Tel Aviv recording a record,” Cohen said. “It’s personal.”
The Problem With A Social News Feed
The amount of information circulating on social media, especially when news is constantly breaking, is shared faster than it can be authenticated. The proliferation of bad information on social media has caused the most damage, Abu Sarah explained. “There were all these videos of militants shooting rockets, titled ‘This is how kids get killed,’ ‘This is what happens in Gaza,’” which were actually from Syria or places where the people in the video aren’t speaking Arabic, he said.
“I fell for it too,” Abu Sarah added, recalling an article he posted about an Israeli soldier who was boasting about killing children. One of his followers called out the article as false, and Abu Sarah deleted it after not being able to verify whether it was true or a hoax. “If you don’t have the facts, you shouldn’t post something,” he said.
Even though they are risking friendships, many people still feel a responsibility to push back on the false information being shared on Facebook. Cohen said that he hates “comment wars,” but “could not stand the fact that so many of my uninformed friends who really don’t know what to believe were reading these same posts and potentially believing them.”
McCarthy also worried that the extreme rhetoric on his feed was keeping people from learning about the issue. “I’ve seen a deep polarization over the Israeli invasion of Gaza, and I’ve also seen a lot of people I know who don’t know what to think, who have become more and more alienated by the very polarized things that are going on on social media,” he said.
Recycling bad information delegitimizes any efforts to educate the public or work toward a resolution, Abu Sarah pointed out.
And being physically removed from your audience makes it easier to use inflammatory rhetoric. “People say things on social media that they would not say to someone in person. There’s a bit of throwing bombs over the fence,” Nancy Mramor, PhD, a Pittsburgh-based media and health psychologist, told ThinkProgress. “People feel protected by the sense of anonymity the Web gives – even if they’re using their real identities. There’s a feeling of safety where I can block you, and you can’t retaliate the way you want, so I can continue saying what I want.”
You can withdraw from friends online without being noticed in a way that would easily be picked up in real life through social cues, if you were to avoid eye contact or simply walk away from the argument. “With social media you obviously have the ability to ignore it once it’s gone to a place you don’t want it to go,” Nagler remarked. “You don’t have to worry about physically annoying someone to the extent of if you were talking in person.”
The result is a conversation that is more about broadcasting than about exchange. “There is no doubt in my mind that social media is transforming our politics,” McCarthy said. “One of the more negative manifestations of this transformation is we are all able to have an opinion, and express, and assert our opinion in seconds — not minutes or hours or days. There’s no process anymore in our political culture.”
Refusing To Be Enemies
Adding the snap judgment impulses of social media to the powder keg of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like it could be disastrous. Yet Facebook is also bringing opposing sides together and broadening social circles that are more limited offline.
“I don’t know anybody that I actually hang out with that supports Israel — in what’s going on right now at least,” Ashraf said. “It’s a larger variety of people that I’m friends with on Facebook than I am in my life.”
In the sea of vitriol and blame, a number of Facebook groups have popped up in the past few weeks aimed at bridging the divide. Wexler pointed to Israel Loves Palestine and Palestine Loves Israel as two online communities that have given her hope. “They have been posting every day reminding each other, hey, Palestinians in Gaza don’t hate you. Hey, Israelis don’t hate you. We’re all sad that this is happening,” Wexler said.
Another Facebook group, Jews and Arabs Refuse To Be Enemies, shares pictures and statements from friends, couples, and families who bridge the divide. The group has more than 60,000 followers.
Sarah Hagi said she actually felt more empowered after finding a community online. “From the last time this war happened in 2012, I’ve been more connected with people who are really educated about the issue,” she said. “Before I was kind of scared. I was thinking, I’m Muslim, if I post, people will think I’m Hamas. But I’ve been following Jewish people, from Jewish Voices for Peace, Jewish journalists, different pages from Jewish groups. I’m following more people.”
Similarly, Sarah Seltzer and Abu Sarah credited social media with giving progressive Jews and Palestinians a voice which to speak out against the war.
Seltzer said she felt less alone in protesting the war because of “a critical mass of Jews speaking out. Many of her peers, she said, have started feeling more comfortable voicing their feelings because of “social media, and seeing the images from Gaza.”
Abu Sarah pointed out that traditionally, Palestinians have felt underrepresented in the media. In this context, “social media became important, because it’s the only place where they can tell their story,” he said.
Abu Sarah has made new Israeli friends who recruit him to join in their debates and give a Palestinian perspective that they wouldn’t have heard otherwise. Even when both sides think, “I’m probably not going to believe anything you say, but I still want to hear it,” it’s a learning experience, he said.
Even while muting posts that upset them, many people told ThinkProgress it was important for them to maintain a dialogue with people who disagreed with them.
“One of the reasons I don’t use the defriending option or the unfollowing option routinely or regularly is because I want my wall, I want my group of friends to be able to weigh in and disagree with me and disagree with one another,” McCarthy said.
Cohen agreed. “The people who are truly my friends I would never delete or stop following,” he said. “Those people I have always discussed the issue with and we have always respected each other and loved each other regardless.”