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19 October 2023

Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem

On social media, users have two choices: to log off and look away, or stay and witness horrors and lies that make things worse.

By Sarah Manavis

Few people have experienced the past decade online without coming across the term “self-care”. The concept – that in difficult times, you should make time to care for yourself by, for example, taking a break from work or reducing daily tasks in your control – was popularised on social media as a reaction to old-fashioned “grin and bear it” attitudes. It quickly became an inescapable phrase in the 2010s, and associated language – of “taking space”, “logging off”, “prioritising yourself” – became part of everyday speech for millions of Gen-Zers and millennials. Soon, this once-useful concept was reduced to a shallow cliché posing as mental health intervention: co-opted by influencers and adverts claiming that bubble baths, yoga or face creams were in fact forms of therapy.

It’s no coincidence that the rise “self-care” occurred at the same time as many world-shifting socio-political events. Distressing news stories such as the election of Donald Trump, or the murder of George Floyd, became valid reasons to “take space”. Finding the news complicated, too, became good reason to practice self-care, by ignoring it. While rooted in a seed of truth – that it’s healthy to take breaks from the 24/7 news cycle, especially those directly impacted by it – for most whose lives were materially unaffected by these events, this language became an easy crutch to lean on as a means of avoiding reckoning with reality or to prevent themselves from experiencing any discomfort at all.

In the days since the Hamas attack of 7 October, after which Israel declared war on the Islamist group and began devastating air strikes in Gaza, the internet has been awash with tweets, videos and infographics crassly adopting this mentality. Western social media users with no personal connection to the violence have posted endlessly about their own pain at having to witness a conflict that has killed thousands in the space of days – pain that has forced them to step away from engaging with this conflict entirely. Influencers have encouraged others to switch off from the scenes of mass devastation, advising, for example, “If you can, let’s stay off social media for the rest of the weekend,” and have reassured their followers not to worry if they simply don’t understand what’s happening in Gaza, without any suggestion that they need to.

[See also: The Israel-Hamas war has left Britain divided]

Of course, this is not the first instance of Westerners refusing to pay attention to a humanitarian crisis in a different part of the world. But this conflict has brought out unprecedented self-absorption and chilling insensitivity on social media. Alongside this invocation of self-care as a reason to disengage, there has been a glut of content – videos with millions of views on TikTok – unpacking the conflict in mindless, tone-deaf terms to make it more digestible (or even fun) for their followers to learn about. In one viral, since-deleted example, a TikTok user “girlsplained” the history of Israel and Palestine relations, comparing the conflict to two women trying to host their birthday party at the same nightclub, adopting slang terminology and high-pitched voices to channel people representing Hamas, the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli government, illustrating the conflict with pink stick-figure drawings.

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It is now clear that any serious global crisis – be it a terrorist attack, a war, or even the threat of genocide – is seen by swathes of social media users as either just another opportunity for “content”, or a distant, distressing event best avoided. This en-masse self-infantilisation is not a new phenomenon online, but one with serious consequences, informing how critical portions of the population interact with world events. News stories that aren’t even particularly complex are given dumbed-down, algorithm-friendly explanations; regardless of knowledge or expertise, users are desperate to be the first to post a viral response to yet another “trending topic”. 

These content creators may cynically claim their posts raise awareness. Social media does have the power to educate – even during this conflict, useful graphics from verified outlets have provided scale and context for the destruction and have given video insight into the reality of life in Gaza. Charities providing urgent medical aid undoubtedly have been able to access more donors thanks to fundraising on social media. But at a rapidly increasing rate, social platforms are host to dangerous misinformation and graphic, uncensored images. Some users have reported being inundated with images and videos of dead, mutilated bodies on Twitter, while TikTok has been battling with rampant misinformation. Instagram has been accused of censoring posts sharing support for Palestine. This week has seen misinformation and deleted posts, which have led to widespread confusion concerning the bombing of a Gaza hospital. Users are left with two choices: to log off in socially accepted apathy, or to stay online in a sincere attempt to help – only to witness horrors and lies that serve to make things worse.

It’s not unusual to find this conflict distressing – everyone should. But the experience of this minor discomfort – when compared with the true horrors of the violence – does not justify reducing this war to mere “content” in order to engage with it, nor does it excuse the desire to ignore it in the name of “self-care”. Refusing to accept the reality of the suffering caused by these conflicts is not an act of self-preservation, it is an act of apathy. Every person who turns away is actively complicit in a global indifference that will only allow that suffering to proliferate.

[See also: Letter from Israel: “Bodies are piling up on three fronts”]

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