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Israel-Hamas war shows social media is broken

ByReyhan Harmanci

The image shows a man’s hand holding up a Palestinian flagwith what looks to be a rose,framed by a sunset. “We are staring into the void—in the midst of an apocalypse rendered by our own bloody hands,”reads the Instagram post.

This came not from an individual account but instead from a restaurant called Lil Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York. In the comments on that post, things got messy, as Lil Deb’s heard from disgruntled customers (“never stepping foot in your restaurant again how sick”), rhapsodic fans (“Looks like y’all took out the overflowing trash, and it only took one post!”) and potential customers (“Was hoping to try out the food at your restaurant but I don’t support terrorists or people that don’t actively condemn terrorists”). Lil Deb’s claimed to have lost2,000 followers afterthe postand said: “We aren’t afraid to lose fake friends.”Later, viaemail, it put the figure around 600.

Meanwhile, celebrities such as Sarah Silverman (who reposted a screedsaying that Israel was justified in cutting off water and fuel to Gaza) and sports teams like the beleaguered Carolina Panthers (who got roasted in their commentsfor saying they stood by Israel) have also joined the thousands of individuals, brands, organizations and small businesses being criticized for their posts on the events overseas.

Online, where most people are witnessing the horrific events in Israel and Gaza through their screens, chaos has been the defining quality.

Each platform has had its own issues. Twitter, now known as X, has been overrun with disinformation underElon Musk’s “free speech” regime. Recent product changes, including removing headlines from news stories, have further confused the sourcing of information, which used to be one of the platform’s most valuable assets; raw photos, videos or testimonials would rise to the top of a feed.

Today, as John Herrman atNew Yorkmagazinehas pointed out, the source for most of the unfiltered (and often explicitly violent) content is Telegram, a messaging app. Over at Instagram, Adam Mosseri, the head of its new X clone,declared in a postthat while Threads was not “anti-news,” it wasn’t exactly pro-news, either: The platform would not “amplify” news posts, making it less useful than it could be.

Reports from TikTok are that the flood of videos that greeted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine haven’t taken hold in the same way, but there’s plenty of divisive and gory content to go around, leading the service to announce it was forming a dedicatedcommand centerand adding more moderators who speak Arabic and Hebrew. Unimpressed, the European Union hasadded TikTok and Meta Platforms Inc. to its probe of X’s rolein spreading disinformation about the conflict.

Instagram, at least to this user, has rarely served up violent images from the conflict. But arguably worse is the experienceof being trapped in an endless hall of reactive posts,mostly texts, that just trade finger-wagging declarations, rants, reposts of celebrity reposts, and sarcastic or angry responses to other responses.

Complaints about the platforms abound. Clare Malone, who writes about media for theNew Yorker, began a running tally of various social media responses at the start of the conflict. After four days of adding to the thread, she stopped and thencame back a week later to say, “I let this thread lie dormant for a while in part because I found social media to be so overwhelmingly awful on many levels.”

Even Bluesky—Bluesky!—seems to have been the site of agita. David Bonowitz, a new user who lives in San Francisco, emailed that he’d never joined social media before accepting an invitation to the new Twitter clone recently. It’s been a bumpy ride, as he’s been called “stupid” and “sexist” in his first few days on the site. “Seriously, I am worried that what Blueskyers are calling a welcoming respite from X is just going to become a lefty echo chamber,” he wrote. “I was going to post a simple inquiry about which right-of-center thinkers Blueskyers would appreciate coming to Bluesky, but now that just feels like inviting abuse.”

If social media feels abusive, well, according to Mitchell Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, that’s because it is. His research has focused on how social media interacts with the brains of adolescents (it’s not great), but he says much of hisfindingshave been applicable to adults, as well.

At this point, the effects of social media are well known: The sites, “designed to be overstimulating,” bombard you with different emotional and provocative content, Prinstein says, then create a “hypersensitivity to positive social feedback” that activates oxytocin and dopamine, chemicals that are part of the human motivation center. In adolescents, he’s found that exposure to social media actually changes the size of thebrain. The antidote is also no surprise: limiting exposure to this chaotic environment.

If you’re mindfully logging on to various social sites, you’ll naturally stop chasing the high of likes, because, as Prinstein notes, sooner or later you’ll understand that it’s “pathetic” to keep repeating those patterns. In general, his take on the current state of social media is straightforward. “If you are logging on to Twitter and expecting to get useful or constructive information,” he says, “that’s on you at this point.”

But is there something about the collision of the Israel-Hamas war and the evolution of social media that has made the latter somehow worse? As in, the worst?

“That is a very complicated question,” says Ryan Broderick, longtime internet observer and creator of thenewsletter, laughing. “I would put it this way: The most popular platforms are definitely worse than ever.”

In Broderick’s view, it’s true that disasters and emergencies or just huge news stories have defined certain eras of social media. These collective moments—he mentions the early 2010s, with Hurricane Sandy, the Arab Spring and even the Sandy Hook shooting—helped shape the platforms themselves. “These systems now have broken entirely,” he says. “The filtering system is broken. I’m seeing shock content in mainstream places that hasn’t been there since I was in high school. There is misinformation on a scale that was only theoretical in the past. I’m not surprised that you and myself and many others are turning away. It’s too much.”

Itistoo much. But it’s one thing to know it’s time to get off the sites and another to actually do it. (Contrary to Prinstein’s advice, being pathetic didn’t seem to be enough of a deterrent for my continued engagement.) We’ve spent years developing relationships with apps that deliver the most emotional and provocative, albeit occasionally hilarious and insightful, snippets of words and pictures. Every now and then, our big world would get smaller. It felt as if the promise of a connected planet could be realised. But that era, far from perfect but at least not awful, is over.

The cost, too, of posting, particularly posting pro-Palestinian sentiment, can be high. Since some students at Harvard University signed a letter saying that Israel was responsible for the Hamas attack, a “doxing truck” broadcasting the names of the signatories as “antisemites”has been driving around campus. A handful of job candidates havehad their offers revokedafter their names werespotted on public statements. An agent at Creative Artists Agencyresigned from the company’s internal boardafter she reposted something on Instagram from an account labeled “Free Palestine.” And LinkedInhas complained about a sitethat scrapes pro-Palestinian sentiment from LinkedIn (of all places)—grouping people posting things such as #PrayForPalestine by employer—but as of Monday, the site was still up.

Seeking some wisdom, I emailed Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and author of the bestsellingThinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman has spent decades analyzing human behavior, finding ways to explain how biases and prejudices can cause human error. I wanted to know what he thought about how our brain works in this sea of unsorted detritus. His response was a marvel of brevity: “Sorry,” he wrote, “I know nothing about social media, which I have never used.” It’s a sentiment that, perhaps, more people wish they could share.

(Published 27 October 2023, 03:27 IST)

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