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Israel-Hamas war discourse shows the increasingly fraught nature of online speech

People on the internet are debating what online activism and solidarity look like. They’re having trouble agreeing.
Photo Illustration: Chat bubbles filled with emojis representing Palestine, Israel, and peace
While it is not the first war to occur in the social media age, the heated discussions have underscored just how polarizing the topic is.Justine Goode / NBC News

Kylie Jenner shared a pro-Israel Instagram story post and quickly removed it. A New York University law student faced vitriol after a message of “solidarity with Palestinians” was posted on X. And a handful of nonprofit organizations, which have long advocated for a two-state solution, said they are drawing backlash.

That is how some conversations around the war are playing out online, particularly on Instagram and X — and it has been divisive. After the Palestinian militant group Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel over the weekend and Israel’s retaliatory bombing in Gaza, social media users have made sweeping statements arguing on behalf of one side or the other and condemning those who find nuance.

While it isn’t the first war in the social media age, the heated discussions have underscored just how polarizing the topic is and how things can quickly turn ugly on the internet. 

“Moderating war content is genuinely a huge problem for social media platforms, and it’s one that no one really has an answer to,” Abbie Richards, a content creator who specializes in misinformation and disinformation research, said in a recent video on Instagram. 

“On one hand, it’s traumatic and deeply disturbing, especially to people who are affected. … On the other hand, it’s reality,” said Richards, who referred NBC News to her video when she was asked for an interview. “Actually seeing the consequences of war, not just hearing about them but seeing them, that could change who you vote for. That’s powerful. But on the other, other hand, war is a misinformation minefield.” 

Matthew Nouriel, who is Iranian, Jewish and queer, said they have been vocal about Israel because they have seen comments on social media that appear to diminish Jewish people’s right to be angry about the attack.

“It feels suffocating,” said Nouriel, who works as a digital producer for the Tel Aviv Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides “strategic solutions for combating hate online.” “We have every right to be angry. We’re watching our people go through this.”

Nouriel said that as a creator, they feel “there’s a lot of misinformation being put out there,” which is why they “feel a responsibility to carve out the information that I know to be true as factually as I can.”

One of Nouriel’s most recent posts got over 18,000 likes. The first slide reads, “Hamas’ attack on Israel is not about Palestinian liberation, it is about massacring jews.”

Nouriel said they believe “everyone should speak up about every injustice that takes place amongst any community.”

However, they added, “I think there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed — when you start speaking over people.”

For some activists, the backlash to their posts is familiar — but it feels heightened in the current online environment.

IfNotNow, a Jewish American youth-led movement founded in 2014 that organizes to “end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system” and advocates for equality, justice and a future for both Palestinians and Israelis, received a mix of hateful messages after it posted a statement Saturday. 

The group condemned Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians and argued that Israel’s “decades of Palestinian oppression” had led to the escalation in violence on both sides. 

Numerous replies to the statement, some of which were viewed by NBC News, attacked IfNotNow with antisemitic language, some of it comparing the Jewish organization to neo-Nazis.

Eva Borgwardt, IfNotNow’s political director, said she has recently seen a “double standard” play out online when it comes to conversations about Israel and the Palestinian cause.

“There’s a double standard in terms of when ‘you don’t know enough’ to take action or take a stand,” Borgwardt said. “The idea that you don’t know enough is often only applied in one direction. ‘You don’t know enough’ if you’re trying to support Palestinian rights. Those with authority rarely accuse you of ‘not knowing enough’ if you are unequivocally supporting Israel at all costs.”

But the instinct to provide additional context has also become a point of contention online in recent days. Numerous social media posts have argued there is no room for the “both sides” dialogue. Some online have called others out for material that they say diminishes the conflict to just an infographic. Others have accused people — particularly those who have no knowledge of the Middle East and its vast history — of posting without knowing what they are talking about. 

Social media activism often encompasses infographics explaining sociopolitical dynamics in a particular crisis, viral fundraising or mutual aid efforts and shared lists compiling contact information for grassroots advocacy to elected officials.

At times, what people share on platforms has aligned with the expressed goals of a particular social movement. 

For example, last year in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in Iran, activists in the country implored the outside world to amplify news of the Women Life Freedom movement.

In other instances, online activism has been criticized as “performative,” and it has backfired on the efficacy of protesters’ goals.  

The summer of 2020 saw a global protest movement against police violence toward Black Americans. At one point, Instagram users posted black squares to their feeds for #BlackOutTuesday to signal solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Users were accused of virtue-signaling, and some activists said that rather than promote the cause, the posts instead silenced critical information about protests.

With the Israel-Hamas war, people with varied perspectives share a common concern that not enough people are speaking up on social media about what’s going on.

In a social media post Tuesday, the comedian Chelsea Handler, who is half Jewish, addressed the backlash surrounding those who have been silent.

She wrote that “all desire peace for Israelis and Palestinians” and that there is “no excuse for this kind of barbarism.” 

However, “everyone processes everything in their own time so screaming and yelling at people about why they aren’t posting or saying anything is also part of the problem,” she wrote. “Let people understand the full scope of what’s happening, why it’s happening, and the root of the problem. This is terrorism.”