The “TikTok intifada”

Israel unquestionably has the military advantage in its ongoing conflict with Hamas. But in the fight to control the public narrative of the conflict, Israel’s edge seems to be slipping.

In previous rounds of conflict, the Israeli government was often able to capitalize on its widely followed official social media channels, as well as statements by leaders, to help shape the narrative in its favor, portraying itself as a nation unjustly under attack with the sole goal of defending itself.

But this time around, Palestinians speaking out against the Israeli occupation and its overwhelming military bombardment of Gaza have had far more success in telling their side of the story on social media — eroding Israel’s edge in the battle of perspectives and gaining a rapt audience in the US.

From making solidarity videos on TikTok to using Twitter to organize international protests to posting videos to Instagram showing Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, Palestinians and those around the world sympathetic to their plight have made social media a central weapon in the narrative fight against Israel. Those weapons are deployed on many fronts: using different platforms to target multiple audiences — in the region and around the world — while also using apps to coordinate actions among themselves.

The majority use it to counter the Israeli government’s claims and promote a pro-Palestinian narrative, though some take to social media to praise the actions of Hamas.

“It’s like a TikTok intifada,” said Michael Bröning, executive director of the German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s office in New York, using the Arabic term used to describe previous Palestinian uprisings.

Social media played a central role in past Israel-Gaza wars, where clips on YouTube and messages on Facebook and Twitter aimed to report events in real time. But the emergence of new platforms like Telegram and TikTok have allowed more — and younger — people to engage with this flare-up online. And now that social media platforms are a key delivery system for news consumption, many on the apps can experience the complexities of the region in real time, muddying the usual easy storylines.

“There is a penetration of the mainstream narrative,” said Marwa Fatafta, a Berlin-based policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian-focused think tank headquartered in New York City. “People are able to see with their own eyes, without being censored, what’s going on minute by minute.”

But Palestinians have also found the proliferation of social media to be a “double-edged sword,” in the words of two experts. Far-right Israeli Jewish mobs have reportedly coordinated attacks on Israeli Arabs via the messaging app Telegram, for example, and lies hyping the Palestinian “threat” have spread wildly on WhatsApp. “Palestinians are coming, parents protect your children,” read one message.

“We’re getting more unfiltered perspectives from the Israeli side,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, DC, and co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. The ultimate result is that “it’s not two sides presenting their perspectives. It’s much messier and much less centralized than it was before.”

That messiness has allowed Palestinian voices and their stories to emerge during the crisis while weakening the usual monopoly the Israeli government has on messaging. It’s an asset Palestinians don’t want to lose.

“We’re the weak ones. Social media — our cameras and our videos — is one of the only means that we have. They have the weapons and the laws and the infrastructure,” said Inès Abdel Razek, advocacy director for the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. “Palestinians just want to explain why this is happening and contextualize.”

Palestinians are winning the online war against the Israeli government

The online activism of Mohammed El-Kurd, whose family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah is slated for eviction from their home by right-wing Israeli settler organizations, made him an instant celebrity. A poet, he’s used his facility with words and social media — namely Instagram — to make his case against Israeli occupation and for the residents of his area.

Now, news organizations around the world ask him for interviews, providing him a platform to make his case — and that of Palestinians more broadly.

“It’s not really an eviction, it’s forced ethnic displacement, to be accurate, because an eviction implies legal authority,” he told CNN last week, describing the attempt to evict his family from their home in Sheikh Jarrah. “While the Israeli occupation has no legitimate jurisdiction over the eastern parts of occupied Jerusalem under international law, it also implies the presence of a landlord.”

The day after his interview, Israeli forces removed him from Sheikh Jarrah — a moment captured on social media.

The rancor from Israeli authorities may have stemmed from the fact that El-Kurd managed to distill the Palestinian position on a sensitive issue in American media, where the Palestinian plight is heard less often than the Israeli one.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza keep uploading videos showing their experience under bombardment. One TikTok video from last week, which has been “liked” over 4 million times, purportedly shows Gazans running after an airstrike. Another popular TikTok video featured images of crying Palestinian children and the destruction of a high-rise building after an Israeli attack.

It’s not just images of suffering that dominate Palestinian-focused TikTok, though. Beauty bloggers like Miryam Beauty are posting videos in which they paint their face the colors of the Palestinian flag, a way to show support for that cause without having to say a word.

These uploads allow Palestinians battling with police in East Jerusalem, withstanding Israel’s attacks in Gaza, and watching the conflict from afar to speak with a common voice. “Palestinian sentiment has been awakened and unified,” said Fatafta. “There’s a new sense of identity and new sense of understanding and solidarity with Palestinians.”

There’s another reason for the Palestinian success online, American University’s Thomas Zeitzoff told me, namely that their plight against state violence reminds many in the US of the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s led progressives in Congress, for example, to explicitly link what they’re seeing online to the fight for racial justice at home.

“We must recognize that Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote last week in the New York Times.

Celebrities, who tend to avoid sensitive global conflicts, have also waded in. Two of them are Gigi and Bella Hadid, supermodels whose father is Palestinian. Gigi posted to her more than 66 million Instagram followers last week that “You cannot pick & choose whose human rights matter more.”

It seems that celebrities and politicians lifting Palestinian voices have brought the issue into the mainstream. The US fashion Instagram account @diet_prada posted a cartoon asking its nearly 3 million followers to “Stand with the oppressed” — and calling Israelis the “oppressors.”

Of course, that narrative still has to compete with pro-Israel content on social media platforms. The problem for Israel is that, when it comes to official government accounts, at least, attempts to sway the conversation to the pro-Israel side often ending up doing just the opposite.

Israel’s social media game is weak right now

Israeli government accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere, which have millions of followers, make it easy for the official line to reach an audience. But that’s not always a good thing.

Take this thread post from the state of Israel’s verified Twitter account, which includes rows and rows of nothing but rocket emojis — 12 full tweets’ worth.

Once you get to the bottom of the thread, it becomes clear that the emojis are meant to represent all the rockets Hamas has indiscriminately launched into Israel, threatening and killing the nation’s citizens.

But in the midst of a conflict that has also seen an overwhelming Israeli aerial bombardment of Gaza, seeing the country’s official Twitter account tweeting nothing but rows and rows of what at quick glance can also look an awful lot like warplanes struck the wrong chord with many on social media, including some who perhaps didn’t bother to scroll all the way down to the tweet explaining the thread.

Others simply objected to what seemed like a blatant attempt to focus solely on Hamas’s actions devoid of any context. Some of the responses were brutal:

It was far from the first time an official Israeli account stepped in it.

An Instagram post from the Israel Defense Forces’ official account showed two stacked photos of a high-rise building in Gaza. The first, labeled “Before” in Hebrew, showed the building standing tall. The second, labeled “After,” showed the building as a pile of rubble. The text accompanying the images extolled the IDF’s “significant achievement” of destroying yet another multi-story tower in Gaza, which it said was “used by terrorist organizations.”

Here, again, though some supporters praised the post, many people were disgusted by the bragging tone.

“[E]very time i think there’s a limit to the sheer joy someone can take in human suffering, the IDF social media manager bursts through,” one Twitter user wrote.

And then there’s Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress famous for portraying Wonder Woman, who tweeted that while “Israel deserves to live as a free and safe nation, Our neighbors deserve the same.”

Gadot disabled comments on the tweet for all the vitriol she received, with some claiming the former Israeli military soldier was putting out “propaganda” for her country. Still, this was a far more measured comment than what she wrote in 2014 during the last time the Israeli government fought against Hamas.

“I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,” she wrote on her official Facebook page at the time. “Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children.”

So even when celebrities weigh in or official social media account take a more straightforward approach and attempt to show the plight of Israeli citizens living under constant rocket attack from Hamas, the results often fail to stir the same level of sympathy and outrage simply because Israel’s overwhelming offensive and defensive military capabilities — including its powerful Iron Dome system, which intercepts a huge percentage (though not all) of the rockets Hamas fires — creates a vast disparity in the number of deaths and injuries suffered on both sides.

As of Thursday, the death toll was over 200 for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and over 10 in Israel.

Official social media accounts of governments everywhere often struggle to come across as genuine or humorous or anything but stiff, scripted propaganda. But when you’re the occupying power with a staggeringly powerful military in the middle of a bloody war where the bulk of the casualties are on the other side, it’s hard to come across as the good guy, even if there is genuine suffering on your side, too.

Israel is at least doing better with Western and English-speaking social media users than Hamas is. Phillip Smyth, a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC, told me Hamas doesn’t target that audience online. “A lot of their social media is aimed internally,” he said, though the militant group occasionally makes videos to taunt Israel. “There’s a constant propaganda stream that Hamas runs.”

In part by design, then, Hamas’s social media efforts aren’t reaching certain Palestinians following the conflict. “I don’t see that Hamas is using social media effectively because it’s not getting to me,” said Dana El Kurd, an assistant professor at the Doha Institute of Graduate Studies in Qatar. “It’s just not out there, and I consider myself pretty plugged in.”

Still, Israel struggles now to outcompete everyday Palestinians on social media, despite the weakness of Hamas.

It’s why few experts believe the Israeli government’s attempts to influence the narrative in their favor will prove more impactful than what Palestinians are saying online. “It’s not an equal war,” Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at Haifa University in Israel, told the BBC on Saturday. “From the Israeli side you see a counter flow, which I must say is less powerful, not organized at all, and if you ask me less persuasive.”

“Maybe because in Israel nobody thought that TikTok would be a powerful or important platform,” he continued.

Put together, experts I spoke to are unanimous that 2021 is the year Palestinians proved they could compete with the Israeli government in the narrative battle.

But if Palestinians taste victory, it’s certainly not as sweet as could be.

The Palestinian rise on social media is contested by Israelis

While Palestinians can use social media for their purposes, so can everyday Israelis — and that’s not always great for the Palestinian movement.

Using Facebook and Telegram, Israeli Jewish mobs have reportedly organized violent campaigns against Israeli Arabs. Some groups succeeded, including a mob last week vandalizing Arab-owned property in the city of Bat Yam before beating up a driver who’s believed to be Arab. “We’re watching a lynching in real time,” a reporter watching the scene unfold said off camera. “There are no police here.”

Importantly, there are also incidents of Israeli Arab mobs targeting Israeli Jews in multiple cities, including beating a man in his 30s in Acre into a life-threatening condition.

These and other instances show that certain social media platforms can “serve as a quasi NextDoor app for communal violence,” said American University’s Zeitzoff. They’re also exposing the deep divisions within Israeli society.

There’s also a misinformation problem.

Prominent Israeli officials and figures, including a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shared a 28-second video on Twitter and claimed it showed Palestinian militants shooting rockets at Israelis from a civilian area. But that video was actually from 2018, and the militants were likely in either Syria or Libya, not Gaza.

However, Arieh Kovler, an Israel-based political analyst who studies misinformation, told me he’s not sure Israeli leaders are purposely misleading their audiences. He said everyone’s too busy to check the veracity of the videos they’re sharing — there’s a war going on, after all. What’s more, people often share videos that, for them, represent a truth they believe.

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Kovler mimicked that thought process: Maybe Hamas isn’t shooting rockets from within a crowded population center, but it’s seems like something they’d do, so I’ll share the video anyway.

Kovler also doesn’t think the misinformation problem is as bad as portrayed. He runs a 90,000-person Facebook group called “Secret Jerusalem” where residents and tourists can post details about the city. Kovler said he’s rarely had to remove misinformation on his page relating to the current conflict, noting he had to do so much more often when members posted anti-vaccination content during the pandemic.

Still, the fact that everyday Israelis can coordinate against Palestinians, share their own views, and spread misinformation is just one challenge facing Palestinians in the narrative fight online.

And some of the posts from nongovernmental pro-Israel accounts can be quite compelling. One particularly striking TikTok purports to show an Israeli soldier protecting a Palestinian woman from rocks thrown by other Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Still, most experts see Israel as likely to continue losing the narrative war. “This more complex information environment will work to Israel’s detriment,” said Brooking, the Atlantic Council fellow.

Of course, the narrative victory means very little if it doesn’t stop Israeli bombs from falling.

Aja Romano and Rebecca Jennings contributed to this report.

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