If you had said that my Instagram post about the worst terrorist attack on Jews since the Holocaust would reach hundreds of millions of people, get translated into dozens of languages, and be shared by some of the biggest celebrities on the planet, I would’ve said, “maybe?”
Not because of me—because that’s our world now.
I think that post connected with people—high school friends, complete strangers, Gal Gadot—because it acknowledged our shared complicity in the dimming of our compassion. For better or worse, we look to social media for solidarity and education. It’s the modern newsstand, where your roommate gets as much shelf space as Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and all of your cousins.
But this democratization has costs. Accuracy takes a back seat to emotion, because that’s what keeps you watching ads. Nuance doesn’t trend. And while emotion-favoring algorithms can propel feel-good content, they’re also a gift to propagandists.
As I wrote, the goal of propaganda is to dehumanize. It gaslights our instincts. It strips others, and us, of empathy. Social media propaganda may be new, but propaganda itself is very, very old. Because it works.
So, rather than delve into a history of propaganda, I thought I’d discuss the three most prevalent types I’ve seen in the past few days. Let’s call them distortion, false comparison, and omission.
Distortion is obvious: It’s posting a video of kids in chicken cages and pretending they’re trapped by Hamas. The actual video was filmed several days before the attack by a man teasing his relatives. Or this fake White House press release, announcing Biden’s authorization of $8 billion in new military aid to Israel. Armchair journalists have scant incentive to fact-check because incendiary content builds followers (and, at times, I myself have been slow to fact-check). There are many, many examples of distortion. It’s truly everywhere.
The second is the false comparison. Americans are poorly versed in Middle East history and it’s daunting to self-teach. Thus, easy framing is appealing, especially when familiar. It gives us the illusion of being informed.
For example, in a vacuum, the relationship between American police and Black civilians, and between IDF soldiers and Palestinian civilians, is analogous. But outside of that vacuum is a staggering wealth of context: Different peoples, countries, histories, religions, and dynamics. Even applying the language of Black Lives Matter to the Middle East conflict falls short—like calling the equal condemnation of Israeli and Palestinian deaths “all lives matter”-ing.
Americans know “all lives matter” seeks to deny the power imbalance highlighted by “Black lives matter.” However, there is not a power imbalance between Israeli infants and Palestinian infants. So when you decry the equally horrific murder of babies—by Hamas terrorists or by Israeli government bombs—and so-called activists respond by claiming you’re “all lives matter”-ing the situation, those individuals are confused at best and intentional at worst. Justifying the murder of toddlers as “liberation” doesn’t make you an activist: It makes you a purveyor, or a dupe, of propaganda.
The third type is omission, and it’s personal. My mother is Ashkenazi and her great aunt, Netya Luks, is one of the “missing million” Jews murdered, but unaccounted for, in the Holocaust. I grew up hearing about Stryj, the Polish village where she and my great-grandfather grew up, whose Jewish population was wiped out by the Nazis. As a child I attended synagogue, Hebrew school, and Sunday school; I got Bar Mitzvah’d and confirmed (an additional Reform event) as a teenager; and I went on sponsored trips to Israel, through Taglit Birthright and Schusterman Foundation’s REALITY Israel, as an adult.
But it wasn’t until I visited Ramallah as part of the Schusterman trip—an experience that led me to do additional research and have conversations with Palestinian friends—that I began to fully grasp the extent of the Palestinian displacement in 1948, or the Nakba (“catastrophe”).
American Jews are taught that Israel came into being with overwhelming UN support, which is true, and that Arab countries opposed it and fought back, which is also true. But the details of what happened—that Palestinians were forcibly displaced, their homes destroyed, and thousands brutally murdered—were not covered. And while I wholeheartedly believe Israel has a right to exist, I can support that and oppose the violence at its birth.
Of course, American Jews today aren’t responsible for those events, but we are responsible for educating ourselves about this real and awful history. And in reading and watching the social media posts of American Jews over the past several days, it’s clear to me that many of them have similar knowledge gaps to what I had (and most likely to the others I still have).
Also contributing to these gaps is that, in seeking to keep us on platforms longer, social media puts us all in information silos. This makes it imperative to seek out those of different backgrounds and perspectives. In Ramallah, I met a young Palestinian DJ who described the hopelessness he and his friends feel daily. In his words, he told me the “violent” Israeli government doesn’t care about him, the “corrupt” Palestinian Authority (in the West Bank) doesn’t care about him, the “insane” Hamas terrorists (in Gaza) don’t care about him, and that ultimately the countries funding this proxy war—America, Iran, and others—make it impossible to enact actual change.
It was one of the realest things I’ve ever heard, and I wish it could’ve been seen and shared by millions of people.
It’s that kind of honesty that propaganda clouds, by trying to convince us that Israelis and Palestinians aren’t both indigenous. That they don’t deserve equal rights. That any murdering of kids is justified.
As humans, we can’t let ourselves fall for this. We’re facing more disinformation than ever, but also more quality sources. We must be diligent and careful when self-educating. I know it takes time. But, quite honestly, it’s the absolute least we can do.