When you see #HitlerWasRight and #HitlerDidNothingWrong begin to trend, it’s a good time to question whether Twitter, Facebook, and social media have made a horribly painful, decades-long (centuries-long) conflict somehow even more painful.
The crisis in the Middle East is worsening day by day. It goes without saying that political leaders have escalated a situation that already had civilians at an emotional fever pitch since the abduction and death of three Israeli teen boys, and the subsequent revenge killing of a Palestinian youth, in June. But while Benjamin Netanyahu, Mahmoud Abbas, and Sami Abu Zahri give the go-ahead to rocket fire and military offenses, people all over the world have taken to social media to voice their opinions. And—unsurprisingly—a large number of those posts involve trolling the conflict with things like pro-Holocaust messages.
Since the recent violence has broken out between Israelis and Palestinians, Twitter and Facebook have become a parallel battleground. Inane and disturbing hashtags have been lobbed by those often far removed from the rocket fire. And it’s not just from random, anonymous civilians. A social media manager for the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling political party, posted a message on Facebook that featured an image of Adolph Hitler with the text “Yes man, you were right …I could have killed all the Jews, but I left some of them to let you know why I was killing them.”
The conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments is nothing new. The hate behind both have long bled into each other. But the flippant use of extremist hashtags only helps to validate the worst fears that anti-Semitism is alive and well in too many parts of the world (in case the firebombing of a Paris synagogue didn’t already do that). This, in turn, feeds into an outpouring of anti-Arab vitriol on social media. David Sheen reportedly translated tweets by Israeli teens calling for death sentences to Arabs. And just prior to the most recent outbreak of all-out violence, Facebook groups like “The People of Israel Demand Revenge” grew by the tens of thousand in response to the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teenagers.
It might be easy to dismiss the disturbing tweets on both sides as shallow name-calling and social-media posturing with no real-world consequences. If it was true that Patrick Stewart’s and Natalie Portman’s social pleas to “unite for Syria” made little difference in halting Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own people, it’s not impossible to think that Rihanna’s and Amar’e Stoudemire tweets to #FreePalestine may not have a huge impact on the Middle East’s decision-makers.
And yet, one doesn’t have to go back far in time to when Twitter and Facebook were heralded as instruments of political and social change. During the Arab Spring, social media was praised as the driving force behind a collective movement to dismantle dictatorships. A 2011 study from the University of Washington even claimed to empirically prove that social media “helped raise expectations for the success of political uprisings,” according to associate professor Philip Howard. For example, the study cited how tweets about political change exploded from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day during the week prior to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. “These dictators for a long time had many political enemies, but they were fragmented,” Howard said. “Opponents used social media to identify goals, build solidarity, and organize demonstrations.”
Even when the optimistic bubble of the Arab Spring had already started to burst, experts championed Twitter and Facebook as the voice of the people. Last year, David Wolman wrote in Wired that “The speed of communication through digital channels gives activists unprecedented agility during street operations.” That Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan temporarily banned Twitter and cracked down on YouTube earlier this year only gave credence to the belief that these social media platforms were agents for political agitation.
On a more negative note, we certainly don’t dismiss Twitter when it involves rape threats towards classics professors or harassment of female politicians or bullying a young girl after her sexual assault, as with the disgusting #Jadapose. So why would we dismiss it when it involves calls for a people—whether Jewish or Palestinian—to be wiped off the face of the Earth?
One day, there will hopefully be peace in the Middle East, but the current state of firebrand hashtags that boil decades of pain into 140 characters are only making things worse. They simultaneously over-simplify and inflame a conflict that is already poorly understood. In this current state of social media, we cannot tweet our way to a resolution.