TEL AVIV, Israel — In the same predictable manner as just about every other 19-year-old, I have the tendency to instantly push back on every single opinion, task, and lecture that my parents issue. I intentionally devour spicy Takis in the face of my dad’s staunch Gwyneth Paltrow-style clean-living routine, and relish playing political devil’s advocate over the eggplant Parmesan at dinner.
But as much as my parents try to stop me from rocketing down fresh groomers at Vail or lecture me for binge watching entire seasons of “Seinfeld” in a day, there’s one issue they champion more than anything else: the terrifying implications of social media.
And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m finally seeing their point.
When I declared my gap year back in July, our country was knee-deep in fury. The George Floyd protests were in full swing, coronavirus cases were snowballing alarmingly, and millions remained jobless and hungry.
This is when I first noticed the unique potency of Instagram stories. These pictures, usually highlighting the material of another Instagram post, disappear from one’s profile within 24 hours, making them a unique conduit for opinions and information.
Within the span of a few short days, I watched hundreds upon hundreds of people highlight posts demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I tapped through a mountain of fed-up celebrities, easily digestible infographics, and real-time news updates. One afternoon, I was even persuaded to join a powerful protest in downtown Denver after watching crackly videos of the scene on Snapchat.
Before long, two things became clear to me. First, this rapid movement presented an incredibly easy and efficient method for sharing information. Thanks to social media, middle schoolers and octogenarians alike have developed the power to share important information within seconds.
But the breakneck speed at which this information could be passed around also worked the other way. Multiple times, I confusedly clicked on posts throwing outlandish claims into the world without a source in sight. Sometimes, this misinformation was caught and shut down, but more often than not, the shrapnel of these lies flew away unnoticed, hurling into family reunion debates and outraged Twitter DM exchanges.
Instagram stories — but more generally, the power of social media to broadcast heavily opinionated, oftentimes false information — presented an incredibly sharp blade in the social justice toolbox.
After a stint working as an intern for the plant-based-food company Beyond Meat in the fall, I determined that I wanted to use my spring months to simply bask in the homework-less glory that my gap year provided. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the short-sleeve, button-down, avocado-toast-and-iced-oatmilk-latté existence that I found working in Los Angeles. After three months of living alone, however, I was more than ready to hang out with people my age this spring.
After some research, I enrolled in a program called Aardvark Israel — four months of casual internship work, supplemented with constant beach days and located in a country less impacted by COVID than many others. After a few coronavirus-related delays and more than one impromptu ski trip, I packed up my cozy Cherry Creek life and boarded a plane headed across the world.
The first month of my time in Israel was as glorious as it sounds — I munched on falafel straight from the fryer, sucked down cappuccinos at spunky Tel Aviv art cafés, and wandered around this strange, wonderful new city.
Two weeks ago, however, my Israeli utopia came to a grinding halt amid the Israel-Gaza conflict.
The reason why this all began is well documented. Between the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, the end of Ramadan, and a nasty streak of radical intolerance, conflict soon erupted into a tidal wave of pointed fingers.
But from where I stand, the origins of this tension don’t particularly matter to me. Both sides, unquestionably, hold blame, and both sides will likely refuse to admit their litany of mistakes even in the face of war. In truth, the seeds of this battle were planted decades and decades ago.
Each inhumane or provocatory action was taken in response to an earlier one, spiraling downward through the history books in an unwinnable loop. This vicious cycle is well established, and causes a devastating amount of violence and suffering.
As an American Jew, I’ve viewed the turmoil in this region from afar, and social media has always played a crucial role in forming my opinions and knowledge. Since my arrival here, however, I’ve been experiencing the raw, unfiltered Israel — the good, the bad and the ugly.
Ten times in two weeks as I write this, I’ve had to sprint to the nearest building as sirens roared through the streets. I’ve diligently panned through hundreds of missile alerts looking for my neighborhood. I’ve heard firsthand stories of people’s loved ones lost during the fighting.
And yet, even while staring at the sky, watching the Iron Dome interception rockets whistle through the air, I wasn’t truly afraid. In light of the recently negotiated ceasefire, I’m finally seeing an end to the violence. Streets are once again safe and throbbing with pushy Tel Aviv citizens, restaurants and bars are back to max capacity, and panicked phone calls from my family are down.
But even as I watch Israel return to normalcy, I feel like the biggest danger ignited by this conflict is only getting stronger.
To clarify: In my view, the actions of Hamas pose a serious threat to the people of both Israel and Palestine, and the terror stoked by the continuous escalation of attacks was palpable on the streets of Tel Aviv. But my biggest fears lie in the endless row of glowing circles at the top of my Instagram feed.
Once again, legions of people have taken to their devices to champion an issue they feel strongly about. This time, however, there’s a key difference. What began as scattered seeds of misinformation has crescendoed into a wall of false statistics.
Over the past few days, I’ve watched in real time as events that occur in Israel become instantly warped into narrative-fitting headlines. I’ve seen infographic after infographic chock-full of dangerous, false claims going totally undisputed. I’ve looked on helplessly as celebrities with massive followings take their good intentions and crumple them into a social media post that stands in direct juxtaposition with the life I’ve lived for the past month.
The young people I know best — my generation; my meme-obsessed, TikTok-famous, wicked-smart, passionate, feisty, incredible generation — seems to have deserted me completely. And I’ve never felt further removed from my idyllic Colorado life.
Of course, I’m not able to clear my perspective from bias, nor am I, a 19-year-old, truly qualified to speak on one of the most hot-button issues out there. But I’ve never witnessed this many people believe in this many things that simply aren’t true.
Here’s the scariest part: As of now, I actually feel much safer than my Jewish friends back home. Sure, I’ve been the one in the line of fire. But as the pro-Palestine movement continues to unintentionally kick up a massive cloud of anti-Semitism in its wake, hate crimes towards Jews have exploded around the globe.
Israel’s government is sloppy and flawed, their people are loud and rude, and their sunscreen is strangely overpriced. But the very existence of Israel ensures a life free of persecution for any Jew across the world — and although I’m enjoying that luxury, I can’t say the same about my friends and family in Colorado and beyond.
Don’t get me wrong — this is happening on both sides of the aisle. Even as I’ve watched media outlets and Instagram activists spread false information about the cruelties of Israelis, I’ve seen the exact same thing happen on the other side. The views may be opposed, but the sweeping statements, partial truths, and calls for action from both sides mirror each other perfectly.
In truth, this issue is bigger than one side of this conflict, and its repercussions likely extend much further than the Middle East. As proven time and time again in recent years, the rise of false information on social media is an incredibly serious threat, with powerful implications for the future of news and politics.
Up until now, I’ve been far removed from the battlefield this war has been waged on. It just took coming under the line of fire for me to recognize how grave this threat really is.
Of course, good can still come out of the ability to quickly spread information and ideas. But as I’ve witnessed over the past few weeks, the dark side of social media is bigger and more insidious than I ever could’ve imagined.
Jeremy Gart of Denver is in Israel on a gap year before starting college in the fall.
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