Can a society in a constant state of anxiety formulate policies to deescalate political tensions?
By Dr. Ronnie Olesker
I asked my students to go on a social media diet with me recently. “But how will we talk to our friends and family?” they exclaimed. “What if there is an emergency? How will we know about it?”
Digital communications between friends and loved ones have become ubiquitous. I wanted my students to experience life as we “used to know it” when you picked up the phone and called someone or actually interacted directly.
Yet I had to ask whether I would be able stick to the diet myself this past week as tension and violence have escalated in Israel, my home country, while my phone is bombarded with dozens of push notifications alerting me to the daily attacks.
According to a 2012 study conducted by Dr. Yuval Dror of the College of Management, 70 percent of Israelis are Internet users, and over half of those use social media. Seventy-five percent of teens are active users of social media (compared with only 64 percent of American teens).
WhatsApp, an application that allows members to send free unlimited text and multimedia messages, is a common form of communication in Israel. Most people are members of several groups on the app (teens with all their classmates, parents, co-workers etc.) and communicate with those members daily. The platform allows for a virtual mob mentality to develop easily, especially in times of crisis, such as the current rise in violence. Those groups then become platforms for enhanced anxiety, affirmation of hysteria, and mutual radicalization.
This phenomenon is not new. In 2012, the IDF announced the start of Operation Pillar of Defense in a post on Twitter, making it perhaps the first war to be declared on social media.
During the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, peace activists and those who dared to show any sympathy for Palestinians were viciously attacked on social media. The hashtag #ZionStandUp began trending on Twitter with posts calling for a “Death sentence for leftists & Arabs.” It was accompanied by a Facebook campaign of half naked teenage girls in provocative poses tweeting their wishes of death to “stinking Arabs” hoping that they might “be paralyzed & die with great suffering!”
I lost several Facebook friends after I could not longer tolerate their racist posts. Social media served to polarize Israeli society.
These days, on the local Facebook group page of an affluent Tel Aviv suburb, members update each other about which playgrounds in town have security guards, or that all local stores are out of pepper spray, and post pictures of their daily jogs with their dog and a large stick, for “protection.”
On the Facebook page — created by residents of Ra’anana, where two attacks occurred last week — I learned that parents were guarding their children’s daycare centers and schools because the city did not provide those security guards. Others warned about the “piles of foreign and Arab workers (I don’t want to generalize, but what can you do, this is the situation) come and go every morning, noon and evening,” and asked whether “anyone has checked this out at such a sensitive time?”
Parents on WhatsApp groups are demanding that security guards be hired to protect their toddlers, while high school students discuss whether they should be afraid of the Arab cleaning staff.
One cannot escape the impression that social media exacerbates the hysteria felt by Israelis in this current wave of attacks. To be sure, the daily attacks over the past couple of weeks are alarming; Israelis and Palestinians certainly have cause for alarm. Nevertheless, I have never before seen such levels of fear felt by the population. Could a dozen or so “lone wolves” with kitchen knives achieve in one week what Hamas and the PLO could not for decades?
When social media apps constantly stream notifications of attacks and local responses across the screens of our smart devices, feelings of distress and suspicion bombard us with no reprieve, leaving people in a constant state of panic, anxiety, and yes, even hysteria.
While the majority of attacks have been concentrated around Jerusalem and the West Bank, the hysteria, which is genuinely felt by the population, is not. A society that is in a constant state of anxiety cannot formulate appropriate policies that serve to deescalate political tensions. This is true of both Israelis and Palestinians and both sides are held captive by the paranoia. Social media only helps them reaffirm these negative emotions and misguided perceptions. For instance, in this climate of hyper hysteria, the Israeli government instituted a closure on the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, despite the recommendation of the security establishment that such a policy would only exacerbate the sense of mutual fear and increase tensions.
This process started decades ago with the penetration of mass media into our lives through TV and the Internet, but the emergence of social media applications has made it pervasive. And, unlike the TV, we can’t turn it off because, as my students ask, “what if something really important happens?”
Dr. Ronnie Olesker is an Associate Professor of Government at St. Lawrence University.