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The virality of human suffering


It’s impossibly hard to watch coverage of the Israel-Hamas war. Thousands of people on both sides of the border have been killed (1,300 in Israel, 2,000 in Gaza at the time of writing); the stories that have emerged are brutal. What is known to be true seems to be different day by day.

What’s been notable for me has been the level of bloodthirst I’ve seen across social media. One Instagram account on my feed that has traditionally covered social justice topics openly cheered on Hamas’s attacks, declaring that decolonization always required violence. I unfollowed. In turn, I saw lots of discussion on Threads in particular by people who wanted to see Gaza — one of the most densely-populated areas on the planet — bombed to the ground such that there would be nobody left.

In the midst of this armchair warmongering, people are missing their loved ones. It’s a real conflict, in the context of decades of history, in which real people are being killed in terrible ways as I write this. But social media has reduced it to video game dimensions; online discussions rip it of context and turn it into performative posturing that has been largely devoid of the underlying human tragedy. Missing family members; footage of bodies in ice cream freezers; wounded children. All of these have become atoms of content to be shared and reshared in order to build social media clout.

Over on X, this dehumanization of the conflict has become particularly pronounced because of the platform’s endeavor to pay users based on social engagement. The incentive is to post shocking content that will be commented on and reshared virally, because it will lead directly to revenue for the poster. Inevitably, a lot of this content takes footage that isn’t even from this conflict and relabels it. A patchwork of pictures and video drawn from across recent history that evoke feelings about this conflict, all thrown together so someone can make a buck (or, in some cases, tens of thousands of bucks). Whereas a blue checkmark used to indicate that a user is notable in their field, you can now buy one for $8 a month. It can be next to impossible to determine what is real.

But it would be a mistake to say that this is happening on X in isolation. Even when social media posts don’t lead directly to revenue, everyone is in the clout game. More followers can lead to more cumulative engagement which can lead to more opportunities to sell in the future. Very few real brands — McDonald’s or Starbucks, say — would post so recklessly about the conflict (which is not to say they are ethical actors in other ways; it’s also worth saying that McDonald’s has donated to both sides of the conflict, and that Starbucks denounced a message of solidarity with Palestine that was published by its union). But everyone’s a personal brand now. Social media has become a literal marketplace of ideas, where peoples’ attention is drawn and monetized. And in this environment of clout and virality, no extra value is placed on truth.

None of this is exactly new. Media management has been a part of every conflict since at least the Second World War. Some disinformation from that period — carrots helping you see in the dark, for example — was absorbed so readily that it has simply become a part of our culture. In this conflict, both sides were surely aware of how footage would be played in the media. What’s different now to 80 years ago is that everyone is the media. We all have spheres of influence, and it’s not unheard of for a middle manager with an axe to bear to have more of an audience than a national newspaper with a complete set of reporters and fact-checkers. Most of our news is consumed in stackable, decontextualized pieces through our connections to individuals who we perceive to share similar opinions to us, delivered in such a way as to maximize engagement with advertisements and keep us on the platform.

None of which connects us to the underlying humanity of the people who suffer in this, or any, conflict. It disconnects us from the fact that civilians have been targeted, which is a war crime. It disconnects us from the need for the killing to stop.

This isn’t a game. It’s not like supporting a sports team. It’s not blue and black / white and gold dress. Regardless of the particulars of the war, the side we should all be on is that of preserving lives and creating a safe, inclusive, democratic environment for future generations. In a world where attention is money, it doesn’t feel like that’s where the incentives lie today.

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