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Opinion: Bearing witness to war in the digital age

The abundant suffering in the world is being live-streamed and we should all be paying attention.
Image by Ava Weinreis
The variety of social media posts require our attention.

Every time I open my phone, I am gut-punched by stories and images detailing the slaughter of civilians in Palestine. These posts are interspersed with images of friends from high school, puppies and dinner. The emotional whiplash is extreme.

Social media has been this way for a while now. Online activism surged in popularity over the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Now, it’s an inextricable function of internet culture.

Smartphones have become a great equalizer, allowing more people than ever before to bear witness to brutality in real-time. By democratizing both content creation and dissemination, we’ve subverted a key tactic in the settler-colonial playbook: manufactured consent.

Manufactured consent refers to the ability of narrative storytelling to shape public opinion. It’s the aftershock of the propaganda that has been used to justify war and genocide for as long as we’ve existed.

Before the digital age, it was much easier to demonize populations that were being subjugated. Take, for instance, the myth of “savagery” used to otherize Indigenous people. If the government could sanitize their humanity and identify them as a threat, it would be easier to gain support for their systematic annihilation.

Or the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that formed the basis of America’s eventual invasion that cost over 100,000 lives. Just the possibility of this existential threat was enough to destabilize the region forever.

Both constructs relied on a level of physical separation between the populations being discussed and the general public to gain credibility. Now that the internet has made it possible for us to transcend that distance, those narratives are not so easily believed.

Social media is not without its limitations, one being the surprisingly short lives of viral movements. I tend to agree that the high volume of content makes developing connections to these events more difficult, but I also think we are wrongly encouraged to not let the sadness we feel disrupt daily life. This notion of self-preservation has reduced the impact that this imagery could have.

“Our peers are seeing the genocide literally being live-streamed from their phones,” said Nadia Aruri, former president of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and a graduate of the University of Minnesota.

Aruri’s grandfather was born in Ramallah, a Palestinian city in the central West Bank. She’s been organizing around violence in the region for years and has seen the cycle of interest and disinterest firsthand.

The first protest Aruri organized with the group was in response to an Israeli bombing that resulted in the death of over 200 civilians in 2021.

“Any time pro-Palestinian movements gain traction, the University conflates it with rises in anti-semitism,” Aruri said.

Of course, she does not deny the impact of punishing civilians for the actions of their government. It’s that exact twist of irony that makes the impartiality toward the occupation so painful.

The 16-year blockade has impacted every inch of Palestinian life, and the Western world has done a poor job of acknowledging their suffering. Now, during the most intense period of bombardment Gaza has seen in years, unfiltered footage of the wreckage is changing the way these attacks are perceived.

Individual people are capturing the siege from their perspective, bringing the horrors of colonization to light. I’ve turned to three Palestinian creators living in Gaza: Motaz Azaiza, Plestia Alaqad and Bisan Owda. They often report events well before traditional syndicates are able.

Their accounts offer a granular record, the statistics in the headlines suddenly have a name and a face. It feels impossible to turn back to your lunch or whatever mundane task you were in the middle of before.

Shouldn’t it be? This access to the experience of living under such violent conditions provides a glimpse into what life might have been like if history were written by the victims. The least we can do is let that shake us awake.

“As students and as workers, there’s so little space for grief to disrupt our lives,” Aruri said. “You have to go on, you have to go to work or class and it’s exhausting.”

The suppression of that visceral emotion keeps us from tapping into our collective humanity, accessing a place of solidarity that ties our suffering to one another which activist Lilla Watson articulated so well.

Fight the well-intentioned knee-jerk reaction that says you can’t imagine the pain that Palestinians are experiencing. Lean into the universal language of grief and see yourselves, and your loved ones, in their faces as they mourn. Translating that empathy into action is the only next step.

“When we challenge these propaganda machines like we have been, it results in this issue being meaningful enough to disrupt everyday life,” Aruri said.

She cited one protest in New York where thousands of Jewish protestors wore t-shirts that read “not in our name” and called for a ceasefire in Grand Central Station on Oct. 28.

As I write this, the death toll in Palestine has surpassed 14,000 which is about 0.16% of the total population. When this conflict loses eyes in the West, it will only get worse.

Join millions around the globe in calling for a ceasefire by contacting your representatives, and follow SJP on Instagram to stay connected to evolving actions. The road ahead is long, and your Palestinian classmates who are carrying this burden will need your support.

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  • A. Mentch
    Nov 27, 2023 at 10:48 am

    I completely agree. Brilliant as always, Kelly.

  • David N
    Nov 23, 2023 at 11:47 am

    How ironic is it that the writer preaches awareness and rejection of propaganda as the writer recites Iranian government/Hamas propaganda?

    And further, how ironic is it for the writer to call for awareness and compassion even as she shows no awareness and compassion for Jews? Saying protecting the rights of Palestinians means accepting antisemitism is identical to saying protecting the rights of religious beliefs means accepting homophobia. The extremes have gone so far around the bend that they met in a very dark and unhelpful place.

    I would like to think a student at the college level could hold more than one idea in their mind at once. For example, it is also true that the war (which I do not support) by Israel against Hamas would have been over before it started if Hamas had released its hostages. And it would have been over weeks again if Hamas had released them at any time over the past six weeks. So to say the war is entirely Israel’s fault is ludicrous.

    I do not support Israel’s government, and I do not support how they have been conducting their current war against Hamas. But I can also appreciate that this horrible situation is not one party’s fault, and I am open to hearing different, contradictory, and complex perspectives on this issue. I hope one day the writer will be as well.