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How TikTok and Instagram help to spread Israeli colonialism

Soldiers are gleefully posting their atrocities online, while social-media algorithms create Zionist echo chambers
An Israeli soldier sits behind a mounted gun near the Gaza Strip on 1 May 2024 (Jack Guez/AFP)

Israel’s occupation of Palestine and subjugation of the Palestinian people have long been described as colonial. From the theft of land and natural resources to nationalism and capitalism, Israel has aligned itself with colonial tactics and rhetoric. 

But how does the state of Israel, which is waging a genocidal war on the Gaza Strip, continue to garner international support from people who seemingly have nothing to gain from the Israeli occupation? 

It’s important to recognise that colonialism doesn’t just impact the immediate region geographically. Modern colonialism permeates society virtually, and consequently affects communities internationally. 

Israel’s colonial tactics have involved broadcasting war crimes and obscenities online. Much of this is the result of Israeli soldiers’ social media activities. 

Israeli soldiers have been seen rejoicing in the destruction of Palestinian homes, abusing Palestinians, mocking assassinated aid workers, and even posing with Palestinian women’s undergarments.

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Although the Israeli government has said soldiers will be punished for such actions, troops on the ground are essentially functioning as Israel’s colonial actors and marketing partners. They’ve even created a TikTok trend mimicking the capture and detention of Palestinians.

To garner support for their cause, Zionists also rely on social media algorithms, which are designed to show users more of the content they already engage with. When the newsfeeds of western users repeatedly normalise the dehumanisation and degradation of Palestinians, it’s not surprising to see them pulling in Zionism’s favour. 

Dehumanising Palestinians 

In Zionist spheres of social media, Palestinians are seen only as objects of entertainment and domination, consistent with the Zionist colonial tenet that Palestinians are inhuman. This strategy is exacerbated by Israel’s infliction of internet outages in Gaza and its killing of journalists, two tactics that block the transmission of Palestinians’ experiences to the rest of the world.

This results in an image of Palestinians that is filtered through Israeli and western lenses, with relatively little to counteract it. 

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With voices from Gaza muted, the dissemination of false information is another method used to colonise social media. Israel has repeatedly released disinformation in an effort to discredit Palestinian groups, including reports that Hamas beheaded babies and carried out mass rapes. In addition, falsehoods about the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa, led to global aid cuts that intensified the crisis in Gaza.  

When confronted with such issues, Zionists seem to have two main courses of action: deflect with accusations of antisemitism or a requirement to condemn Hamas, or incrementally backtrack the fallacious statements to minimise their own culpability.

This colonial silencing creates an online environment that resembles an assembly line of propaganda for Zionist objectives

Both strategies enable the ongoing justification of Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians, ensuring that Israeli objectives become the focal point, consistent with the perceived superiority of the colonisers.

Individual social media users also engage in these tactics. Since 7 October, many Zionists have taken to Instagram, TikTok and other platforms to voice their support for the occupying state, becoming conduits for Israel’s colonial objectives - essentially, colonial micro-actors. 

This colonial silencing creates an online environment that resembles an assembly line of propaganda for Zionist objectives. The colonial state issues directives, Israeli soldiers commit atrocities and post evidence online, and Israel constructs lies in order to continue acting unchecked. 

Disinformation and propaganda

For those who aren’t exposed to a variety of sources of information on their social media feeds - those stuck in echo chambers - the impacts of disinformation and propaganda are difficult to reverse, even when reports are later retracted. 

Gradually, disinformation is gathered and legitimised, war crimes are normalised, excuses are made, and more Palestinians are killed. All the while, Israel continues to inspire colonial micro-actors internationally and to justify the slaughter of Palestinians to the world.

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While this is a virtual process, the global spread of Zionism inevitably leaks into reality, with pro-Israel demonstrations and attacks on Palestinians.

At the same time, despite the pervasiveness of Zionist echo chambers, there seems to have been a substantial decolonial turn towards Palestinian liberation. Some have speculated that legislative changes aiming to ban TikTok in the US intend to limit criticism of Israel on the platform, crediting the app for the shift in public opinion. Instagram has also introduced an update that automatically limits political content unless the setting is changed manually.

An increase in pro-Palestine social media content, and moves to prevent it from spreading, highlight institutional objections to Palestinian self-determination. More importantly, they suggest that Palestinian liberation is near; otherwise, why implement counterbalances to block Palestinian activism, if it has not gained impactful reach?

It is imperative for social media users to remain vigilant towards disinformation crossing their feeds. Without a concerted effort towards de-biasing our sources of information, we risk the spread of an ethos that not only justifies heinous acts, but aims to perpetrate the colonial mindset globally. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Samar El Masri is a Lebanese-Canadian researcher. She recently completed her Master of Arts at Western University where her research focused on the intersection of colonialism and social media.
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