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My colleague Sheera Frenkel has a unique perspective on what happens when the modern mechanics of the internet merge with an ancient conflict.
Reporting for years from the Middle East, she is now evaluating the impact of technology on the recent escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Sheera reported this week on Israeli extremists organizing mob .Attacks on WhatsApp in novel and scary ways, and she wrote about false online allegations and conspiracies that sparked tension. The same social media and communication tools that some people have used as weapons also give those affected by violence a voice to share their experiences.
The recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict encompasses the best and worst of digital life, and Sheera spoke to me about the complexities.
Shira: What did you find unusual about the WhatsApp groups of Israeli extremists who organize violence against Palestinians?
Sheera: I was surprised how explicit the people were. They did things like setting a time and place to break windows on Palestinian corporations and coordinating to make sure they didn’t accidentally target Israeli corporations.
The explicit call for violence against individuals is more of a red line for Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and other tech companies. They differentiate between publishing something general like “Death to All Men” and openly targeting specific people.
How does this compare to other acts of extremist violence on the internet?
What I saw on the Israeli WhatsApp groups was different from what we saw in India or Myanmar or the Capitol riot in January, where people spread hatred or misinformation online, but it wasn’t targeted at individuals or businesses . Myself and people studying misinformation had never seen such organized violence on social media or communication apps.
Did you find extremist Palestinians who also used WhatsApp to organize their attacks?
There has been Palestinian violence against Israelis, but we haven’t found online mobilization in the same way. An Israeli official told me with dark humor that Palestinians are being monitored by the Israeli police and security forces so frequently that WhatsApp mobs would be found before they had a single member.
Who deserves the blame? Are tech companies responsible for WhatsApp mobs and for false online claims that sparked tensions between Israelis and Palestinians? Or are people to blame?
Renée DiResta, a misinformation researcher, speaks about human prejudice or error as the basis of false online narratives. While technology companies make this possible, misinformation about this conflict and others are picking up on because people in positions of power on both sides share, support, and accelerate ideas that vilify people.
Many of my Palestinian and Israeli friends were shocked by the violence among friends and neighbors. But people are responsible for the hatred, as are politicians, who are not effective in preventing extremists from engaging in violence.
I expected you to blame Facebook and other tech companies more.
I largely agree with what tech companies have said that technology is agnostic. It is not designed to hurt people. And I give WhatsApp credit for taking steps to limit the number of times messages can be forwarded, for example. This is a first step in preventing misinformation and mob violence from spreading further and faster.
I have a feeling that a “but” is coming.
There are. Researchers and journalists find that we are free research arms for Facebook and other rich companies. We find misinformation, hate speech and violent mobs organizing in their services. The company could have proactively searched and found these extremist WhatsApp mobs, just like I did.
Compared to that previous violence The you have covered In the area, does it feel like social media is helping the world see and understand what is happening?
At best, social media gives us a glimpse into other people’s lives and their own voices. I saw this in Gaza in 2014 and for the past two weeks with posts and videos that make you feel like a Palestinian or an Israeli hiding from air strikes or missiles.
It helps the world understand, but I wonder if these people posting on social media sometimes talk past each other. Palestinians mostly don’t make videos to show Israelis what their life is like, and the same goes for Israelis. For the most part, these people in close geographical proximity do not observe each other.
Before we go …
Maybe companies don’t have to know everything about our lives to sell us cookware? Approximately 94 percent of iPhone users in the US said no to being tracked across apps. Greg Bensinger, member of the New York Times editorial team, says advertising tailored to our online activities is both undesirable and potentially a waste of money.
America Exports Misinformation About Vaccines: Bloomberg News reported that misleading information about coronavirus vaccines that internet companies have blocked or flagged in the US is now being distributed in languages other than English (subscription may be required). It’s a long-standing problem that social media websites are less able to detect sometimes dangerous information outside of the US or other rich countries.
Is This Smartwatch Good For Your Health? Body-worn devices that monitor people’s heart rhythm sometimes detect potential heart hazards. But they can also falsely warn people that something is wrong, and doctors aren’t sure they’re doing more good than harm, wrote Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein for the New York Times.
Who would have thought that front doors could be so beautiful?
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