On February 14th, 2016, a group of Israeli soldiers confronted pro-Palestinian activists in the West Bank. An altercation between the activists and the military occurred, and the soldiers seized a young woman activist by the scruff of her neck, threw her on the ground, and then dragged her away, violently striking other activists who tried to free her. This story was barely covered by major news outlets (partially, a bleak testament to how regularly this happens to pro-Palestinian activists on the ground) but the video footage of the assault was viewed by well over a million people, after being uploaded onto the Facebook page “Days of Palestine”, and shared several hundred thousand times. A few months ago, my Facebook feed filled with friends “checking in” at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in a solidarity gesture with Native American activists protesting the against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Later that day, I read an article which cited both the sharing of the video and the “checking in” as “Slacktivism,” a catch-all-term regularly used to suggest that any form of activism that doesn’t take place via “traditional” means (face to face meetings, campaign stalls, picketing and the like) is somehow illegitimate. While it is true that social media alone cannot change the world, this does not play down its importance for activists – one only needs to look at the way Twitter and YouTube were utilised by activists in the Arab Spring. But what role does social media play for activists, and what role could it play?
This article explores the ways in which pro-Palestine activists use social media for positive and negative ends. It is based partly on my PhD research into the culture of radical left movements, partially on a series of informal interviews with pro-Palestine activists in Leeds, Manchester, London and Cambridge, and partly on my own experiences as a pro-Palestine activist. Where I quote activists, I have given them assumed names at their request.
The presence of social media has broken down many of the barriers between activists based in Palestine and those based in the UK. Where before information might only be available through traditional news media, activists in the UK can now connect with activists in Palestine and the Middle East with comparative ease. This, as noted elsewhere on this site, contributes to the age old Israel/Palestine conflict now being played out in European states, as well as online. Indeed, the possibilities of resistance offered by social media are evidenced by the way that repressive states try to limit access to the internet: During the 2012 offensive on Gaza, Israel cut internet access, preventing activists within Gaza from using social media to give the world a real-time picture of events as they unfolded. Earlier this year, the Indian government cut off the internet during a crackdown in Kashmir. At time of writing, The Independent is reporting that Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp have apparently be banned by the Turkish state, another repressive policy in apparent response to a failed coup in July. Activists work within networks, and social media and the internet allows those networks to cross borders, nationalities, and, theoretically, allow information to be disseminated freely. There are, of course, questions of whether social media platforms are “neutral” spaces for information distribution. In September, for example, Facebook was forced to apologise for suspending the accounts of Palestinian journalists, and Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept provides some evidence to suggest Facebook had been collaborating with the Israeli government on censorship.
But for UK based pro-Palestine activists, social media is not simply a place for gathering and sharing information. Feminist Philosopher Nancy Fraser has critiqued the idea that there is a single “public sphere.” Instead, there are multiple publics that exist outside of the mainstream, spaces (both online and offline) which she refers to as “subaltern counterpublics.” These counterpublics are often formed by groups who have a shared interest, or experience of oppression (Fraser herself uses the example of feminist movements). However, counterpublics are not separatist, but a space for people within them to recuperate and form new strategies for resistance that can be implemented in the “main” public. Subaltern counterpublics in this sense are spaces for pro-Palestine activists to discuss news, come up with new forms of language, new methods of advancing their political aims. The advent of social media as a key organising tool means that subaltern counterpublics for pro-Palestinian activists are not limited to physical meetings of local solidarity groups, but increasingly now are based online. These allow activists to engage in the process of recuperation and reconfigurations regardless of where they are in the world, provided they have access to the internet.
Activist and academic James Gilbert, in his 2008 book Anticapitalism and Culture, argues that activism has a strongly performative element to it. Drawing on the work of feminist Judith Butler, who argued that gender was performed, rather than lived, Gilbert argues that activist engaged in a constant process of identity building. James, an activist based in Lewisham, also identified how pro-Palestinian activists perform their identities:
“Lots of us wear keffiyehs to show our support, or we have a flag badge pinned to our coats or bags…it’s not like a uniform as such, but just little things to show what we believe.”
This performance of activism happens online as well as offline – this might be a small feature such as a Palestine flag Twibbon, or the changing of a profile picture temporarily to a Palestine flag, or the regular sharing of media by pro-Palestinian media sources like Electronic Infidia. Performance, however, is an ongoing process and tied its own power dynamic. Many of the activists I spoke to related how within social media spaces dedicated to Palestinian activism (secret Facebook groups, reddit threads etc) are sites for activists to discipline other activists. Molly, student and activist, described one particular occasion of this:
We were arguing in the [campus Palestinian Solidarity Group] about the line we needed to take for an article. Someone, quite new in the group, wanted us to write about the two state solution. Immediately a bunch of others started commenting aggressively, calling this kid all kinds of names, saying that he didn’t know anything, that he was pro-Israeli, that kinda thing. No one seemed to want to engage with the substance of what he was saying, and he left the group after that.
Molly’s story was echoed in those related to me by other activists. Online discussion forums regularly became a space where a very rigid conception of activism was performed. This is not something unique to pro-Palestinian spaces – my own PhD research into the radical left in the UK shows how online spaces can be both recuperative and also antagonistic spaces. Mark, a veteran pro-Palestine activist, was harshly critical of antagonism in some of the social media spaces:
“I don’t engage in debates on Facebook or Twitter – it gets very personal, very quickly. Sometimes I just look at the arguments and think, fucking hell, we’re all on the same side aren’t we, can’t we just have a reasonable discussion?”
The tendency for online activist spaces to become internally hostile is a well-documented phenomenon, and by no means unique to the Palestinian solidarity movement, but it does raise a serious question: what is the use of having support bases for Palestinian activism in the UK if those spaces are exclusionary for some activists? Surely this undermines, to a significant degree, the benefit of having those counterpublics?
Social media opens new horizons for UK based pro-Palestinian activists. Their access to information, their connection to activists and movements within Palestine, is strong than before. But additionally, there are pitfalls. Social media may be used by the people, but it is not run by the people – media can be censored by corporate interests working with governmental agendas. Furthermore, the culture of online activism must balance the disagreement with acceptance. What does matter, however, is that through social media, we as pro-Palestine activists have the tools for new strategies of resistance, and the importance of that cannot be under emphasised.