The fighting during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip two years ago was conducted on a number of fronts. While most eyes were on the battles on the ground – and under it – or the rocket fire from Gaza and the interceptions by the Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, things were also contentious on the home front – in street rallies and, especially, on Facebook. People whom we thought we knew were found to be “fascists” or “traitors,” and we were quick to reach for the “Unfriend” button. Internet posts and even seemingly innocuous “Likes” terminated relationships between Arab and Jewish surfers, and led to a barrage of insults and even the loss of employment – sometimes in the wake of reports from people who had been seen as friends.
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A new study in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology, “Culture in Mediated Interaction: Political Defriending on Facebook and the Limits of Networked Individualism,” examined the processes that occurred during the two months of the 2014 war, and discovered the extent to which the philosophy at the base of social media contributed to the interpersonal clashes on Facebook and unprecedented wave of unfriending and blocking.
Dr. Ori Schwarz, of Bar-Ilan University’s sociology and anthropology department, and Guy Shani, his counterpart at Tel Aviv University, delicately label this process “political pruning.” However, this wasn’t only a matter of trimming around the edges, but rather a completely unprecedented phenomenon.
In 2015, Dr. Nicholas John and Dr. Shira Dvir Gvirsman – communications lecturers at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, respectively – published a survey called “‘I Don’t Like You Any More’: Facebook Unfriending by Israelis During the Israel-Gaza Conflict of 2014.” “One out of every six respondents in the sample unfriended or unfollowed someone,” John told TheMarker.
Schwarz and Shani focused less on the question of “how many” and more on the questions of “how” and “why.” They based their study on interviews with 13 Israelis who severed online relationships during the period of the war; about 5,000 posts, comments and Facebook discussions; and 20 cases of harassment of Arab employees in the wake of their social media activities.
The pruning phenomenon assumed many guises – from people who were ashamed of the fact that they felt the need to unfriend people who didn’t think the same way they did, to people who declared on Facebook that they were “purging” their feed.
“What is astonishing is that most of them, from both the right and the left, want to be pluralists,” Schwarz tells Haaretz. “They say, ‘It’s not legitimate to sever a relationship with someone just because he doesn’t think like me.’” However, the situation blurred many users’ red lines. Some drew up their boundaries in advance and declared, for example, that they would distance themselves from “anyone who says ‘Death to Arabs!’” or “anyone who is crying about Gaza.”
Schwarz says that unfriending was often caused not by differences of opinion, but rather by what he defines as the “texture” of the conversation. When leftists saw their friends on the right writing “Death to Arabs,” they took this literally – as a practical suggestion, not as an expression of belonging and the creation of a sense of solidarity. In the study, the authors note that some of the people who proclaimed “Death to Arabs!” actually have Arab friends.
As an example of the extent to which the “texture” or style became crucial in the pruning process, Schwarz cites a left-wing woman who broke off relations with a Facebook friend because of a single phrase. “That man signed a post with the words ‘Yalla, come on! Get into them!’” she told the researchers. “This freaked me out. People have the right to an opinion that’s different from mine, however regrettable, but there are people who really think that the solution is war, and this is hard for me to hear.”
Sometimes there was no need for actual words. It was enough to hit “Like” – an action that Schwarz defines as the electronic equivalent of a nod – to trigger blocking and unfollowing. During Operation Protective Edge, people discovered that even this virtual nod is preserved, recorded and disseminated to their social media friends, leaving them liable to be called to account for an absentminded digital nod.
The emotions most frequently cited by users were feelings of surprise and disappointment. All of a sudden, under the extreme conditions of war, their friends who in everyday life seemed so ordinary and rational – in other words, so similar to us – revealed what seemed to the others like their dark sides. In fact, what emerged was that these Facebook friends were simply not so similar from the get-go; as long as the social media mood was calm, the surfers maintained what Schwarz calls “imagined homogeneity” – but actually they never really knew each other very well.
“The pruning came in response to the shattering of the imagined homogeneity and was perceived as a symbolic purge – as indicated by users’ choice in describing the pruning by means of metaphors from the realm of physical cleansing, bodily fluids, religious purification and mopping up in the military sense,” said Schwarz, in a lecture based on the article.
“We are not aware of the political opinions of every slight acquaintance,” he added. “The interaction changes in accordance with the location: In the coffee corner we focus on office gossip, and with other parents from the kindergarten we talk about raising children. Even when it comes to talking about politics, we don’t simply offer opinions, but instead participate in social games that are regulated by local codes,” in a given group.
In the offline world, it’s fairly easy to maintain this distinction among groups. The real problem begins on Facebook, which has toppled the barriers between worlds. It has transformed every conversation where you let off steam – which would previously have disappeared into thin air – into something that can be used against you afterward. So, for example, Facebook contributed to the firing of Arab employees after Jewish employers were exposed to their political views.
“The boundaries between the spheres collapsed on Facebook, and users were exposed to the other group’s intranational discourse,” said Schwarz, noting that the built-in Facebook translation tool helped break down the language barrier – but not in a positive way.
“From the moment political griping among friends – which in the past was verbal – began to be conducted on Facebook, it could also be used to identify ‘enemies’ and demands that employers fire them. There were dedicated Facebook groups specifically for this.”
Various scholars have spoken about the individual, the “subject,” as a multifaceted entity, one that travels in different circles and shows different aspects of itself in the various groups and contexts. Canadian-American sociologist Barry Wellman believes this process is accelerated on the internet, because it frees us from the control and demands of our differing social circles. However, Schwarz and Shani argue that the events during Operation Protective Edge show that these social groups continue to apply pressure on us through social networks.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are promoting ethics and practices whereby “you should show everyone who you are – there is no such thing as showing different personae in different situations,” says Schwarz. But, he adds, “this is exactly what enables a society to exist. When the ability to do this disappears, things fall apart. Suddenly, you see relatively high rates of severing ties within a very short time.”