An unusually large percentage of Israelis unfriended and unfollowed people on Facebook during the 50-day Gaza war, according to a new study, which found that social-media users on the left were just as prone as those on the right to cut ties with people because of political posts or comments they deemed unacceptable.
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The still-to-be-published study found that one in six Israeli Facebook users unfriended or unfollowed people in their networks during Operation Protective Edge. Those unfriended or unfollowed were typically not close friends, and quite often, people with whom they had no relationship outside of Facebook.
According to Nicholas John of the Department of Communications at Hebrew University, one of the two researchers conducting the study, Israelis at both ends of the political spectrum were more likely than those in the center to unfriend or unfollow others.
“What this shows is that it wasn’t the specific ideology that was playing a role, but rather the strength of the views you held,” he said.
About 20 percent of those who described themselves as either very right wing or very left wing unfriended or unfollowed people on Facebook during the war, he said, twice the percentage of those who defined themselves in the center.
“When I asked them why they unfriended, the reasons given by those on the left overwhelmingly had to do with not being able to tolerate what they saw as racist, aggressive or violent comments,” John said. “Some examples they gave were ‘death to the Arabs’ or ‘death to the leftists.
“On the right, the reasons people gave had to do with not being able to tolerate criticism of the army or the government, or expressions of empathy with the Palestinians.”
Illustration by David Lockard.
The study, conducted a week after the war ended, was based on a sample of 1,013 Jewish-Israeli adult Facebook users. John says they were representative of Israeli Facebook users in terms of age and gender, though not of Jewish-Israeli society on the whole.
“Israeli Facebook users tend to be younger, more secular and probably more right-wing,” he said. Of the respondents, 20 percent described themselves as left-wing, 20 percent as center and 60 percent as right wing. The study, which has not yet been submitted for publication, was conducted in collaboration with Shira Dvir Gvirsman of the Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University.
Previous research, John noted, has indicated that Israelis tend to be among the world’s biggest users of Facebook. Their behavior during the war was not typical, though, he said.
“Israelis, in general, unfriend less than Americans,” he said. John cited a 2012 Pew Research Center study that found that 18 percent of American Facebook users had unfriended someone for political reasons and two-thirds had unfriended someone for any reason whatsoever. That compares with only 5 percent of Israeli Facebook users who prior to Operation Protective Edge had ever unfriended someone, according to the study. But during the 50-day war, 16 percent of Israeli Facebook users unfriended others, and for one-third of that 16 percent, this was the first time ever.
The findings show that Israeli users also tended to spend more time and to be more politically engaged on Facebook during the war.
Infographic by Haaretz
Some 55 percent of the respondents said that in the year before the war, they had never written political posts on Facebook, but during the war, their share had dropped to 45 percent. Some 30 percent said they had never commented on political posts in the year before war, but during the war, their share had dropped to 15 percent.
John, who immigrated to Israel in 1997 from England, where he graduated from Cambridge University, specializes in new media. He said he undertook the research after becoming intrigued with the question of why so many Jews in Israel were unfriending one another on Facebook during the war.
“It was clear that Facebook went crazy during the war and that unfriending became a thing,” he said. “People were doing it, and people were talking about it.
“Particularly interesting for me was the unfriending among Jewish Israelis. If a Jew and a Palestinian unfriend one another other, it’s a shame but not all that surprising. But when there is unfriending within the Jewish part of Israeli society, I found that to be more interesting, and having a researcher’s head on my shoulders, I said I wanted to know more about it. Is this a left-wing practice? Is it a right-wing practice? Who’s doing this unfriending?”
Asked what the study says about the state of political discourse in Israel, John responded: “Overall I think that it doesn’t look great. I think that there are definite signs of polarization, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.”