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Hamas Cheerleaders Are All Over Instagram

Since 10/7, young social-media users have been inundated with memes that present terrorists as social justice champions.

· 11 min read
Hamas Cheerleaders Are All Over Instagram

Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks represented the worst single-day massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. In the west, the most common reaction was grief and shock. Yet there’s also been no shortage of anti-Israel activists around the world who’ve taken to the streets, lauding the killers as “martyrs” and “freedom fighters.” Many of these events have been overtly antisemitic, with some even breaking out into chants of “gas the Jews.”

Young people, particularly those who self-identify as members of the progressive left, are disproportionately represented among those who’ve downplayed, dismissed, justified, or even celebrated Hamas’ actions. Claims of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are now casually lobbed not only at Israel, but Jews more generally. Not surprisingly, this has been accompanied by a substantial increase in antisemitic hate crimes.

A survey of 2,116 registered U.S. voters, conducted in mid-October by The Harris Poll and HarrisX, revealed a striking generational divide on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Approximately half of those respondents aged 18 to 34 expressed the belief that the mass killing of Israeli civilians could be justified by Palestinian grievances. As the age of respondents increased, support for this proposition declined significantly. A similar pattern was reflected in the responses to other questions about Israel.

This result cannot be blamed—at least not entirely—on the political atmosphere on U.S. campuses, as only about 35 percent of Americans aged 25 and older in the United States have a bachelor degree. Almost all Americans consume social media in some form, however. And these online spaces are where much of the pro-terror radicalization seems to be occurring.

Video is an especially effective propaganda medium. From October 7 onwards, social media channels have been flooded with clips posted by high-follower accounts linked to Hamas. Some of the individuals spreading this content present as “journalists,” even though they’re known to have ingratiated themselves with Hamas’ leadership. In one notorious case, a CNN freelancer posted a photo of himself holding a grenade while he accompanied Hamas on the 10/7 rampage. 

Even mainstream media outlets trying to act in good faith have been caught repeating fake news that’s been fed to them, directly or indirectly, by Hamas. In other cases, online opportunists, some of them with purely financial motives, have exploited the 10/7 attacks for personal gain, using AI-generated imagery and pro-Hamas bots to flood the internet with clickbait.

Instagram has become a particularly active arena for pro-Hamas propaganda. At last count, the hashtag #freepalestine had appeared on over 5.8 million posts, exceeding #standwithisrael’s 220,000 by a geometric factor of more than 20. Similarly, #gazaunderattack has amassed 1.8 million instances, an order of magnitude more than #israelunderattack’s 134,000.

Israel may have the upper hand in the unfolding military conflict within Gaza. But it is evident that Hamas and its allies are winning over many youth by weaponizing the pre-existing idioms of social-justice advocacy. Since 2020, Instagram, like all social-media platforms, has been awash with dubious slideshows purporting to educate users about “systemic racism,” “decolonization,” and the need for non-white people to rise up and “disrupt” our supposedly white-supremacist western societies. The formula worked as a means to promote Black Lives Matter protests. And anti-Israel groups are now seeking to copy this formula in their campaign to support Hamas.

In particular, these groups seek to replicate the powerful public reaction set off by video of George Floyd’s murderous mistreatment by Minneapolis police. War is hell, as the expression goes. And so in Gaza, as in every other military conflict known to history, there are instances of civilians being caught in the crossfire, or victimized by attacks against nearby military targets—scenes that are played up incessantly as evidence of supposed genocide.

I recognize these propaganda techniques because back in 2020, I was responsible for curating and creating content for an influential progressive Instagram account with more than 730,000 followers. My role was to keep people engaged and enraged. Like many other old-fashioned liberals, I’d mistakenly perceived the social-justice phenomenon as a moral extrapolation of the civil-rights movement. In time, I realized that what I was really doing was signal-boosting the values of far-left academics seeking to destroy liberal values. Part of that Marxist-inspired academic movement involves slotting whole swathes of humanity into boxes marked either “oppressor” or “oppressed.” Having put the Palestinians in the second box, these ideologues are inclined to support any action, however monstrous, presented as a strategy of liberation.

As it turns out, being an anti-oppressive social-justice revolutionary can be quite lucrative. Among the most prolific disseminators of anti-Israel propaganda, for instance, is the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), a well-funded California-based nonprofit founded by “concerned Americans.” The IMEU Instagram account now has 700,000 followers, over 200,000 of these having been recruited since 10/7.

According to IMEU Communications Director Omar Baddar, who draws a $100,000 annual salary from the organization, the group has had the most “success” with young users. In a 2021 online workshop, he discussed his strategy of leveraging “social justice content” on Instagram, while citing studies that show Americans’ growing reliance on social media for news. He noted that, unlike mainstream outlets (which typically employ stringent fact-checking techniques and attempt to provide balanced reporting), social media allows him more direct control of a desired narrative. When it comes to the narrative surrounding violence, for instance, “Israel, as an occupying power, is inherently the initiator of [all] violence.”

As noted above, a key part of this strategy involves drawing linkages to pre-existing social-justice ideas and memes. “Jim Crow segregation is obviously something that every American understands, so explaining how the parallels between Israeli apartheid and that are very useful,” Baddar told his audience. He even hints at exploiting Americans’ feelings of guilt over slavery (and white guilt, more generally) as a useful tactic.

As the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values has noted, this type of approach can seduce even some Jewish groups, many of which now tend to prioritize trending social-justice slogans and buzzwords over the actual interests of Jewish people. This includes Jewish Voice for Peace, whose influential Instagram account is nearing the million-follower mark.

Sayf Abdeen, who made a name for himself as a “Diversity, Inclusion and Overseas officer” at the London School of Economics, is another well-heeled propagandist who’s become an expert at attracting the attention of young, low-information Instagram addicts. His popular account is called Let’s Talk Palestine, a nod to a popular 2020 social-justice slideshow page called So You Want to Talk About. He notes that “anger or frustration is really good at galvanizing people and attracting attention.” And once you’ve gotten them riled up, he advises, hit them with a “call to action” that transforms ordinary youth into activists.

In this regard, Baddar is particularly interested in getting his audience to enroll in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns; and, of course, to donate money to the IMEU. The group has ramped up its Instagram activity to between four and eight posts daily, with each depicting Israel as the sole aggressor in an unprovoked attack on Palestinians (which the IMEU naturally characterizes as “genocide”). The strategy has proven effective, as the IMEU is gaining approximately 5,000 to 10,000 new followers every day.

As a means of sensationalizing its content, the IMEU often parrots the high casualty figures sourced from Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry, figures to which U.S. President Joe Biden assigns “no confidence.” (While any loss of civilian life is tragic, Hamas has a history of dramatically inflating casualty counts as a means to garner sympathy for its cause. Such figures are often debunked after follow-up investigations.)

The IMEU has posted claims that deny or downplay the horrors of October 7, even in the face of forensic evidence confirming Hamas’ atrocities. Their posts sow distrust in more credible sources, including the White House, with the apparent goal of keeping users inside a propaganda cocoon. IMEU posts that spuriously blamed Israel for a deadly October 17 explosion on the grounds of Gaza’s al-Ahli Arab Hospital remain uncorrected on the group’s feed, even weeks after evidence revealed that the deaths—dozens, not hundreds, as Hamas had initially claimed—were the result of a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket. The fact that Palestinians killed their own people and then tried to blame Israel for it apparently isn’t part of the preferred IMEU narrative.

Numerous posts accuse Israel of targeting hospitals and civilian areas, while neglecting to mention that Hamas has long used these locations as headquarters and ammunition depots. The IMEU also passes over the fact that Hamas has instructed civilians to stay in the most dangerous areas; and in some cases has physically blocked non-combatants from heading to safer areas in the south of Gaza, as part of an apparent strategy of maximizing Palestinian civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. One might think that a group devoted to a proper “understanding” of the Middle East conflict—that’s the U in IMEU, remember—might see these facts as significant.

Despite the manipulative and deceptive nature of IMEU’s propaganda campaign, Instagram— which is owned by Meta Platforms, formerly known as Facebook, Inc.—doesn’t seem to have taken measures to fact-check, correct, or contextualize any of its posts. By contrast, on X (formerly Twitter), users are better protected thanks to the new “Community Notes” feature. Earlier this year, the IMEU posted a video that, it claimed, showed “Israeli soldiers attack[ing] Palestinians,” which went viral after being shared by U.S. congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. In fact, the video showed Israeli police officers breaking up a fight among Palestinian teenagers. Embarrassed by the correction, the IMEU deleted the post. 

To be fair, the Instagram platform wasn’t designed for in-depth political discussions: Following its initial release in 2010, it was mostly used by users seeking to show off pictures of nature, vacations, fashion, pets, shopping “hauls,” and recipes. Unlike X, it doesn’t encourage users to embed clickable links and launch into multi-thread arguments. As a result, there’s been less public scrutiny of the role that Instagram plays in forming public attitudes on serious political issues, as compared to Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. As the IMEU example shows, that needs to change. 

A dominant conceit within the social-justice movement is that its leading activists are plucky, grass-roots figures powered by big hearts but small budgets. But the IMEU's financial statements indicate assets of over $3 million. In 2022 alone, the group received $1.49-million in donations, and held a gala event that netted $659,000. Prominent donors have included George Soros; and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (which has donated millions of dollars to dozens of anti-Israel causes and BDS campaigns).

What would a true “understanding” of the Middle East conflict look like? It might start with an acknowledgement of the fact that Israel’s military has repeatedly instructed Gazan civilians to evacuate areas in which it intends to conduct ground operations—the exact opposite of what one would expect from a “genocidal” military hegemon seeking to round up and exterminate a civilian population. Because Hamas hides its operatives in hospitals, schools, and civilian homes, and ignores the principle of distinction, it is the terrorist group, not the Israeli soldiers fighting it, that should be held responsible for civilian deaths, according to international law. Investigations into alleged crimes committed by Israel during past wars or conflicts haven’t resulted in formal charges or convictions, which says quite a lot given the enthusiasm that many international leaders have for turning the Jewish state into an international pariah.

Being a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations, Israel is bound by the laws of war, and has every incentive to minimize civilian casualties where possible, while Hamas has every incentive to maximize them: Indeed, for Hamas’ propaganda purposes, there is scant difference between a dead Jew and a dead Palestinian—the former being held up as purported evidence of Hamas’ military prowess and the latter being presented as evidence of Palestinian victimization.

Hamas, which became the dominant force in Gaza following Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza two decades ago, has operated as an Islamist kleptocracy, hoarding hundreds of millions of dollars while 80 percent of Gazans languish in poverty. How morally grotesque is it that western activists and hash-taggers who fly the banner of social justice have tied their cause to a terrorist group that steals humanitarian aid and uses women and children as human shields?

The group’s founding covenant, drafted in 1988, endorses the extermination of Jews and their state. And Hamas leaders have vowed to repeat the mass murders of October 7 until that goal is achieved. The idea that Israel must now grant a “ceasefire” to this same group, as many activists are demanding on social media, is absurd. The proper time for a ceasefire was October 6. The idea of Israel willfully calling off its military operations so that Hamas can have the chance to better redeploy its remaining forces in Gaza City is ludicrous.

“It’s just social media,” some may say. “You can just log off.” But it’s not that easy. Rightly or wrongly, many of us have come to see our socials as a window into what the rest of the world thinks. And the Jewish people I’ve spoken to on Instagram have told me that these last few weeks have been some of the worst of their lives—in part because every time they look at their phone, they see legions of users cheering on the same terrorists who murdered defenseless Israeli men, women, and children.

One Jewish man told me that he’d recently purchased a gun, and was now enrolled in firearms training. Others told me that they’ve upgraded their home security systems. One woman told me that she’s had talks with her daughter about not advertising her Jewish faith in public—“because I’m genuinely afraid of hateful people who’ve been brainwashed.” Meanwhile, efforts to fight back online can have unpredictable results. One woman I know, who’s employed in the progressive nonprofit sector, confided that her own colleagues attempted to have her fired after they saw her pro-Israel social media posts.

Calling out terrorist propaganda disguised as social-justice mantras shouldn’t be a lonely or professionally risky task: We should all be doing it. Not just because there’s inherent value in promoting truth, debunking falsehoods, and fighting antisemitism (in both letter and spirit); but also because some sizeable fraction of the young Instagram junkies who are now spreading Hamas propaganda will come to actually internalize the proposition that terrorism is justified in the name of social justice.

The 10/7 attacks won’t be the last mass-casualty Islamist terrorist massacre. And Israel is hardly the only country that Islamists target. If—god forbid—the United States suffers another 9/11-scale attack, will these same pro-Hamas meme peddlers similarly excuse it as the righteous fury of the world’s oppressed? As awful as post-10/7 Instagram has been, it has at least supplied us with a cautionary glimpse into the hive mind of the online social-justice community. If these repugnant attitudes spread and metastasize, none of us can say we weren’t put on notice.     

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