In the era of memes and flowered ‘Free Palestine’ squares, it's a constant struggle to ensure the message is not lost to an internet set on producing "more digestible" content.
Five years ago, a search for ‘Eye on Palestine’ on Instagram would have led users to dazzling, professional shots of the Holy Land, from the Jordan River to the glistening Mediterranean.
But when the original administrator turned the account over to his brother in 2017, there was a slight shift in content. Instead of snaps of Palestine, the new administrator began posting daily updates on life under Israeli occupation, with the hope of diverting attention from straight politics, to the nuanced and often intimate ways that Palestinians suffer in their daily lives.
“Usually the English accounts [on Palestine] are run by the PA [Press Association] or men in fancy suits, so I think when people see our broken English, they see how hard we’re trying to get our message out,” says Hamza Mahmoud, the Eye on Palestine marketing and campaign specialist. Mahmoud, along with the administrator and assisting content creators, is based in Palestine.
“It’s funny, because there are so many of us who have no exposure to the West, and all of a sudden were dealing with millions of [Westerners] per day,” he laughs.
What started as grassroots activism has taken the internet by storm: with 2.3 million followers and counting, the account is now the world’s go-to source for an understanding of the lived experience of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. There's a good reason for this - many captions are written in Arabic, English, Turkish, Russian, French, and Indonesian, to create a more personal connection to Palestine worldwide.
As all staff members work on a volunteer basis, multilingual captions come from followers across the world who want to join Eye on Palestine in spreading the word on injustice.
A quick scroll of the account’s most recent posts shows brutal beatings and arrests of Palestinians, some of them children; Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian homes; and a Palestinian march in Ramallah, held in protest of the continued detention of a Palestinian cancer patient.
The account is familiar with sensitive content warnings.
“We used to post really aesthetic posts,” says Mahmoud. “But what makes our content special is the details of the occupation. We’re not talking about politics, we’re talking about the lives of people. Every individual is suffering,” he says.
His take is both refreshing and timely. Since Palestinian digital activism took off in 2015, and surged once again in May 2021 during the 11-day Hamas/Israel war, there has been an unspoken agreement that mass awareness, and a prominent online presence is a good thing for Palestinian activism. American-Palestinian model Bella Hadid, with a whopping 48.3 million followers, has reposted all pro-Palestine content. While this hasn’t been without its fair share of Zionist backlash, the hope has been that putting the occupation of Palestine in the same bracket as other grave human rights abuses—and by demystifying the understanding of an equal-power conflict in the process—they will slowly pull back the blindfold of the international community.
The question, then, is whether digital activism has had the intended effect, or if, in the era of memes and flowered ‘Free Palestine’ squares, the message has been lost to an internet set on producing more digestible content.
Eye on Palestine is clear: it’s not here to be the internet police. Content creators have learned a thing or two about purpose-driven online activism.
Memes: aesthetics have their place
For Eye on Palestine, the use of aesthetically pleasing graphic designs, photographs, or artworks have their place in digital activism.
When used intentionally, that is.
“Aesthetic posts should be used as a break, and that’s critical,” says Mahmoud, noting that the majority of their content displays brutality, something the majority of the audience will need a break from.
If activist accounts take care to do so, publishing such posts can also help foster effective altruism within the community. Eye on Palestine says they routinely pay local artists for the work that is published on the account, and make sure to tag the artist’s account to further support them.
When asked if such posts, which are often devoid of context, risk losing the message of the account, Mahmoud says no.
“People know that our message should not be lost,” he says of both aesthetically designed posts and memes, which he is unquestionably in favour of, because they are often thought-provoking and do not solicit the same response across the board. The content consumer chooses for themselves what reaction—or action—to take from the post, which makes for a stronger connection to the content.
“I need your thoughts, not your tears,” he says.
And just because something is humorous—or not what is typically considered intellectual—it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be welcome in the digital activist world, particularly the Palestinian one.
“Why would a meme make us lose credibility? Even when Israel is bombing us—this is dark—but I need this as humour.”
If you’re going to ride the wave, ride it right
During the 11-day war in May last year, Eye on Palestine saw its followership soar by nearly 500 percent in one week. Several other prominent Palestinian activist accounts similarly saw a significant uptick in followers. For Mahmoud, the phenomenon was not a trend, but evidence of information-thirsty individuals trying to meet their needs.
He realises that some people—both creators and consumers—were just riding the wave for exploitative reasons, but he doesn’t pay them much attention. If their content is accurate, then, to him, it’s action over intention.
But, he says that, more often than not, fake activism is fairly easy to spot.
“Many people [who ride the wave] don’t have the right discourse, and have no exposure to international politics,” he says.
While not suggesting that an international law degree is necessary to join the conversation on Palestine, it seems he is suggesting that well-intentioned people without a background in occupational politics hand the microphone to locals who do. Even then, though, it’s important to pay attention to particularities in the language.
“In Arabic, many people use yahoudi—which means Jewish—to describe a Zionist,” he says, noting the difference in the words. Someone who is Jewish belongs to the Jewish faith, whereas a Zionist is someone who believes in the establishment and advancement of the state of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.
The problem, Mahmoud says, is in the translation.
“People who don’t know this nuance will translate directly from Arabic and end up using the word ‘Jew’ in place of ‘Zionist’ which, of course, changes the whole meaning,” he says.
And because the internet and screenshots are endless, there is little that experts on the topic (such as Mahmoud) can do to rectify false information or alter the impact it may have on the Palestinian narrative.
“Lies can never be covered. In time, if these people get [likes, followers], we can never change it.”
Accountability is key
For those interested in speaking more on Palestine in the digital space, Mahmoud has two key pieces of advice to share.
“Firstly, you need to keep good resources. We have a whole group chat with the best Palestinian journalists, so we know how to verify our information,” he says.
For him, the key word is Palestinian.
“Do not trust Hebrew media,” he says emphatically.
“People see it as irrefutable because they have security, cameras, and an army. So people think if it happened, they would have seen it. But they lie, and we know it. We do not rely on their media.”
[NOTE: *Name has been changed due to the interviewee’s fear of increased attacks against Palestinian digital activists, both online and off.]