Horror on the internet: Making sense of Gaza's war in the age of social media

Gaza war
7 min read
28 December, 2023

The sun is rising over the Gaza Strip, cocks are crowing, and the constant hum of an unseen drone persists in the sky. Daylight has risen, and the loud engines of aircraft are flying overhead, bombs are heard exploding, and black plumes of smoke are rising into the morning sky.

This is Gaza's morning, seen 2,000 miles away on a digital screen through a live stream set up in Gaza itself, and on its border from within Israel.

"The world we now live in is one where everything we're viewing is mediated by digital tech, by digitization, by digital media in some way shape or form"

From its outset, the war has been captured in its most gruesome details, its contents uploaded unfiltered into the digital ecosystem. There is no blurring out of images, or stopping of filming before a death is caught on camera.

The world we now live in, as noted by Associate Professor at the Swedish Defense Institute Matthew Ford, is one where "everything we're viewing is mediated by digital tech, by digitization, by digital media in some way shape or form," adding that "you can't divorce the analogue and the digital, they're kind of fused".

The result of this digitized lived experience combined with ongoing contemporary conflicts is what is termed by Ford and his colleague at the University of Glasgow, Professor Andrew Hoskins, as the 'new war ecology'.

It's a lived experience where we have "digitally connected devices, connected technologies, and political violence and war is going on around us," says Ford.

As part of that connection, the people who are farthest away from war are closer to spectating war than ever before, and everyone, civilians included, are participants.

For Ford, this was seen most starkly in Ukraine, where the smartphone "helps people directly participate in the targeting of the enemy", allowing people's photos to help the Ukrainian military create a targeting package to strike Russian convoys.

Moreover, Ukrainian military units, in a bid to show how they're fighting on the battlefield, take videos, place a logo watermark, edit, and upload them onto the internet, enabling people to consume grizzly footage of combat, while independent researchers to verify loses, and map out frontlines in open-source data collection.

However, this is not new, spectating war is standard in the 21st century. Many of the developments in how it is viewed were matured in Syria, where Syria's government and opposition would film their clashes, or better yet their offensives, against the other, for people to witness on the internet.

At first, it was videos of the regime's crackdown on Syria's democratic protests. Soon after it was defection videos and the filming of insurgent action, with YouTube being the place to show rebels running across the streets in major Syrian cities with RPGs destroying lone regime BMPs.

By 2016 when the final battles around the city of Aleppo were occurring, footage was shared by the hour of Fatah Halab's (Aleppo Conquest) and Jaish al-Fatah's (Army of Conquest) combined offensive to break the siege of eastern Aleppo.

Frontlines were mapped by Twitter users and updated regularly, with others sharing the day's battles over the al-Ramousah military academy that broke the siege.

The difference with Syria is that there were little to no livestreams of the conflict. That development came later, most notably in Ukraine, when a live stream of a Ukrainian border guard post caught a still of a guard running across the road frantically as Russian tanks approached the position, notifying the world of the invasion.

So too did a live stream capture the battle for Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant a week after the invasion, with a power plant security camera broadcasting the firefight between the Ukrainian and Russian forces live onto YouTube as anxious watchers wondered whether another Chernobyl would happen.

"We're no longer dependent on network media to show us the live streams... Now we can seek them out and watch them at length in real-time"

Live streams too are part of the New War Ecology because "it's another layer of separation removed," says Aram Shabanian, Open-Source Information Gathering Manager at New Lines Institute.

"We're no longer dependent on network media to show us the live streams," as they did when the US bombed Baghdad in 2003. "Now we can seek them out and watch them at length in real-time."

And it's part of a wider disintegration of the mainstream media's hold over news, over the broadcasting of war, like that in Gaza that is broadcasted onto our Twitter or Instagram feeds in 2023. As Aram noted about live streams, the raw footage "makes warfare more realistic and visceral".

"I used to say even just a few years ago that there is still intact a mainstream (news and social media) version of the world that's pretty much sanitised, pretty much middle of the road, with the very worst of human brutality and suffering pushed to the edge, through regulation, censorship, sanitisation," says Andrew Hoskins.

"Today, this surround of horror seems not only to have encroached on our everyday but more frequently finds its way through to public consciousness."

A glimpse of that horror surfacing was during the terror years of Islamic State, broadcasting the most gruesome of war crimes for anyone with an inch of morbid curiosity to watch.

Its stylised production made war crimes into a spectacle, but the footage doesn't have to be edited to become part of a spectacle, war simply needs to be uploaded.

And the horror of Gaza's war is all too evident on the internet. Whether it's Hamas crimes from their October 7 attacks or the countless videos of the deadly aftermath of Israeli bombings in Gaza which sees endless civilians being pulled out of the rubble of former houses, the public can now view human suffering like never before.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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As Hoskins notes, "Social media has swept away the 20th century established order of the production, circulation, and reception of news, and entangled it with the immediate and ongoing digital sharing of all our views, opinions and experiences."

But this newfound immersion in modern warfare and its horror doesn't change the fundamentals of how it's waged, nor does it prevent war from happening.

Hoskins states that the lack of prevention of war, even though we see its extremes, helps create a dynamic of "relative helplessness in response to the scale of human suffering".

In Gaza, Israel's systematic destruction of the enclave has provoked hundreds of thousands of people to protest worldwide for a ceasefire, but all significant parties to the conflict, Hamas, Israel, the US, and Iran's regional proxies have doubled down.

According to Matthew Ford, the result is that people switch off: "You've got all this rubbish, all this mess, all this chaos, all this murder, all this death and destruction and yet that's not being cashed out in actual war crimes tribunals in terms of actual people being prosecuted.

"People are behaving in this incredibly awful way, and no one is getting held to account for it and under those sorts of circumstances what else do you do but turn away."

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For those who watch, symptoms of vicarious trauma arise, with feelings of anxiety, guilt and depression affecting their emotional well-being. It's inescapable, even in sleep; war imagery seeps into the dream world.

That's what happens when watching people being mercilessly gunned down, or people walking around the piles of bodies stacked up against each other in a pool of blood following an Israeli airstrike on an ambulance convoy in al-Shifa hospital.

"I understand why people get emotional," says Ford, "but we also need to make sense of the way media is being used to provoke reactions.

"If we don't then there's a danger that we amplify material that encourages emotional engagement or instead disengage from watching and end up not paying attention to what we need to be attentive to."

Oliver Mizzi is a staff journalist at The New Arab. He holds a BA in International Relations with Middle East Studies and a Mlitt in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies

Follow him on Twitter: @OllyMizzi99