Last month, violence erupted for the upteenth time between Israel and Palestine. During what the Israeli government is referring to as Operation Guardian of the Walls, Hamas fired rockets at central Israeli towns and cities, and Gaza suffered from heavy bombing raids that have left thousands of people displaced from their homes. There was a tragic loss of life on both sides: 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Why am I telling you all of this? Unless you spent the month of May living in remote hibernation, it’s likely you’ve already heard the news reports, the casualty counts and the ideological clashes that dominated social media while this conflict was raging. Violence in this region is sadly nothing new, and the news cycle seems to repeat itself with each new flare up of animosity. Each time that the Israel-Palestine conflict enters the headlines, it’s entrance is accompanied by claims that this political crisis receives undue attention from the international media.
Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian on 21 May 2021:
"Those with a strong connection to Israel scratch their heads at this, wondering why, of all the appalling things going on in the world, this is the one that cuts through – bringing huge crowds onto the streets of European capitals, filling up social media timelines… Much of the explanation is that Israel/Palestine is simply more visible, with media coverage on a scale unmatched by any of those other catastrophes.... A former Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem has written that he was one of more than 40 staff journalists covering Israel/Palestine, which was then “significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined”. The effect, he wrote, is to signal to readers that Israel/Palestine is “the most important story on Earth” – and, by implication, that the wrongdoing there is worse than anything else on the planet. You could fill many doctoral dissertations asking what explains this intensity of focus."
Anecdotally speaking, you might feel like you’ve seen more infographic explainers cropping up on social media about this conflict than for any other major news story in recent months (or years), but do the facts support that assertion? Thankfully, we have the data to investigate these claims and fully understand if the clashes between Israel and Hamas are put under more scrutiny than other global conflicts.
Let’s look at mentions from the beginning of the year to the end of May. During this four month period, we are tracking 62K mentions across 13K Thought Leaders for keywords relating to Israel and Palestine. The Trends graph for mentions shows a steady interest in the region for the first period, followed by a massive spike around 9 May when this current spate of violence started.
In order to take a closer look at the news coverage for these events, we ran a search on the top 10 daily news podcasts. Collectively, these shows have produced 1495 episodes since the start of the year until the end of May, of which 107 contain the keywords Israel or Palestine or Gaza.
Here’s what we see from the overall content released by these podcasts over this period, and the number of episodes that include coverage of the conflict:
Additionally, we can look at the number of times this conflict appears as the top story in these podcasts, by limiting the search to the episode titles. Here’s the breakdown when we are looking at titles alone:
The Global News Podcast from the BBC featured this conflict more than any other show. We can see Israel and Gaza headlining consecutive episodes for 11 days in this twice daily podcast, from 10 May (“Jewish nationalist march cancelled in Occupied East Jerusalem”) to 21 May (“Israel and Hamas both claim victory after truce”).
The consistency of this “top billing” is not matched by any other news story that this podcast covered since the start of the year.
However, we can also look at a podcast that didn’t place the same focus on this news story. The Vox podcast Today, Explained, for example, only spent two episodes covering events in Israel, but has run eleven stories on vaccines since the start of the year, six stories on the insurrection at the US Capitol and three stories on Amazon.
In order to get a greater sense of the spread of news coverage, we need to look at the full group of news podcasts, rather than just the individual shows cited here representing the two different ends of the spectrum. With that in mind, we can take all the episodes released by these ten shows during the course of May 2021, and map out the frequency of keywords used in the titles for all of these episodes.
It is not totally surprising that the month’s biggest news story would attract the bulk of the news coverage, but we can also take a longer view by comparing this coverage to other conflicts over the first four months of 2021.
Moving beyond news podcasts to general mentions, the following data emerges:
To err on the side of caution and try to exclude any coverage that related to the region more broadly, rather than to the Israel Palestine conflict, we limited the keywords used to explore the mentions in the graph above to “Gaza” and “Sheikh Jarrah”. However, a closer breakdown of the individual keywords involved in coverage of this conflict is also interesting:
If we return to our list of top 10 podcasts, we see a slightly different picture as with the overall mentions above:
When we limit the search to news podcasts, the Gaza conflict still commands the most coverage, but the gap between this and other prominent news stories is less pronounced. It’s therefore important to look at the kind of coverage this conflict received, and the types of channels that were most active in discussing violence between Israel and Palestine.
In the May 19, 2021 episode of Pod Save the World, “Time to call for a ceasefire in Gaza”, co-host Ben Rhodes weighed in with his thoughts on why this conflict receives so much coverage, specifically from voices in the US:
I saw some commentary on why we talk so much about this, not you and me, but the people in general, and again I think people have to understand that yes, this gets disproportionate attention in our political immediate discourse but there's a reason for that, or there's several reasons for that.
The first is that the US is not just commenting on this as some third party without a stake in it. If you give 3.8 billion dollars in foreign military financing to a government, you know, a healthy chunk of their defense budget and frankly subsidizing the creation of an Israeli defense industry and then there are these repeated wars like this, you're implicated in that. We are a party to this conflict via our defense relationship with Israel so that merits attention.
Similarly, diplomatically, you know, our obstruction of even a statement out of the UN Security Council on this, we're a party to that as well, so we can't act like the people are selecting this as something to care about as if it's just one of many issues around the world and not one in which the US is very much involved. And I think the other thing we have to acknowledge is that this is a unique conflict...
And then you also have a country that is the home to some of the holiest sites of three of the major world religions. So this is going to get attention and just lamenting that people pay more attention to this than other things is a way of obscuring the fact that that we as American taxpayers are a part of of this and we as people who worked in American foreign policy were a part of this and and we should all be examining it as honestly and openly as we can.
These are all very good reasons for explaining the increased international scrutiny given to Israel-Palestine, but it is important to note that Rhodes is referring specifically to news coverage of the conflict, and foreign policy think pieces. However, if we look at the breakdown of mentions for the keywords surrounding Israel and Gaza, we see that most of the coverage is surprisingly not generated by News and Politics; this category actually comes in third after Lifestyle and Gaming:
One prominent aspect of the online coverage of this conflict were the calls to policy makers, celebrities and thought leaders to “speak out” about this crisis. A recent Vox article asked, “Do we really need influencers’ Israel-Palestine hot takes?”, exploring the reasons behind followers’ demands for these kinds of political statements.
Insider also explored the demands on some content creators to post material relating to the conflict:
Others have explicitly posted about the pressure to speak up and share resources. Sari Diskin, an Instagram blogger with 45,800 followers, posted a statement on her story about requests to speak out, saying she had received an "overwhelming amount of messages" inquiring why she hadn't.
"I am personally connected to Israel with lots of wonderful family there," Diskin wrote in the story post. "I am Jewish. It's devastating all around."
Cameron Rogers, an Instagram blogger with just over 53,000 followers, posted several written and spoken statements on her Instagram story about the violence. In a post Tuesday evening, she said she wanted to use her platform "for good" but didn't feel educated on the topic and therefore didn't want to "rush to post simply to 'post & please' for performative reasons."
Later, after saying that she had done research, Rogers urged her followers to seek news information from sources other than influencers and celebrities. She said she didn't condone the violence but "cannot be the person teaching anyone on this," saying that asking influencers to repost infographics "doesn't serve anyone a purpose."
Commentators such as Habiba Katsha compared the sharing of infographics supporting the Palestinian cause on social media to practice of posting a black square in summer 2020 to support the Black Lives Matter protests: both of these gestures towards online activism can be read as shallow performative allyship.
This type of political posturing from influencers on social media with no particular connection to or knowledge of the crisis is fairly dispiriting and and self-defeating. However, there is one space online where the opposite effect is taking place: the Clubhouse chat room “Meet Palestinians and Israelis”. In the Slate article “The Clubhouse Room Where Israelis and Palestinians Are Actually Talking”, Dahlia Lithwick describes,
When I asked on Friday morning, the moderators told me that 105,000 unique people have cycled through, staying on average for four hours. These 18 moderators, mostly young Israelis and Palestinians, but with some facilitators who are neither, are working unbelievably hard to keep the conversation away from relitigating history or from political posturing. Largely they encourage only Israeli Jews and Palestinians to speak—to tell their personal stories, without trying to score points. The use of jargon and slogans is gently discouraged, as is whataboutism (they explicitly ask participants not to compare suffering to suffering). Talk of feelings is welcome, although occasionally speakers apologize for appealing to feelings as opposed to fact.
Let’s conclude with this sign of progress and optimism, and sum up what we have learned:
Coverage surrounding a conflict that is so politically and emotionally charged for so many people can often turn into an online shouting match. Inspired by the Clubhouse room mentioned above, we should encourage more online spaces for Israelis and Palestinians directly affected by the conflict to come together and share their experiences, in the hope of building a dialogue that can lead to some kind of lasting change.