Media images of civilian casualties in Gaza and rocket blasts in Israel saturate Facebook. Comments that venerate one side and vilify the other mark countless controversial videos, yet shockingly we see no solutions. Even with the knowledge and expectation of media bias, we continue to perpetuate someone else’s skewed message. Facebook has become a platform for the polarization of ideas.
In 2013, thousands of people were killed in south Sudan’s civil war and no one talked about it. Over the last few weeks, almost 200 Palestinians were killed and everyone has an opinion. What makes the conflict between Israel and Palestine more deserving of our attention? Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting since the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948. However, the escalation of violence after the 2014 murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gil-ad Shaar, is being documented on social media in unprecedented ways. What strikes me is the way people are communicating their opinions. This issue is powerful because it unleashes raw emotions which get publicized on our screens. Whether you identify as Jewish, Arab, or other, it is likely that if you choose to be part of this debate you will promote unwavering support for one camp while condemning the other. How do we discern fact from fiction? We can’t. If we continue to take biased information and showcase it without challenge and critical thought, then what do we prove? Essentially, we are maintaining us vs. them boundaries.
As an individual studying human behavior, I can’t help but analyze the way we relate to each other on social media. What makes North Americans engage in heated debates about foreign politics on Facebook? Firstly, we have learned to act on impulse and seek immediate gratification. When our post gets a lot of likes we receive the message that we are important, worthy, and special. The rewards social media brings are addictive, and like all addictions we learn to continue doing what generates the most pleasurable outcome. Thus, we make a point to highlight extreme opinions, ensuring that others will comment and attend to our thoughts. Secondly, the fact that Facebook is built so that you can tailor your own image results in a disproportionate focus on how we look. Rather than promoting intellectual debate and critical thinking, we simply present an image that others either glom onto or reject. We are often motivated by the reassurance of an in-group, as they provide the feeling that you belong. The more we perpetuate polarizing messages, the more we are solidifying opposing teams. The recent hashtag “Hitlerwasright” is a testament to this phenomenon.
When I read the constant barrage of politically charged posts on Facebook, I see anger and hate as driving forces. From a clinical perspective, anger is a mask hiding sadness and hate is protection from fear. Whatever side you think you are fighting for, maybe it is time to ask how effective you are being? The pain of sadness and fear fuels the polarization of opinions, which we maintain by keeping the conversation at a level of extremes. I am not proud to live in a world where Hitler is “trending.” If we spend more time questioning sources and demanding factual reporting, we may actually encourage others to deconstruct information instead of take it at face-value. There is a huge discrepancy in how we react to conflicts in Africa, South America, and Europe, as compared with the Middle East. If the issue is ultimately about religion, why are we using propaganda and biased debate? Considering the fact that religion is abstract, immeasurable, and impossible to prove, you have your work cut out for you.
The debate we have with each other on social media mirrors the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no solution because each side wants to prove the unprovable. I believe in finding meaning and purpose in seemingly hopeless situations. Every patient I see has some maladaptive pattern they can’t seem to get out of, and it is through redefining themselves and their goals that they can begin new patterns. According to Einstein, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. By this measure, we are all exhibiting signs of insanity, and it is necessary to reflect on why.