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How Gaza became an online clapback to anything (and I mean anything) you disagree with

Posts about invasive plants, sunburns and eating disorders are all plagued by commenters comparing their trials to war

The other night I was scrolling through an Instagram account about foraging edible plants. (There’s no way I’m harvesting magnolia blossoms to make cookies, but it’s fun to imagine.) I was feeling very seen by a video about how awful the invasive Bradford pear tree smells — if you know, you know — when I saw something confusing in the comments.

“At a time when genocide is prevalent in the world, let’s lead with compassion for those living things that we don’t think belong,” it read.

Was someone really chastising the foraging account for being mean to a tree? Because of, uh, Gaza?

Regardless of your feelings about Israel’s military actions in Gaza, I think we can all agree it has little to do with the ornamental plant choices of American urban planners.

But the Israel-Hamas war has infiltrated our feeds to an extent that everything is, nominally, connected — at least in the eyes of internet scolds. 

Kids in Palestine have nothing to eat and you can’t bring yourself to eat?” reads a comment on a video of an 8-year-old girl documenting her attempts to overcome a food intake disorder that makes her gag when she eats.

A mother posted a picture of her child with a deep red sunburn, complaining that camp counselors hadn’t reapplied sunscreen, only to be virally retweeted by someone calling out “the contrast of white mom problems compared to what the women of Gaza are going through.” A woman documenting her recovery from anorexia was slammed for eating a Starbucks muffin because the chain is on a pro-Palestine boycott list.

Every corner of the internet has its version of this phenomenon. I dare you to find a video of a dog without someone claiming the dog is being abused — fed too much or too little, trained too much or too little. Relationship videos inevitably have strangers in the comments hyper-analyzing the facial expressions to conclude that the relationship is toxic or abusive. Food is never seasoned enough for commenters, 

But the Gaza phenomenon is everywhere, on every possible kind of post, not just those from Jewish creators or those remotely related to politics. A happy post? How dare you ignore the war. A sad post? Well, how dare you complain, given the state of the world.

I get the sentiment. A giant war is underway, tens of thousands of people are starving, hostages are still in captivity, and you want to talk about, well, anything else? It feels gauche, self-centered, meaningless.

But do these comments serve to refocus people on world events? Mostly, it feels like they turn the war into a nag akin to a parent who tells their kid to finish their plate because there are children starving in China, or India, or Africa — which certainly doesn’t have the effect of educating children about global food scarcity.

It doesn’t really feel as though the purpose of constantly reminding people about the war is to actually draw attention to its actual human toll so much as to communicate moral superiority, or demonstrate membership in the correct in-group. Maybe it’s even just for clicks — outrage has long been shown to garner the highest engagement online. And the effect is, often, to numb people to the topic.

On the other hand, there is a political efficacy to the ubiquitous comments or even the viral AI-generated memes about Rafah that don’t even show Gaza, said Joaquin Serpe, a visiting professor of media and communication at New York University. 

“Of course there is a certain level of performativity to these actions, but also politics is performative,” he said. “Performance and the sense of belonging is, so many times, what motivates us to do something else.”

Serpe said these comments are likely not convincing anyone to change their minds; we might be able to accomplish that with friends and family, but rarely with internet strangers. 

But, he said, social media’s performative politics can — at least sometimes — break the echo chambers we often live in. In the past, political action took the form of in-person gatherings in your community. Now, you can be exposed to a topic you might never otherwise have thought about, “allowing some people to open up their political imaginary, the roster of things that they are interested and able to fight for.”

And while nagging is fundamentally annoying, it can also force us to think. “What I really really appreciate about Gaza, no matter what side, is,” he said, “it has made people take a stance — or at least ask themselves what their stance is.”

Of course, none of this means that it’s illegitimate to be upset about a bad sunburn or heal your eating disorder. Other struggles are not moot just because there’s a big one on everyone’s screens, and we still get to enjoy food even if others don’t have enough.

But perhaps the guilt tripping does, sometimes, work. After all, when my dad would tell me the broccoli was sad it was being wasted, I’d usually open my mouth.

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