Doomscrolling a Genocide

Feature

Doomscrolling a Genocide

Layla* was having dinner with her friends when she reached for her phone — as a reflex — to open Instagram, and saw, first thing, the picture of a decapitated child. A Lebanese law school student living in New York, Layla finds it very hard to look away from the livestreamed images of the Gaza bombings — even when she is going out, when she is spending time with friends, even at a dinner. 

Since October 7, 2023, over 27,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, as a result of Israel’s daily indiscriminate bombardment. 

That night at dinner, Layla found herself forced to hide in the restaurant’s bathroom, where she cried for about 10 minutes. “I didn’t want to bring down the mood, especially since there were non-Arab people there.” She doesn’t know how to cope with that very juxtaposition of horror and bloodshed on one side, and mundane life in New York on the other – a balance that seems impossible to find. 

Her friends tell her to turn off Al Jazeera, to “stop doing this to yourself,” but that just makes her feel lonelier. 

According to the historian Raz Segal, an associate professor of genocide studies at Stockton University in New Jersey, Israel’s intentions are very clear: “The assault on Gaza can be understood as a textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes,” he writes in an article in Jewish Current, published October 13

In Gaza, journalists who are on the ground keep reporting, even as their lives are hanging by a thread: Hind Khoudary, Motaz Azaiza, Plestia Alaqad, Wael Al Dahdouh, Bisan Owda, and many others are journalists who risked their lives to document the non-stop atrocities on social media, for the world to see. Some have recently been forced to evacuate Gaza to other countries due to direct threats on their lives. 

“This may be the first genocide in history to be livestreamed on social media,” stated Let’s Talk Palestine, an Instagram page that shares resources on Palestine, with more than 600,000 followers. Many other Instagram accounts have also been very active, sharing news of what is happening in Gaza and resources on Palestine, with around 10.5 million followers.

I have people asking me if I’m pro-Palestine, and I’m like, I’m Palestinian. Am I pro-living? I’m confused.”

“Doomscrolling is real,” says Jude, a Palestinian journalism student, “yet, you just have to keep looking. You have to keep sharing.” 

Lately, she has been very active on social media, posting dozens of stories every day. She welcomes me at her place for tea on a bright morning, with songs by the Lebanese singer Fairuz and the Egyptian singer Abd El-Halim Hafez playing in the background. “I cannot sit in silence anymore since the genocide started,” Jude tells me, “because otherwise, all I’ll hear are the sounds of the cries from Gaza I heard on social media.” 

Jude has almost 2,000 followers on her Instagram, and says she currently finds it impossible to look away from social media for several reasons. Firstly, she considers that her mission as a journalist is to educate. “A lot of my followers are American, a lot of them have never engaged with any discussion on Palestine beyond me, and I feel that it is important for them to see things the way I see them.” 

For her, social media is a way of getting people more engaged. But she also feels she has a responsibility simply to bear witness. “The videos I see are not videos that I can view and then just go on normally with my life, just thinking this is so sad. There is an act of genocide against people who look like me, who speak like me, who have interests and dreams. Many of the people reporting on the ground are my friends. And then I have people asking me if I’m pro-Palestine, and I’m like, I’m Palestinian. Am I pro-living? I’m confused,” she says. 

While allies may feel genuine sadness or sympathy for the cause, for Arabs living in the West and even countries neighboring Palestine, there is this deep sense of relentless guilt. 

“It is an inherent guilt, and yet it’s almost ridiculous to have to feel bad about being safe,” she says. “Why do I have to witness my people being eradicated at this scale, while being so far from my community, in a place that doesn’t even want me here?” she wonders. 

In Arabic, the words that mean to “bear witness” and “to be a martyr” are the same: shaheed. Chloé Kattar, a historian and Cambridge professor, thinks this feeling of responsibility for bearing witness, this impossibility of looking away from Palestine, for the Arab community especially, is rooted in generational trauma and generational history in the region.

Layla, the Lebanese law student, feels the same pang. “Always, without fail, when I see the lists of the martyrs, I always see my name. All I see is Layla, Layla, Layla. How do I go to class after this?” 

Even if she is well aware of the support that she receives from other people, from minorities on campus, she feels lonely. “I am immensely grateful for their support, all of us are sharing and posting stuff, but sometimes when you see that their next story is about them going out and having fun, it feels isolating.”

In Arabic, the words that mean to “bear witness” and “to be a martyr” are the same: shaheed. Chloé Kattar, a historian and Cambridge professor who has been very active on social media lately, thinks this feeling of responsibility for bearing witness, this impossibility of looking away from Palestine, for the Arab community especially, is rooted in generational trauma and generational history in the region, as she explained in an Instagram talk

Jude’s grandparents had to flee Palestine in terrible circumstances. Layla’s parents went through the Lebanese Civil War. Both confessed that they could feel in their bones that the consequences of the October attacks would be dire for the Palestinian community and the region, even before the genocide started. 

“As long as there is no justice in the region, things will keep happening cyclically,” explains Kattar. “This is an ongoing war, and we have to engage with this content, we have to find a way to endure the ongoing trauma.” She tries to take a break when the content she sees is too heavy, but only to come back. “Okay, I can take a one-day break because it is a long war, and I have to build resilience, but I have to keep engaging,” she says.

“Bearing witness is an honor,” writes the Palestinian psychologist and writer Hala Alyan, “it is a commitment to truth-seeking. Especially in the face of distortion, erasure, blackout, censorship.”

Jude explains her inability to look away is also her own form of loyalty to her friends on the ground and towards the Gazans journalists, “people I hoped to work beside someday.”

“I don’t think people who don’t speak Arabic as a first language recognize how deep that goes, that people are dying for your sympathy, dying for you to care, and doing all this work in your language rather than their own,” she says, “It reinforces where the power lies, that there is a very deep imbalance in everything that is going on.” 

“Bearing witness is an honor,” writes the Palestinian psychologist and writer Hala Alyan, “it is a commitment to truth-seeking. Especially in the face of distortion, erasure, blackout, censorship.” 

Layla tells me that witnessing and engaging with the content is also a way of resisting for her, now that she lives in the West, and faces racism and silencing. “We can feel that no one cares, and I have been silenced on every front. The university is shutting down our student groups. The law school is doing the same. They are saying: we don’t want to hear it, or you will lose your job. And now even the Instagram algorithm is silencing me. I got shadow-banned recently,” she says, echoing the experiences of many. 

There is something dystopian about the dissonant experience, so many people from the Arab diaspora are going through. Jude thinks we’re “edging towards a Huxleyan dystopia.” That Big Brother doesn’t need to watch and surveil everyone anymore because people don’t care anymore. 

“We’ve seen houses destroyed. I’ve seen images that will never leave my brain. And it’s something that people have access to. Despite that, there is a dissonance between the people who are seeing these things and the people who are making the decisions.” 

For Jude, this, in a sense, echoes what Huxley is saying in his work: in a world where everything is accessible, we would think that people would be more worried about surveillance. And it’s a real fear. But the real enemy, the real thing to fear right now, rather seems to be indifference. 

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

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