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Social Media Journalism in the Face of McCarthyite Political Suppression

Social Media Journalism in the Face of McCarthyite Political Suppression

As an Iranian, I know that posting on social media can be very influential in the face of political suppression. Last year, when I could not go to Iran to protest the Islamic Republic’s gender apartheid, I addressed that sense of helplessness through journalism and protesting. If it were not for social media, so much of what has gone on in Iran and now Palestine would never make the news. We relied on WhatsApp messages and Instagram posts. When the protest movement in Iran last year did receive press coverage, it diminished the movement. The New York Times published an article addressing the “failing” protests in Iran and the immaturity of social media activism. We only had “one thing going for [us]: the prominent role of women on [our] frontlines.”

The momentum gained last year in Iran was largely due to Iranians becoming their own journalists by blogging and posting on social media. This is because the Islamic Republic government arrests and censors Iranian journalists, controls the press, and cuts off the Internet. The Islamic Republic has come to know the Internet as both a space that displays the liberties breached by the IRI and a platform for popular resistance. Iranians who participated or spoke at protests, and shared content online gave up the right to go back under the current regime. Going would mean being interrogated with an archive of articles and digital surveillance of Iranians’ anti-government protests. 

Social media often is not, and should not be, the only form or main form of news. However, when it comes to the Middle East, social media journalism is usually our only source when Western media has its own politics and our governments in the Middle East are censoring its citizens.

In an interview with BBC, Husam Zomlot addresses the reporting surrounding Palestine. “If anyone needs to be condemned,” he tells the anchor, “it’s what you call the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’ How many times have you interviewed Israel’s officials? Hundreds of times. How many times have Israel committed war crimes live on your cameras? Do you start by asking them to condemn themselves? Have you? You don’t…This business by BBC, by mainstream media…For 75 years, you bring us here when there are Israelis who are killed. Did you bring me here when many Palestinians [were killed] in the West Bank over the last few months?” Zomlot is a Palestinian ambassador to the UK and Head of the Palestinian Mission. He was interviewed on October 8th, as Palestine and Israel were already in the news regarding Hamas’s attack.

Zomlot continues. “Do you invite me when there are such Israeli provocations in Jerusalem and elsewhere? What Israelis have seen, which we started by saying is tragic, in the last 48 hours, the Palestinians see every day for the last 78 years…I’m saying this just to say: Perhaps, it is about time we abandon this very dangerous rhetoric and framework.” 

The morning after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack from the Gaza strip that killed 1,400 Israelis on October 7th, Ha’aretz—Israel’s largest and main liberal news outlet—published a damning and powerful editorial calling out Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government for the massacre. The article read, “The disaster that befell Israel is the clear responsibility of one person: Benjamin Netanyahu.” Netanyahu “completely failed to identify the dangers he was consciously leading Israel into when establishing a government of annexation and dispossession” and “embracing a foreign policy that openly ignored the existence and rights of Palestinians.” 

Since then, anyone who is outspoken against Israel and the United States’ funding of Israel dares to be marked by current McCarthy-like political suppression of the US government and mainstream media. New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently revealed the state has increased surveillance of “what’s being said on social media platforms.” Islamophobia and antisemitism should never be tolerated and always monitored. Since solidarity with Palestinian liberation and anti-Zionism have been equated with antisemitism and inciting violence, Hochul’s announcement may be draconian when applied to Palestinian social media journalism. A New York Times editor resigned, instead of being fired, because her public protest went against their policy. The uneasiness in the newsroom follows a matter earlier this year over independent journalism and activism, where Times staffers publicly aligned themselves with resistance against the magazine’s transgender coverage. This policy at the NYT Magazine is such that writers and reporters remain “neutral observers in covering the news.” 

Along with the censorship within Western newsrooms, and the ensuing self-censorship, Palestinian civilians have assumed the role of journalists over social media platforms. Israel has also cut off phone and internet services multiple times and has a record of targeting journalists. Because of this, some Palestinians in America cannot go home because that would mean getting through Israeli surveilled border control.

Over the past decade, the movement for Palestinian freedom has become larger than ever. At the same time, this increasing momentum has been met with political suppression, such as blacklists, doxing, and smear campaigns. I, along with many other Instagram users, have also been censored, shadow banned, and unable to upload or repost content coming out of Gaza. Social media can absolutely amplify misinformation and news can go unchallenged. However, it’s Western mainstream media that continuously defines the narrative––even the most supposedly liberal. There are news outlets that publish articles from freelance writers condemning Israel and US policy. Reporters and journalists contracted for a media company, however, do not have that freedom. Dylan Saba was originally commissioned by an editor at The Guardian to write about the surge of suppression towards political speech for Palestinian freedom. Minutes before it was set to be published, Saba was emailed by the opinion desk that his article on censorship would not air because of political suppression. Even the word usage in news headlines and throughout articles have an overwhelming slant towards Israel. For example, “killed” is used for Israelis but “died” for Palestinians when both were killed. Former Israeli PM and journalist of 31 years, Yair Lapid, accused media organizations who are “objective” as “[serving] Hamas.” 

Anyone summoned by Western media to address what is unfolding in Gaza knows the framing within which each question will be asked, and that they can answer. Journalists from Western media outlets are barred from entering Gaza, unless through the Israeli Defense Forces and all reporting is fully contingent on the IDF’s curation and censorship of the content. CNN confirms, “As a condition to enter Gaza under IDF escort, outlets have to submit all materials and footage to the Israeli military for review prior to publication. CNN has agreed to these terms.” Israel has also paid $1.5 million in internet advertisements since October 7th to ensure Israeli propaganda. Journalists in Gaza are being killed and journalists in the West are being fired. These terminations come after writing about Palestinian resistance on social media, or even liking pro-Palestinian posts. The New York Times, Associated Press, and BBC are just a few of the newsrooms that penalize journalists refusing to abide by the ongoing bias across U.S. news media. These measures are not being applied to Israelis, Jewish people, and their allies who like, post, or comment in approval for Israel and US aid to them. 

Such McCarthyite aggression may be meant to stunt the Palestinian solidarity movement’s momentum, but it just confirms the power of the people. Palestinians have been videotaped calling out Western journalists for journalistic malpractice by mainstream media. An internal State Department memo signed by 100 members that accuses President Biden of misinformation was leaked. The US House of Representatives censured the only Palestinian lawmaker for calling for Palestinian liberation. 

Some days you cannot post or share. You cannot report. You cannot write articles. Your hands are just too shaky and eyes too weary from reporting the atrocities committed against your people. It is gut-wrenching hearing people scream in my language through my phone screen. Whenever there are photos and videos of faceless bodies on the street from bombings, dismembered children, and haunting cries through our phones, I think of my mom. In 2021, during yet another Israeli aggression towards Palestinians, she said simply of footage circulating on social media, “That was my childhood.” Being in the diaspora, I may not have lived the experiences, but I have the memories. My heart bleeds and my blood boils for my Palestinian cousins. 

In a moment when journalists have been under attack and a blockade on electricity and connectivity severely limits the reportage, our posts matter. Our stories on social media matter. Our boycott matters. Our protests matter. Keep talking, keep protesting, keep posting, keep challenging Western news outlets. As a queer Iranian woman, every right I have has been granted through public protest. We cannot write a free Palestine into reality, but together we can do everything possible to challenge the current narrative.


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