The web is a noisy place where disinformation abounds and dialogue often devolves into name-calling. This is especially true for Israel's “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, which has killed more than 1,865 and wounded nearly 9,500 Palestinians.
Best-selling Jewish-American writer Naomi Wolf is trying to cut through the noise on her personal Facebook page. She and her more than 79,000 followers (and growing) are curating and verifying news as well as sifting through the propaganda and media bias.
Her page has become an unrelenting feed of crowdsourced information on the bombardment in Gaza as well as a place where respectful discussion is encouraged. On Aug. 4, she wrote:
Leaving you with this tonight. Taking 24 hours off to process (and recover a bit from) this very difficult two weeks. Please follow and post from Mohammed Omer, Denny Cornier, HRW, and pls post news events we care about and do that great community moderating. Four million strong for a better world, salaam shalom.
BY DENISE LEVERTOV
A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
As more and more innocent Gazans have died in the bombings and schools, neighborhoods, hospitals and shelters have become targets, the Israeli propaganda machine has worked hard to characterize the assault as justified self-defense against Hamas, which has ruled the coastal strip since 2007 under a seven-year blockade from Israel, for firing hundreds of mostly homemade rockets into Israel. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have been killed in fighting in Gaza and three civilians killed in Israel.
Mainstream media have also muddied the online waters with skewed reporting, such as presenting the situation as an evenly matched conflict or mincing words about who's responsible for civilian deaths. The issue of Israel and Palestine was already a topic of heated disagreement, and the latest violence has only made civil debate more difficult.
“In a time when there's so much spin in news and the Muslim world sees one news stream and the Western world sees another news stream and so we'll never understand each other, people from all over the world and as you can tell from the comments every political persuasion and religion are coming to this forum to communicate and also to get a more nuanced picture of the news,” Wolf told Global Voices in an interview.
The outspoken author is perhaps better known for her controversial writings on feminism or her arrest at an Occupy Wall Street protest in New York in 2011 than her involvement in citizen journalism, but the community of amateur reporters on her Facebook page is no accident. Wolf co-founded a citizen reporting platform called DailyCloudt.com two years ago, but demand was so high that the team took it down four months later to revamp the technology, she said.
The website isn't up and running — she promised it would relaunch as soon as possible — but Wolf's personal Facebook page certainly is. She said she sees the page as a kind of beta test for DailyCloudt.com, and hopes to migrate the community of citizen journalists there to the website once it's live again.
Wolf is trying to teach her followers the basics of journalism, such as verifying pieces of information with at least two independent sources. Citizen journalists often spot things before professional journalists do, she said, pointing to her page's early coverage of sanitation issues and the threat of disease in Gaza given the shortage of electricity and clean water. In a difficult reporting environment like Gaza, ”it's very compelling and helpful to teach people how to verify news and how to report the news, and also teach them what isn't news. A Hamas website isn't a news source. An IDF website isn't a news source. [...] There are better and worse sources,” she said.
The page, which Wolf runs with the help of producer Danielle Holke, has steadily grown since the start of the offensive in Gaza on July 8. User engagement has jumped — more than 100 percent in one week — and its reach has expanded to at least 3.6 million users, Wolf said.
A post published on June 22 in which Wolf described walking out of synagogue because of the silence on Gazan deaths was shared more than 14,800 times and helped boost the page's visibility:
Challenged below for why I am mourning genocide in Gaza. I mourn genocide in Gaza because I am the granddaughter of a family half wiped out in a holocaust and I know genocide when I see it. People are asking why I am taking this ‘side'. There are no sides. I mourn all victims. But every law of war and international law is being broken in the targeting of civilians in Gaza. I stand with the people of Gaza exactly because things might have turned out differently if more people had stood with the Jews in Germany. I stand with the people of Gaza because no one stood with us.
The page has also attracted attention for different reasons. Wolf posted on Aug.1 that she had received a warning from Facebook “probably due to the graphic nature of the images that were posted by contributors and citizen journalists, of wounded and dying in Gaza.” The social network had removed a photo that it said violated its standards, she wrote.
Wolf has featured stories that counter common narratives, such as that Hamas uses Gazans as human shields or that no Israelis support peace. Because it's her personal Facebook account and not a page dedicated exclusively to citizen journalism, the lines between opinion and reporting can be blurred – she regularly speaks out against Israel and calls its assault genocide. She has made it clear, however, that there is room for dissenting views as long as people stick to the community guidelines, which encourage people to engage others on the page in a respectful and civil manner.
Commenters regularly debate on the page, and it's no surprise that not everyone agrees. People from across the political and religious spectrum have challenged Wolf. “This ‘all views are welcome’ does nothing but obscure the issues and perpetuate notions that this latest carnage is something debatable. All views do not necessarily warrant a legitimate platform. And in this particular case, it does not at all,” one commenter wrote.
The point isn't that everyone should agree, but that they should communicate. “We the ordinary non-psychopathic people need to keep communicating, keep sharing, keep talking,” another commenter wrote. “When we people stop doing that, that's when evil can get in and prevail.”