Popular media has always been a means for discovering and understanding worldwide conflict. In fact, most of the world has arguably encountered every major global event of the past century through news, television, propaganda, photo, and film. News of the scandalous Iran–Contra Affair exploded in print and ricocheted through TV airways, Vietnam War photography made its way from newspaper to protest poster to Congress, and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were more defined by its infamous imagery than any before.
However, the modern advent of digital social media has fundamentally altered the public’s relationship with global discourse, both democratizing it substantially and opening it up to fragmentation, misinformation, and polarization.
Today, very real instances of conflict with tangible stakes—like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, repression and protest in Iran, and most significantly, violence between Israel and Hamas—have been ripped out of the domain of formal journalism and instead submerged in the much larger, more ephemeral pool of unmitigated Internet discourse. Thanks to its unprecedented accessibility and omnipresent relevance, social media has, as Charlie Warzel put it, “become the window through which the world is witnessing unspeakable violence and cruelty,” and the primary forum for these stories to be contextualized and understood.
In theory, social media’s newfound status as a conduit for wartime communication presents a revolutionary opportunity for real–time information to be easily transmitted and accessed. Indeed, modern instances of “hot” conflict are immediately showcased on platforms like TikTok and X through firsthand video, audio, and imagery, providing news outlets and governments with instantaneous updates that keep coverage relevant and inform strategic action.
Moreover, hopeful perspectives on wartime social media might point to the democratizing function of free–access platforms. Today, anyone connected to the Internet can make their voice heard across millions of miles to millions of diverse listeners with varying perspectives, backgrounds, occupations, and personal connections. The spread of sensitive, controversial, and highly relevant information is no longer mitigated by third–party institutions like mainstream newspapers and governments; instead, a direct line exists between those acutely experiencing global crisis and an international public ready and willing to bear witness. Misinformation, theoretically, can be combated immediately by firsthand proof: Hostages can message family members, besieged communities can broadcast visuals displaying their conditions, and both soldiers and civilians alike can live–stream explanations of what exactly they’ve seen and endured.
In theory, news has never been more accurate, more available, and more equitable. On paper, we’re witnessing an information revolution. So why does it feel more like a mêlée?
It would be an understatement to characterize our current moment as one of immense global unrest. The conflict between Israel and Hamas that began earlier this October represents the worst flare–up of violence and destruction the eternally contentious region has seen in years. An examination of the horizon offers no glimmer of nonviolent resolution; with Israel ramping up its ground campaign in Gaza, the area teeters on the abyss of all–out war, and direct involvement by superpowers like the United States has made the conflict distinctly global.
Unsurprisingly, much of the situation is playing out on social media. Following in the footsteps of Russia and Ukraine’s “TikTok war,” news of violence in Israel and Gaza has come in the form of selfies, blurry video clips, and statements on X and Meta. We’re learning names of hostages as we scroll through Instagram stories, and The New York Times is citing photos that first appeared under #Trending.
Are these individual instances of detailed, immediate coverage useful? Yes, maybe. But is social media working as a wartime battleground and information hub? It certainly doesn’t feel like it.
Pressure situations test the strength of every mechanism, and global warfare certainly isn’t turning digital information technology to diamond. A glance at X or Instagram reveals breakdown, not coherence; valuable information is almost indistinguishable from AI–generated imagery, misattributed evidence, propaganda, and blatant falsehood. The primary status of most social media platforms as profit–oriented content aggregators—“downstream platform[s] for monetizing content”—rather than conduits for firsthand information, means that they aren’t genuinely designed to amplify and center credible reporting and information; they are not, as we’re seeing clearly now, “purpose–built citizen journalism machines.” The increasing focus of most social media platforms on tailored, algorithm–driven promotion decentralizes and automates how users encounter information, prioritizing efficiency, advertising, and sustained engagement over news circulation and even interpersonal communication.
Misinformation has been criticized as endemic to social media for years; particularly during and after the Trump era, pearl–clutching about the destructive effects of unmitigated, unpoliced info–sharing feels constant. But recognition of social media’s inherent inadequacy at handling violence, complexity, serious brutality, and firsthand attestation points to a deeper and more distinct feature of global crisis in the digital information era.
Wartime social media doesn’t just feel unreliable or polarized; it feels genuinely uncanny and emotionally disorienting. What we are fed and how we are fed it is not only upsetting in its own right, but deeply off–putting in its fragmented rawness and alienating in its chaotic sensationalism.
It’s not uncommon for most social media users to have “personally witnessed beheadings and war crimes” through six–inch iPhone screens, in between Facetuned celebrity selfies and arguments over Sunday night football. And this experience is not one of global interpersonal connection or valuable communication across cultural and ideological boundaries. Rather, it’s one of strange overlap between content and reality, advertisement and information, globalization and extreme isolation. Yes, disinformation is a problem; one whose conceivable consequences reach a truly terrifying, world–altering scale. But equally problematic is the potentially permanent effect this new information landscape is having on real–life discourse, communication, and the ways we react to conflict.
Globally, we are becoming increasingly desensitized to crisis and simultaneously bombarded by it. We are encountering the same footage in vastly individualized contexts from each other, framed and packaged by fractured, polarized echo chambers isolated from centralized notions of fact and reality.
And interpersonally, we are confused, upset, wary, and exhausted. Earnest conversations around serious geopolitical issues are often halted in their tracks by emotional fatigue, propaganda–fueled anger, and completely contradictory information landscapes. When conflict is so heavily digitized, with so little grounding and oversight, we find ourselves unmoored from common recognitions of truth, civility, and humanity. And collectively, quietly, we become traumatized by a nonstop cycle of violent language and imagery, incorporated inextricably into the endless feeds made so difficult for us to put down.
In response to this social media breakdown, many are calling for increased regulation of digital platforms to mitigate misinformation and shield users from random, unexpected bombardments of graphic imagery. The European Union’s Digital Services Act and the UK’s Online Safety Bill, passed in August and September respectively, attempt to mandate transparency, algorithm moderation, and active content regulation, and will certainly serve as test cases for the potential salience of regulatory legislation as the Israel–Hamas war rages on.
However, with questions about free speech and private business freedom proving to be a stubborn challenge to any legislative foray into technology–sector problems, combating the chaos of wartime social media cannot be left entirely up to government action, especially not in a nation as regulation–averse as the United States.
If the messy overlap between social media and global warfare is destined to remain part of our “new normal,” learning to cope is also on us. What this looks like is still unclear. Perhaps it means making the effort to have calm, honest, fact–based conversations with our friends, peers, and acquaintances more regularly, inside and outside the classroom. Perhaps it means extending compassion towards one another, rather than just ideological animosity, recognizing the unique, psychologically alienating conditions we’re all being quietly subjected to. Perhaps it means holding our news outlets more accountable, investigating why it is we’ve come to distrust mainstream institutions so heavily when it comes to the dissemination of information. Perhaps, more than anything, it means learning how to close down the timelines and put the apps away, to ground ourselves in empathy and reality by getting some distance from the rapid–fire whirlwind of rash, confusing, unforgiving Internet spats and flare–ups.
Learning how to remain informed while keeping our heads above the water is a task as unclear as it is essential. And since the Internet, artificial intelligence, social media, 21st–century mechanisms of warfare, and today’s general global interconnectedness are all new, we’re in uncharted territory; the way forward will be forged by us. It’s certainly daunting. It’s deeply exhausting. But maybe there’s a way it can be inspiring, too. Maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to establish togetherness, demand responsibility, and advocate empathy—to find each other, amidst the fog of war.