The Gaza Watershed: How History Will Remember Our First Social Media War

Maxxe Albert-Deitch is Americans for Peace Now's Strategic Communications Coordinator. Prior to joining APN, she worked as a historian, focusing on research and projects engaging in ethnohistory, archaeology, and conflict transformation in Israel and Palestine. She earned a Master’s degree in History from the College of William and Mary, as well as Bachelor’s degrees in Art History, History, and Anthropology from Drew University.

Many of us have heard the phrase “history is written by the victors” so many times that we assume it to be true. But that sentence, no matter how easily it rolls off the tongue, doesn’t quite explain the reality of how certain stories become cemented into a collective consciousness and eventually written down in a book as though they have always been the unimpeachably correct, most incontrovertible versions of themselves.

The actual events of history matter, but the facts often aren’t as determinative as how a given story frames them. Once a specific framework is established and generally agreed upon, it becomes remarkably difficult to separate that framework from those facts. I find myself thinking about that lesson daily, as I look at how we—American consumers of national and international news—are learning about and processing the events of the war between Israel and Hamas.

In the field of history, we talk about watershed moments—inflection points that changed the way we think about and understand our world. The Vietnam War, in particular, comes to mind: Vietnam was ‘the first television war” or “living room war.” US viewers watched, in close to real-time, as a war they’d been told would be worthwhile proved to be dangerous, bloody, and at the expense of many, many more lives than anyone had initially expected.  Some facts (that we had sent in soldiers to try to save a democracy and fight back against communism) no longer mattered as much as others: that over 3.5 million people, half of them civilians, were dead. The framing that took hold and stuck? That we went to war because of America’s ego, and everyone lost.

As the history I know goes, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Walter Cronkite voiced aloud that he doubted the validity of US officials’ claims of military progress in Vietnam. Then-President Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term. There was no further surge of US troops. Eventually, at Richard Nixon’s order, soldiers came home.

Now, we don’t even have to go into our living rooms. The news now lives on our laptops, in our hands, blinking notifications up from smartwatches on our wrists. In a wholly digital world, we have no off-switch.

We are experiencing another watershed moment. The Gaza War is one of the first to play out over our social media. The first images and videos of the victims of the October 7 massacre were first released not by the Israeli government, but by civilians, who posted on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok as they searched for their missing loved ones—hours before any official count of missing or dead people was tabulated. Then, Hamas released videos and photos of their kidnapped victims. Messages circulated on social media platforms around the world to keep kids away from screens, to have a therapist’s number or a hotline on hand before opening the apps. But the photos and videos were released nonetheless, direct-to-consumer, bypassing official news channels entirely.

And now, as the horrors of the war continue—as men, women, and children in Gaza starve and the Israeli military bombs Gaza with weapons sent by the United States government, individual people document what is left of their lives. They livestream themselves rationing un-milled flour and expired canned goods. A woman recorded a video as she chopped the matted length of her once-long hair, noting that she no longer had the ability to keep it clean unless she deprived her siblings of the water they needed to survive.

Depending on which framing one accepts, some unquestionable facts—that Hamas committed horrific acts of violence, that they kidnapped civilians and took them hostage —may not, in the long run, end up reflected in history quite as much as other facts: that October 7th was an intelligence failure on the part of the Israeli government and military officials who ignored warnings from their own staffs. That the Israeli government refuses to allow humanitarian aid into the cramped quarters they’ve forced battered Palestinian families into. That Hamas has not released, nor has Israel rescued, many of the hostages. That Israel squandered the sympathy of the world on a brutal, vengeful, and ultimately aimless war.

We remember Cronkite for telling the truth about Vietnam. And while it is true that Nixon brought American troops home, history ultimately does not remember him for that act.

We’re not Cronkite. But, as individuals in the social media age, we each sit in the anchor chairs of our own social media newsrooms. In this watershed moment, we have a responsibility to decide: what framing of the facts will we accept? We must reject the paradigm that a war over grief, power, and ego can supersede basic concerns about human rights and civilian casualties– be they Israeli or Palestinian.