How and why we care about the world’s many catastrophes is puzzling. During the hottest phase of the Gaza assault this summer, my Twitter feed (admittedly not a random sample) exploded with news, photos, outrage and analysis of the conflict. Empathy was on the march. At the same time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the extremists taking control of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, was gaining at an alarming clip and massacring hundreds of Iraqis, expelling Christians from Mosul, and threatening to upend the Iraqi state. ISIS’s advances and mayhem were vastly more consequential than what was occurring in Gaza, yet the attention to ISIS in social media was far less than what was accorded to Israelis and Palestinians. Why?
Hillary Clinton raised some hackles last week in her interview in The Atlantic, when she alleged that the attention to Gaza could be a result of anti-Semitism. “You can’t ever discount anti-Semitism,” she said. “There’s something else at work here than what you see on TV.” This is a provocative charge, though one often heard during Israeli conflicts.
I became intrigued by this issue while observing the U.S. war in Iraq. Iraqis were dying in large numbers, but Americans evinced little concern. This indifference to Iraqi suffering, I reasoned, stemmed from the war going awry, with much greater violence than expected, and the public in effect turned its back on the entire fiasco.
In summer 2006, Israel conducted a short but deadly operation in Lebanon, bombing Beirut’s Shiite neighborhoods where the militant Hezbollah nested. The news media focused on this conflict much more than the ongoing war in Iraq then experiencing its peak of violence. About 1,100 Lebanese people, mostly civilians, were killed in that 34-day episode; in Iraq that summer, that number of people were killed in less than a week. A similar kind of attention was accorded Syrian civilian casualties in the civil war raging since 2012. Stories about civilian suffering in Syria in 2012 in the New York Times were 400 percent more frequent than stories about Iraqi suffering in 2006.
In both of these cases, I attribute the increased attention to Lebanon and Syria to the fact that those were not “our” wars. Iraq was our war, and our unwillingness to come to terms with the scale of misery rose from that fact. Lebanon and Syria could earn our critical attention without guilt.
This could explain part of the phenomenon we’re seeing today with regard to Gaza. But it is the contrast to other human-made catastrophes that makes attention to Gaza truly striking. TWEET Consider this graphic from Topsy, a service that tracks tweets on Twitter. It shows the number of tweets for each of three conflicts: Gaza, Iraq and Syria. Tweets don’t necessarily reflect empathy, but they’re an indicative proxy.
Syria flatlined at about 22,500 tweets per day from July 15 to Aug. 14, even though it is the font of ISIS and its civil war continues to rage. Gaza earned in that same month some 437,000 tweets per day, 20 times more than Syria. During that time, Syrian violence was high, with the strong likelihood that at least as many Syrians died in their conflict as did Gazans in theirs. As catalogued by The Economist, a similar disparity is reflected in Google searches.
Iraq is also relatively ignored, apart from the first two days when the U.S. began to apply airpower to aid the Kurds and Yazidis. Even then, the total tweets were well below the average number for Gaza; overall, for that same month, Iraq spurs 67,000 tweets per day, about 15 percent of Gaza’s average.
What accounts for this disparity? Scientific studies regard empathy as a response to people like us; we “feel their pain” because we can easily imagine ourselves in their shoes. The root of empathy or compassion toward strangers who are not like us — for most Americans, that would include just about everyone in Gaza, Syria and Iraq — is harder to pinpoint. Some researchers believe it to be related to “nurturance,” i.e., “the impulse to care for and protect offspring.”
This would track well with the thousands of images of women and children hurt by Israeli bombing in Gaza. Another academic study says “compassion that the audience expresses is often directly related to the documentary pictures they have seen on television.” The evening news broadcasts on NBC and CBS, for example, gave the topic “Gaza and civilians” more than twice as much coverage as Ukraine’s and Iraq’s civilian losses. Newspaper coverage leaned markedly toward Gaza, as did “All Things Considered.”
The media’s attention to Israel and Gaza is partly wrought by the long familiarity with that conflict — news editors know the players, the talking heads, the history. Syria and Iraq are messier, more difficult to cover. (Syria was getting ample attention in 2013, when the U.S. threatened war, but still not at the Gaza magnitude.) More U.S. activists are connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, too. And the U.S. connection — our $3 billion annual military aid to Israel — spurs additional attention, even guilt, among many who are engaged with the issue.
So empathy should be understood in a context — the preconditions or antecedents that draw attention to a conflict. Emotional responses then take over.
It’s these structural reasons that account for the empathy explosion toward Gaza, not anti-Semitism. And for the foreseeable future, this structure of empathy is likely to persist.