Featuring Tel Aviv and West Bank “stories” this past week, the popular smartphone app Snapchat took a dramatic step in the direction that many social media tools seem to be heading – a much greater emphasis on story telling and the inevitable politics that come with it.
Snapchat is a smartphone app that allows users to share photos and video clips. It originally only allowed users to send pictures and short videos back and forth to friends, but last year Snapchat introduced a feature whereby a group of users located in the same city or attending the same event can share snippets of their experience with the world. The catch? Snapchat gets to decide which locales and which events to feature, and which of the myriad user-submitted photos and video clips to include in the public “story.” Never before has Snapchat’s role as content editor been scrutinized the way it has in the days following the Tel Aviv and West Bank stories.
Having recently returned to the US after spending over a year working in Palestine, you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the app was featuring the West Bank on Thursday. My initial reaction as I cycled through the collection of clips was simply to smile. I recognized a man working at one of my favorite felafel shops in Bethlehem. And a video of young boys playing soccer in Dheisheh refugee camp was for me a vivid flashback to similar matches I’d pass by on a daily basis in the graffitied alleys of Azza camp, just miles away, where I lived with a host family in 2014. It was quite surreal to suddenly be given a window into a place I’d so recently lived, with familiar faces, foods, landmarks, and activities.
So when I saw a few Twitter users criticizing the Snapchat story for its under-emphasis of the Israeli occupation, at first I felt a little defensive.
.@Snapchat responds to outrage over Tel Aviv story w/ West Bank story. Israeli occupation soldiers are mysteriously absent.
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) July 9, 2015
While journalist Rania Khalek was right that no shots of soldiers were included, I countered that the occupation was in fact present in a few snaps, with shots of Israeli settlements, the separation wall, checkpoints, and refugee camps.
However, the more I watched the West Bank Snapchat story, the more I agreed that it was being crafted to downplay the occupation and the ongoing struggle that is daily life for many Palestinians.
The social media user Zalameh, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who prefers not to be named, told Mondoweiss that while he was happy the West Bank was being featured, he felt Snapchat was “filtering” the harsh reality of occupation.
The West Bank story was “an avenue for people to learn about the reality of life under occupation for a people struggling for their freedom, equality, and justice,” Zalameh said.
But he was “disappointed that this reality did not come across more clearly as it is ever so present in life here.”
“My posts … were not featured. I made several submissions. Which shows they were probably filtering content which they deemed political,” Zalameh said.
While symbols of occupation were visible in parts of the story (indeed, their omnipresence in the West Bank make them nigh impossible to avoid) their impact on Palestinians appeared to be negligible, if at all a factor. For the most part, Snapchat selected clips of Palestinians in carefree, happy-go-lucky moods. While I’m sure some sought to use the opportunity to publicly address the Israeli occupation and its ruinous effects on Palestinian economy, resources, freedom of movement, and more, no snaps like this made it through to the story. In fact, even the word Palestine seems to have been considered too controversial, with locals instead only referring to the “West Bank.”
SNAPCHAT – Don’t filter the occupation. #WestBankLive
— ISM Palestine (@ISMPalestine) July 9, 2015
However, Ammar Owaineh, a 24-year-old Snapchat user from Bethlehem, told Mondoweiss that he was largely satisfied with the story.
“I think overall it humanizes Palestinians in the West Bank and shows there is more to their life than what is usually seen on the news,” Owaineh said.
“I think it shows a small portion of what life in the West Bank is like, but it’s not fair to expect more from a six-minute video,” he added, referring to the approximate length of the entire Snapchat story.
In the story, Palestinians showed off the cities of Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus, taking users on 10-second tours of historic sites. They took pride in their cuisine, displaying knafeh, qatayef, falafel, and a full-on iftar dinner at the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. The cultural aspect of the West Bank Snapchat story certainly blew the Tel Aviv story out of the water.
Owaineh told Mondoweiss he was personally happy the story didn’t focus so much on occupation – in fact, he even found some of the snaps too political. Indeed, Palestinians need not be defined by occupation, and their sumud, or perseverance, in the face of it is famous. I certainly hope that shined through for Snapchat users unfamiliar with the Palestinian struggle.
But for me, beyond the surface, the story left much to be desired. In its selection of content, Snapchat left the occupation seeming like an elephant in the room, present but not named, and certainly not decried. One user showed off what she called a “beautiful” view – it was in fact beautiful, but the landscape was cut off by the Israeli separation wall. Additionally, the West Bank story, by its nature, was limited mainly to the upper echelons of Palestinian society – English speakers, smartphone users, nearly all of them living in Area A. As Israeli restrictions on cell towers in the West Bank do not allow Palestinian mobile companies to offer 3G/4G, users must have either uploaded from areas with wi-fi or been in possession of Israeli SIM cards, which, given the abundance of Jewish-only settlements, work throughout most of the occupied territory. Likely a few Palestinians took to Snapchat to discuss this very fact, but none of these snaps were selected.
Backlash to Tel Aviv Snapchat Story
Additionally, it bothered me that the West Bank Snapchat story seems to have come only as a response to social media backlash following the Tel Aviv story that was featured a few days prior. Many felt it was inappropriate for Snapchat to air the Tel Aviv story on the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Israel’s most recent offensive on the Gaza Strip, which killed some 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children.
In the Tel Aviv story, young Israelis were represented as fun-loving, beach-going, peace-promoting people – a far cry from their roles as the occupying soldiers their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank see on a daily basis. The story also included little in the way of representation of marginalized members of Israeli society such as Palestinian citizens or African refugees. Images of the historic Palestinian port city of Jaffa, referred to in the story by its Hebrew name, were depicted in a way that +972 Magazine says “reproduces the urbicide of this once-thriving Palestinian city in favor of a narrative that ‘keeps the peace.’” In addition, a few of the snaps presented foods like felafel and shawarma as typical Israeli meals, without any reference to their Arab origin. Israelis seemed to be using the Snapchat story as a way to show off appropriated Palestinian culture and locales, claiming them as their own without a second thought.
Twitter users demanded that Snapchat give Palestinians the opportunity to share a day in the life on “the other side of the wall.”
— بن ثالث (@iBinThaleth) July 7, 2015
The next day, many critics of the Tel Aviv story wholeheartedly welcomed Snapchat’s announcement that there would be a West Bank story, claiming it as a social media victory in which their voices had been heard.
All in all, in its live features of Tel Aviv and the West Bank, Snapchat seemed to be doing its best to appeal to wide audience, all while performing the cautious balancing act of controversy-free inclusivity. Unfortunately, the framing of the back-to-back stories had the uncomfortable effect of presenting two societies, separate but equal, both enjoying themselves in a conflict-free world. As we know, this is quite far from the case.