As the bloody war in Gaza rages on, so does a digital struggle for control of the geopolitical narrative surrounding it. Now, a number of prominent pro-Palestine creators and influencers are baffled by a clumsy campaign to get them to support Israel on social media.
On Wednesday, Issa Tweimeh, a Palestinian-American musician who goes by “twaimz” and has nearly 4.5 million YouTube followers, tweeted an image of a brief he received via email from an Israeli grassroots group called Hostages and Missing Families Forum, writing, “emailing this to someone who is literally palestinian is crazy…especially in an age of information where you can clearly understand who has been wronged for decades.” The document requests participation in an online campaign to “raise awareness of the difficult situation in Israel” and “the war against terrorism” with the use of the hashtags #HamasisISIS and #StandWithIsrael.
“They included in their email that they would repost me to boost my engagement, which to me is worth nothing,” Tweimeh tells Rolling Stone. “An influencer who is uneducated about this topic and wants more followers and engagement, they could look at an email like this and follow through with their requests. That is very scary and dystopian to think about.”
Of course, Hostages and Missing Families Forum — a group created in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, when the militia group killed hundreds of Israelis and abducted an estimated 200 hostages — is understandably trying to bring focus to the plight of relatives and loved ones who have been taken captive. Most members can’t even be sure whether an abducted child, parent or partner is still alive. But in their anguished outreach, they’ve inadvertently solicited creators sympathetic to Palestinians, like Tweimeh, who have taken to their platforms to call out what they see as an inappropriate manipulation of the influencer economy. The fraught dynamic reflects the perils of seeking to steer public discussion of the war and its victims.
Shompa Kabir, a TikTok chef who shared a fundraising link for aid to Gaza, was likewise shocked to receive the message from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. “My jaw literally dropped when I got this in my email,” she said in a video on Wednesday. “What kind of campaign is this?” Kapir added in the caption of her TikTok, which continued, “Just because im not palestinian im obliged to do this? I was a little scared of sharing this, but as someone who has been given the small platform I have, this should not be ignored.” Kabir did not return a request for further comment from Rolling Stone.
According to the international newswire the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israeli families of those who went missing in the initial Hamas attack first established a WhatsApp group, then began to organize as the Hostages and Missing Families Forum to advocate on behalf of their relatives. The coalition’s website includes pictures of the missing with their names and ages, a timer showing how long the hostages have been held so far, a link for donations, and social media images optimized for Facebook and Instagram featuring the slogan “Bring Them Home Now!” in English and Hebrew. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment about their mission or messaging strategy.
As of a week ago, the forum was pushing for a meeting with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about what he would do to ensure the safe return of their loved ones. He finally met with members on Oct. 15, but the summit proved contentious as attendees argued about whether a strong retaliation against Hamas should be prioritized over the safety of the hostages. Also contributing to the rocky relationship between the Forum and Netanyahu’s government are hawkish comments like those from Israeli National Security Council chief Tzachi Hanegbi, who said the day before the meeting that “Israel will not hold negotiations with an enemy that we have vowed to wipe from the face of the earth.” The group of families accused him of “effectively saying” that Israel is “abandoning its citizens who have been kidnapped,” and had to be personally assured by Netanyahu that this was not the case.
In the meantime, however, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum has found influential allies abroad, like the U.S.-based National Council of Jewish Women, which now maintains a website calling for “international pressure” to release the hostages and to provide them with humanitarian and medical aid until they are freed. “Innocent individuals ought not be used as bargaining chips for any cause or purpose,” reads the text of a joint letter now signed by celebrities including Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Mandy Moore, Regina Spektor, and Amy Schumer. This is in addition to a letter condemning Hamas signed by 700 Hollywood figures including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Pine, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Celebrities including Kim Kardashian, Madonna, Kylie Jenner, and Schumer, are name-dropped in the outreach email from the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which touts them as “top influencers and creators” already supporting the group’s cause.
Yet social media posts from young, popular online creators have a different sort of impact than statements rubber-stamped by an assortment of A-list entertainers — particularly as a clash of misinformation and propaganda plays out with alarming speed on the internet. And the families forum isn’t alone in soliciting pro-Israel content.
Influencer Cara Watson, who is rapidly rebuilding her TikTok presence after being accidentally locked out of her 400,000-plus follower account when her last phone broke, claimed that a brand she’d partnered with to produce sponsored content — one unconnected to the group advocating on behalf of kidnapped Israelis — “really tried to pay me to change my opinion.”
Watson claimed that this company, which she did not name, sent an email indicating they no longer wished to work with her after she posted a photo from a pro-Palestine march on her Instagram account. The brand then offered to pay her “basically double the amount that we agreed on” if she took down the picture and publicly announced that she no longer supported Palestine, Watson alleged in her TikTok — which has since been taken down, but remains available on X, formerly Twitter. In a follow-up post, Watson claimed that she did not personally delete the video, and that TikTok had removed it from the platform. “[I] still stand by everything [I] said in the previous video,” the new video clarified.
“In what actual right mind do you think that you can buy my morals?” Watson had said in the clip deleted from TikTok. “They really wanted me to come online and be like, ‘Yeah I’m actually okay with these innocent people [dying].’”
“I support Palestine,” she had added. “If you want to unfollow me because of this, that’s fine. If other brands don’t want to work with me because of this, that’s also okay. There’s quite clearly bigger problems in the world.” Watson did not return a request for further comment.
The drive to win over hearts and minds online extends well beyond major influencers. The Israeli government previously took out dozens of ads on social media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter, and mobile gaming apps, attempting to garner support from users in the United States and Europe.
One ad, stylized to look like a children’s cartoon featuring rainbows and winged unicorns raised concerns that the advertisement, which mentioned the death of 40 Israeli infants, was being shown on YouTube content for children. “NOW HUG YOUR BABY AND STAND WITH US,” the ad told parents. Google clarified to Rolling Stone that the ad had later been reviewed and was no longer being shown on videos for young audiences.
Regardless, there’s a growing sentiment among some observers that this kind of pervasive online messaging from pro-Israel organizations is not only inappropriate, but an attempt to leverage social media as they seek to justify what many view as an unjust military occupation — and excessive violence against a civilian population. Even those terrified families looking out for the wellbeing and rescue of relatives held hostage, who have an undeniable reason to speak up, risk alienating potential supporters by pushing hashtags with a militaristic bent, or approaching the wrong creators for help.
“To any influencers who might have received this email, do yourself a favor and listen to a professional speaking about the struggles of being a Palestinian,” Tweimeh tells Rolling Stone. “It’s all over Tiktok, Twitter, Instagram, anywhere on social media. The information is all there, so please don’t give in to misinformation and propaganda like this.”