Israel’s war with Hamas is part of a more extensive information war with a global, networked tribe. Israel is losing that larger struggle. You can gauge the status of this long war in the results of a recent poll (one of many that say the same thing), taken just after the October 7 terrorist attack. Asked whether Israel’s response to the Hamas attack was fully justified, 81 percent of Americans over age 65 said that it was; for those aged 50–64, 56 percent agreed; ages 35–49, 44 percent; and for ages 18–34, only 27 percent agreed.
This result represents a dramatic shift from the findings of similar polls taken less than a decade ago, in which well over half of the people surveyed in all age brackets were sympathetic to Israel. The reason for this shift, I believe, is networked tribalism.
The effectiveness of networked tribalism tells us that Israel is on track to lose U.S. support in less than a generation. It also tells us, due to the mechanics of networked tribalism and its effectiveness at waging moral warfare, that the U.S. won’t just be unsupportive of Israel; it will be antagonistic to it.
Until recently, Israel was able, with the support of citizens and others living abroad, to control to a significant degree the flow of information and the moral framing of its wars. This helped provide Israel with the steady backing from Western governments and their institutional media—ranging from financial aid to weapons to military intervention to diplomatic cover—that the nation needs to survive. That control is disappearing.
Networked tribalism has rapidly emerged to wage moral warfare in opposition to Israel. We have seen it drive rapid shifts in consequential public perception in the recent past, at both domestic and international levels, in situations ranging from anti-racism (Black Lives Matter) to anti-Russia/Putin/fascism (Ukraine). Tribal moral warfare bypasses traditional media by directly delivering information and moral framing to people using social networks. It has proved highly effective at persuading—and coercing—traditional media companies into alignment with its preferred moral frames.
Networked tribalism is a new phenomenon, derived from changes (including changes to our neural wiring that we struggle to understand) in how we process information and connect with others online. Here’s a simplified model to understand how it works.
Empathy trigger. We see a video, picture, or story depicting victims of aggression (the more horrific, the more effective). We become involuntarily connected with the victim when we see empathy triggers in our information feeds (think George Floyd).
Moral framing (tribal pattern matching). Networked tribes, built to wage war online, put these empathy triggers into a moral frame and then amplify them, spreading them across the network. These frames demonstrate that the aggressor fits the pattern of behavior for the existential threat in question (racism, sexism, fascism, and so forth).
Fictive kinship. When people see tribally framed empathy triggers, they instantly forge a fictive kinship with the victim. Suddenly, for those affected, it wasn’t some poor child in a distant land killed in a conflict but a child in their extended family, neighborhood, or country, killed by pure evil.
This mechanism allows networked tribalism to scale very quickly. In Israel’s case, this mechanism is turning people around the world, unrelated to the participants in real life, into active partisans.
Networked tribal warfare is a total war, in which solutions and compromise aren’t on the table, and peaceful outcomes are anathema. In networked warfare, the sides are absolute good vs. absolute evil, oppressor vs. oppressed, peaceful citizens vs. terrorists. The opposition isn’t even human; they are the personification of evil.
When networked tribalism fully ignites, political debate and rational discussion become impossible, since the sides can’t even agree on basic facts. Every fact presented by the opposition is viewed as a deception or an attack. Also, since networked tribes come together only to wage war against a foe, they won’t acknowledge, or even “see,” the evil acts of their side.
Finally, networked tribes are maximalists. They can imagine only the destruction of the opposition; they will support everything necessary to achieve that.
The problem for Israel and those who support it is that this isn’t a fair fight. The tribal anti-colonialist narrative serving as the basis for this networked conflict is already widely accepted globally. Until recently, though, this narrative had little effect when used against Israel. That changed in 2021, during the last conflict with Gaza. Here’s what I wrote then:
What happened? Israel lost a significant battle in an online war they didn’t know they were fighting. As we know, online tribes have formed to oppose patterns of behavior seen as racist, sexist, colonialist, fascist, and more. These tribes have successfully waged moral warfare against corporations and institutions to coerce them into alignment with their views.
When this war began, the traditional media and the government administration reflexively provided support for Israel’s Gaza defense narrative. In the networked world, Israel’s aggressive military action became fodder for a plethora of empathy triggers (like the George Floyd video). Moreover, these empathy triggers rapidly became definitive evidence of a pattern of evil behavior—from colonialist violence directed at an indigenous population to racist mob violence directed at Arab citizens of Israel. At that moment, for millions of people, Israel became evil unto itself—a pariah state.
This new, tribal narrative routed around . . . tepid establishment support, as if it didn’t exist, to establish itself. Now that networked tribal opposition is in place, traditional sources of narrative support will evaporate under withering tribal pressure.
I got some pushback on this after I wrote it. The counterclaim was that fighting anti-Semitism was so integral for the Left that an anti-Israel tribal effort couldn’t form there. How many would make that argument today?
Currently, the tribe at war with Israel is multiplying, bypassing or coercing the major media into alignment with its stance. Due to the reach of social networking (in most countries, people now get most of their news from online sources, particularly in younger demographics), it is manufacturing partisans worldwide.
By contrast, Israel’s networked support is smaller in number, more established, significantly older, and less adept at online warfare. There have been exceptions to this characterization, but not that many. One recent example was the online vilification and doxing of the signatories of a statement made by Harvard activist groups justifying Hamas’s terrorism, which led to many of the signatories withdrawing their support of the document.
This incident and others like it have led to a shift in the focus of the tribe at war with Israel. It is now characterizing itself as being anti-Israel. This shift may seem minor, but it is significant, since it allows the tribe to avoid the difficulties posed by being pro-Palestinian, anti-Jew, or (even) anti-Israeli. The tribe supporting Israel hasn’t been able to settle on an unburdened target for its war, which forces it to shift between providing justification for Israel’s actions, fighting Hamas, and justifying the death of Palestinian civilians.
As the online tribal war against Israel continues to expand, the country may soon find itself isolated and unable to provide adequately for its security or that of the Jewish diaspora. One potential avenue of expansion is the mainstreaming of anti-Israel tribalism as part of corporate and government diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. That expansion began with a recent announcement by Vice President Kamala Harris: “Taking on hate is a national priority. Today, the POTUS and I are announcing the country’s first National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia. This action is the latest step forward in our work to combat a surge of hate in America.”
Almost inevitably, as this effort diffuses into implementation, the anti-Israel tribe and its supporters will slowly seek to coerce it into alignment with its focus, turning support for Israel and its policies into a litmus test for Islamophobia. After that, it won’t be long until a push occurs to fold this litmus test into corporate hiring and college admissions decisions, organizational diversity training, financial investment decisions, and consumer purchasing behavior. Once that occurs, the war against Israel would be over.
Until then, the online tribal war will oscillate between intense activity and inactivity. As we are seeing with Ukraine, it will ebb in the years after a violent event, as new events arise to distract the online tribes. However, every new military action that Israel undertakes in the future will pulse this war again. It will provide the anti-Israel tribe with a new source of empathy triggers for growing the tribe, coercing companies and countries into disconnecting Israel, and igniting new attacks, protests, and riots. It is dangerously unfavorable terrain for Israel’s future security.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images