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The Year in ‘Sensitive Content’

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When I open Instagram early in the morning, I might see a monkey nursing her baby, an ad for ribbed leggings, a montage about manifesting a pregnancy and a video of two men tenderly lifting a boy’s body onto a white sheet.

In this video, posted by the Palestinian photographer Belal Khaled, the men hold the boy at his shoulders and his knees. I can feel his lightness in their hands. Before he disappears into the shroud, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck smile at me from his yellow sweatshirt, which looks much like the one tucked into my son’s dresser, bottom left. Across the boy’s chest it says: best friends forever.

Social media is designed to feel random and unpredictable. That’s what makes it so addictive, like a slot machine for feelings. This was the year when its contradictions were heightened to a grotesque level. Monkey baby, soft pants, new life, dead child. I go to Instagram to scroll mindlessly and to share pictures of my children. Now I see the pictures of Gaza’s children there, too.

On Instagram, many of these posts are flagged as “sensitive content” and hidden behind a gray digital sleeve. I pause and then tap them, unveiling videos that feel too terrible and intimate to describe. Instagram explains that when it identifies an image that “some people might find upsetting,” it makes it “harder to find.” I wonder what it means by that. Is the child’s death upsetting, or is it the documentation of his death that is offensive? Maybe it just considers it too jarring, the sight of children’s bodies piled in the plaza of its internet mall. Maybe it’s bad for business.

Before this year, I had not been confronted with many images of dead children. I could count them on a hand. They had appeared in a medical journal, in a Holocaust museum, in a news report on a Syrian toddler who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. On Instagram, the context becomes personal. Images of dead and wounded children are spliced into the highlight reel of my life, connected by superficial details. I notice the underbite on a girl fleeing Gaza City, the red hair on a pair of Israeli boys kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7, the bear ears on a baby pulled from the rubble.

It feels like my Instagram requires an ethical guide now, someone who can explain to me what I’m doing when I thumb open the app and peel back its sensitivity screens. So I have been reading “Regarding the Pain of Others,” Susan Sontag’s 2003 essay on images of war and the people like me — “the privileged and the merely safe” — who view them. When Sontag was writing, 20 years ago, Instagram did not exist. But she pinned my distress at the app’s emotional whiplash, the way it slips targeted mom ads in between layers of rubble and ash. She wrote: “Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, where the chief model of a public space is the megastore.”

Now the internet is our mega-megastore, and it is an uneasy fact that images of death and suffering have become a kind of currency. I have seen some videos of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel — the body-cam feeds of attackers stalking people in their homes look horrific and unreal, like a first-person shooter game — but many images of the assault have not been released publicly. Israel has instead staged private screenings of the graphic footage for journalists, senators and celebrities in the United States and elsewhere, as a part of what an Israel Defense Forces spokesman called a “narrative battle.” But even during a pause in the fighting, terrifying new images from Gaza arrive stacked in my feed every day.

One of the internet’s tricks is to make its markets feel private and insulated. I had a baby last year, so Instagram presents to me as a school for mothers. It is always feeding me little tips: how to tame a tantrum, how to slice a kiwi for a 9-month-old, how to dress for school pickup. Now it is coaching me on how to think about the images from Gaza, as a mother.

One post sticks with me: an Instagram poem that passed through my feed in mid-October. It’s a few lines of text typed over a white square, written from the perspective of an American mom. She describes the cognitive dissonance of her feed, then wonders: “what secret of the universe can explain P.T.A. and frozen waffles for my kids, bombs and graves for theirs.”

I keep thinking about that phrase: “secret of the universe.” It means that in the United States or Gaza or Israel, kids are just kids. But it also suggests that some children are lucky, others are not, and that this is mysterious and inexplicable. I have scrolled past many other mom posts expressing a similar state of numbed compliance. The motherhood school tells me that my job as an American mother is not to protest this suffering, or even to feel shame for it, but to absorb it. Maintain the normalcy of my own home, but sadly.

These posts are written as if we are all governed by the random and apolitical logic of Instagram itself. But that is not the case. I am seeing these “sensitive” posts from within the safety and warmth of my apartment in the United States, a country which, as The New York Times has reported, helps fund Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. My own prosperity fuels their misery. The first time I saw it, the Palestinian boy’s Disney sweatshirt evoked only the innocence of my son. The second time, I saw in it an emblem of America’s power. It pointed toward my own guilt.

From the perspective of one journalist in Gaza, it is posts like mine — of my safe and happy kids — that feel unbearable and inappropriate. It’s sick, how easily we appear to move on. “The internet went down again and believe it or not I was happy,” the Palestinian photographer Motaz Azaiza wrote on his Instagram account after an October power outage in Gaza. “Because after what we show to the world they just said we are soo sorry and no one did a thing.” He had seen people share his photographs of Palestinians suffering, and then post images of themselves “having fun,” and he wanted them to know: “No need to share anything and we don’t want your pity!”

Sometimes, when I tap on a post from a journalist in Gaza, Instagram suggests next steps. “Are you sure you want to see this video?” it asks. It tries to point me instead to “resources” for coping with “sensitive topics.” It suggests a crisis hotline for disaster survivors and responders, but I am not a survivor or a responder. I’m a witness, or a voyeur. The distress I am feeling is shame.

Instagram offers me tips for self-care: Drink a big glass of water. Eat a nutritious snack or meal. Call a friend and say, “Can you distract me for a while?” The internet thinks I have a problem: Other people’s children are dying. Its cure is for me to stop paying attention to them, and to pay even more attention to myself.



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