ND Expert Tim Weninger: Using social media to dehumanize is part of the conflict playbook

Author: Jessica Sieff

ND Experts

Tim Weninger

Tim Weninger

Computer Science and Engineering

Tim Weninger
Tim Weninger

While the latest war between Israel and Hamas rages, politically salient imagery, memes and videos have saturated social media platforms — a phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with war in the digital age.

Tim Weninger, the Frank M. Freimann Associate Professor of Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, studies how coordinated social media campaigns have been used to incite violence, sow discord and threaten the integrity of democratic elections in Indonesia; to spread Chinese propaganda; and in the lead up to the Russia-Ukraine war and the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Research shows that in the lead-up to hostilities, there is an increase in dehumanizing political imagery that is remixed — cropped, altered or turned into individualized content — and reshared by the general population to evoke an emotional response.

“In the week leading up to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we saw an 8,000 percent increase in the number of political images and memes,” Weninger said. “We see this again and again: In the lead-up to hostilities, there is an increase in dehumanizing political imagery.”

Weninger said he’s observed similarities and some marked differences in the social media space when comparing the Russia-Ukraine war to the latest war between Israel and Hamas.

“This is different because Hamas made a surprise attack,” Weninger said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of imagery prior. But now we’re seeing a lot. People have drawn sides and there’s a lot of politically salient, dehumanizing images and videos going around, and along with that, a lot of clearly doctored, fake images intended to shape a narrative and evoke some kind of emotional response.

“That is the bigger issue here,” Weninger said. “To gain support for either side you have to dehumanize the other. That’s what we’re seeing now — and we saw it with Russia and Ukraine. People are angry, they’re passionate, and we’re seeing denigration and dehumanization on both sides.”

While certain initiators have spearheaded campaigns to rally the public as part of the Russia-Ukraine war, Weninger said that he does not have evidence that the content he’s seeing isn’t stemming from any intentional coordination. Rather, it’s more likely the result of an inflamed and passionate public.

Platforms carrying the bulk of the content have also changed over time. Weninger said most of the content generated and shared since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas is in the form of short videos on platforms such as TikTok and YouTube, as opposed to previous conflicts that played out on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter.

“X (Twitter) is no longer a reputable place to find information on breaking new stories,” Weninger said. “And I think people are starting to realize that.”

Still, social media has clearly become a conduit for conflict. Could it ever be used to generate peace?

“When it comes to peace, the first thing you have to do is share a common language. How do you translate that into the digital ecosystem is something that needs to be understood,” Weninger said. “I’m afraid we don’t understand how to do that quite yet.”

Contact: Jessica Sieff, associate director, media relations, 574-631-3933, jsieff@nd.edu