Progressive Facebook Moms’ Groups Are Melting Down Over the Israel-Hamas War

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The uproar in the Facebook moms’ group started innocently enough, with two posts about upcoming rallies, one for Israel and the other for Palestine. Najla August, one of three moderators for the group of 12,000 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recalls thinking that there was nothing especially unusual about that—people in the group often posted about events they thought other members might be interested in. 

But it didn’t take long before the comments sections on the posts devolved, with members accusing each other of antisemitism on one side and disregard for Palestinian lives on the other. The tension kept mounting: In one particularly heated thread, a commenter compared the current conflict to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The commenter wrote that it was insensitive to Jewish people to bring up the historical context for the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel—to do so would be like trying to claim that George Floyd’s behavior was justification for his murder. 

The tumult in August’s Facebook group didn’t stop there—the posts continued to rack up comments for days. August found herself facing a dilemma: On the one hand, she knew that her community was hurting, and she wanted to allow the group members to express themselves. “This a huge event,” she recalls thinking. “Why can’t people come here and process and say what’s on their mind?” But on the other, the group rules specified kindness as a guiding principle, and some of the comments had veered into the territory of decidedly unkind.

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging task that August had faced in her three years as a moderator. Sure, there had been some arguments during the pandemic, with members disagreeing about school closures and masks. But the group that she moderated had made it through that period mostly unscathed. Ann Arbor is, after all, largely a progressive community; there isn’t typically a lot of discord over politics.

August wasn’t alone in feeling unprepared as a moderator for the current conflict: The six moderators and members of Facebook parents’ groups in progressive enclaves across the country I talked to for this story told me that the Israel-Hamas war had been the most divisive issue their groups had ever faced. “People were super polarized,” said Najla. “It was like you could just support Israel or just support Palestine—they were mutually exclusive.”

Parenting groups on social media aren’t widely recognized as politically meaningful—after all, the discussions are supposed to center around car seat recommendations, recipes for picky eaters, and toddler bedtime tricks. But parenting is inherently a political activity: Our worldviews and values determine how we raise our children. In times of societal unrest, these online spaces offer valuable insight into how people perform their political affiliations—and where those alliances break down.

During the pandemic, I wrote about how debates over masks and misinformation around vaccines led to meltdowns in those forums, with some even becoming fertile ground for conspiracy theories to take root. But those groups were mostly in communities that were politically mixed, so the fights broke down along partisan lines. But in the case of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it’s mostly the groups in staunchly progressive areas that are seeing discord.   

I talked at length with a moderator of a Facebook moms’ group in a progressive neighborhood of New York City who wrestled with the decision of whether to allow a heartfelt post written by a Jewish member about her horror over what she believed to be pro-Hamas graffiti that had appeared in the neighborhood. The moderator asked that I not reveal her real name, the name of the group, or the exact wording of the graffiti because she doesn’t want to compromise group privacy, so I’ll call her Jenny. 

Jenny’s first instinct was to approve the post—she thought everyone in the group, which has thousands of members, including many Jews, should know about this hurtful act of vandalism. On the other hand, the language that the author of the post used was antagonistic, and Jenny worried that it could make what was already a charged topic in the community even more volatile. What was more, Jenny hadn’t seen the graffiti itself—it had been covered up shortly after it was discovered. The decision about the post didn’t get any easier when she began talking to people in the neighborhood who had seen the graffiti before it was covered up. Some people had interpreted it as pro-Hamas, while others said it was simply an expression of support for the Palestinian people. 

Jenny felt perfectly capable of moderating discussions about pediatrician and school recommendations, and even emotional posts about conflicts with partners, relatives and teachers. But she felt wholly unprepared to heal a group that was fracturing over a radioactive geopolitical event. “What am I supposed to do?” she recalled thinking. “I’m not the morality police. I’m a volunteer moderator of a moms’ group. I’m a busy mom.”

Fights similar to the ones that Jenny and August saw in their groups also played out in a deep blue Atlanta neighborhood. When a Jewish woman and a Black woman from the group sat down to see if they could find more common ground in person, the New York Times reported, they failed to persuade each other of anything at all.

The rancor didn’t just affect neighborhood-based parenting groups. One private group where comment sections have dissolved in discord is Bougies Unfiltered, a community of about 1,500 that describes itself as a “glamorous and lively Facebook group exclusively designed for bougie parents who adore the finer things in life.” In comments on recent posts, members hurled insults at each other, accusing one another of antisemitism and defending terrorists. When a member commented acknowledging the pain and suffering in both Israel and Gaza, members piled on to compare her words to “All Lives Matter,” a slogan that has been used to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter movement. The tenor of the conversation seemed in stark contrast to the group’s “about” page, which says it is “a vibrant and inclusive community, where like-minded parents come together to share their experiences, tips, and passions in an atmosphere of fun, openness, and love.”

The particular contours of this conflict make it hard for people to adhere to behavioral norms on social media, said Cody Buntain, an assistant professor at University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies who researches response to crises on social media. He told me that in the wake of far-away disasters, social media groups typically unite to offer messages of support for the victims. But in this case, the issue of victimhood is subjective, depending on your perspective. “People come to express sadness and anger about the events in Israel and Palestine, and then it sort of leaks out who you think the victim is,” Buntain said. “If you can clearly identify somebody who’s other than you, that tends to generate a lot of content that’s very angry.”

Social media companies reinforce this polarizing dynamic. Platforms like Facebook push content that gets a lot of engagement—and people tend to engage more with content that is emotionally charged. In this case, the many layers of identity and historical context involved in the conflict are mostly lost because “messages that would engage with that nuance are not messages that are likely gaining a lot of traction on social media,” Buntain said.

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, didn’t respond to request for comment from Mother Jones.

Jenny, the moderator of the New York City moms’ group, decided with her co-moderators to limit posts about the Israel-Hamas war. “We just tried to push it back toward talking about moms and community,” she said. Yet Jenny still isn’t completely at peace with that decision, because, she said, in many ways, “what’s happening is about moms and community.” Indeed, more than 4,000 children have been killed in Gaza since the beginning of the conflict; the number killed and kidnapped in Israel is unknown, but the Times of Israel reported on October 10 that soldiers found the bodies of at least 40 babies.

August, the moderator of the Ann Arbor group, made a more drastic decision with her fellow moderators: The posts about the opposing rallies were taken down, and they decided not to allow any more Israel-Hamas discussion at all. August, too, said she has misgivings about the decision. In most instances, she said she likes to err on the side of leaving posts up, because “that’s something I stand for: Let the people speak.” But in this case, that approach simply didn’t seem to be working. “People just became emotional and then hostile.”

The new rules seem to be working: In both Jenny’s and August’s groups, there has been less conflict over the last few weeks, though occasional posts are still coming up, and the task of deciding whether to allow them, and the debate that follows, still feels overwhelming, the moderators told me. Even in quieter times, running a Facebook parenting group comes with significant responsibilities. The moderators of these groups, the vast majority of whom are women, work hard to create communities that feel supportive and safe while also giving members freedom of expression. University of Maryland’s Buntain’s group has studied the impossible position that moderators are in during times of crisis. “The platforms don’t really support you,” he said. “But these moderators are a critical piece of the online experience.”

Usually, the moderators take on that work gladly. The ones I spoke to told me that their work is typically rewarding rather than draining. Jenny still marvels at how quickly her once-harmonious and seemingly politically homogeneous group fractured. “There was no way,” she said, “to have it be peaceful.”

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