On Instagram, Palestinian journalists and digital creators documenting Gaza strikes see surge in followers.

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One journalist has added more than 12 million followers. The work highlights some of the challenges and dangers of covering the conflict.

Civilians conduct a search-and-rescue operation Tuesday under the debris of destroyed building after Israeli attacks on the Nuseirat Camp in Deir al Balah, Gaza. Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu via Getty Images

Nov. 3, 2023, 3:00 AM PDT

By Jason AbbruzzeseDavid Ingram and Yasmine Salam

Before early October, Motaz Azaiza’s Instagram account documented life in Gaza to about 25,000 followers with a mix of daily life and the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas.

That began to change in the days after Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel and the retaliation on Gaza. Since then, more than 12.5 million people have begun following Azaiza’s feed, which has become a daily chronicle of Israeli strikes.

Many other journalists, digital creators and people active on social media based in the region have seen a similar uptick in followers. Plestia Alaqad, a journalist whose work has been featured by NBC News, has gained more than 2.1 million, according to the social media analytics company Social Blade. Mohammed Aborjela, a digital creator, gained 230,000. Journalist Hind Khoudary drew 273,000 in the last five days of October. Photographer and videographer Ali Jadallah added more than 1.1 million.

Those surges have made Instagram, an app generally associated with lighthearted social media posts and lifestyle influencers, a suddenly crucial view into Gaza. The app has previously been embraced by some journalists, most notably photojournalists, but the sudden increase in followers appears to have no precedent.

The posts can at times be difficult to absorb. Most if not all appear to be firsthand videos rather than recycled content: People pulled from rubble, children crying over the bodies of their parents, and to-camera accounts of what the journalists are seeing and feeling.

The unfiltered coverage, as seen in the Instagram post below, adds a unique element to the broader journalistic efforts to capture what’s happening in Gaza.

It’s a role that Instagram may not fully embrace (parent company Meta has broadly moved away from the news), but it appears the company is doing little to discourage the growth of the accounts. The app has rules against graphic content but does make exceptions for posts that are “newsworthy and in the public interest.” Some posts are initially covered by a “sensitive content” warning.

Instagram and other social media apps have come under some scrutiny over concerns that pro-Palestinian voices have been censored or suppressed. Meta confirmed in October that the company had accidentally limited the reach of some posts but said the problem was a bug that did not apply to one specific type of content and denied any censorship.

Meta also worked with the people behind the account Eye on Palestine after the company said it had detected a possible hacking attempt. That account had already been among the most-followed accounts focused on Palestinians before the war, with about 3.5 million followers. The account is back online after a multiday outage and now has more than 7 million.

The emergence of Instagram also comes as the social media platform X, once the go-to destination for journalists and witnesses to breaking news, has come under fire for its shortcomings around misinformation related to the conflict. Telegram is also a popular app for unfiltered updates but has a relatively small user base in the U.S.

A Meta spokesperson declined to make anyone from Instagram available for an interview.

Foreign journalists covering the Israel-Hamas war are facing enormous challenges obtaining firsthand information, and that dynamic is having a deep effect on the world’s understanding of what’s happening especially in Gaza, according to organizations that monitor press freedom.

The obstacles for reporters are wide-ranging even for a war zone. These include physical danger to journalists, lack of access to Gaza itself and the logistical challenges of operating within Gaza such as electricity and internet blackouts.

Many major media operations including NBC News have sent reporters to Israel to cover Hamas’ attack and the ongoing conflict, during which more than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and more than 200 have been taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities. More than 9,000 people have died in Gaza from the Israeli counteroffensive, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.

Few foreign reporters are believed to be in Gaza, according to journalists outside the territory. Israel and Egypt control entry to Gaza and have not allowed in foreign journalists, according to a petition this week signed by nearly 100 French journalists demanding access to the strip, France 24 reported Tuesday.

Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor of Middle East studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who closely follows social media, said the accounts are important “precisely because of the chaotic and toxic information environment that is so heavily mediated and sanitized.”

On Instagram, Palestinian journalists and digital creators documenting Gaza strikes see surge in followers (nbcnews.com)

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