When Our Smartphones Become Windows to a War

From a Wall Street Journal story by Joanna Stern headlined “When Our Smartphones Become Windows to a War”:

Ha kol b’seder. In Hebrew it means, “Everything is OK.”

That’s what 22-year-old Inbar Shem Tov whispered in a video sent to her father while hiding in a dumpster from Hamas attackers. Around her you can see other young women, clinging to their phones, sending WhatsApp messages.

That video was one of the last things she would send before she was killed.

Anne Frank had a diary to document the fear she experienced hiding from Nazis. Inbar Shem Tov had a smartphone.

That video is one of countless clips circulating on the internet this week showing what’s happening in Israel. Videos and photos of women being dragged away by Hamas militants, strollers covered in blood, bullet holes in the sides of houses, streets and buildings in Gaza in ruins. You’ve been able to see it all on Instagram, TikTok, X and more.

High-quality cameras. Incredibly fast cellular connectivity. One-tap-to-upload social-media platforms. Smartphones have enabled people to bear witness to unimaginable images of human suffering and war—in real time.

I wrote about something similar in June 2020 after the killing of George Floyd. Every time the iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy S gets better zoom capabilities or video recording, the world gets nearer to an in-person view of humanity’s extremes. And it’s only getting more real. Apple just introduced 3-D spatial video, which brings sci-fi-like holograms of our life to its Vision Pro headset.

“Be in the moment. All over again,” Apple touts on its website.

Technology is a tool. It can be used for good. It can be used for evil. An iPhone 13 Pro Max allowed 21-year-old Vladimir Grinevetskiy to figure out who was shooting at him and his friends as they were hiding behind a trailer at the music festival that was attacked by Hamas militants on Saturday.

“I used my phone and zoomed in to see if it was a terrorist or our army. When I understood that it was a terrorist, I screamed to everyone around us that we should run away because they are going to come and kill us,” Grinevetskiy told me.

I spoke with one 20-year-old Israeli EMT who said she used her Samsung Galaxy A13 to provide medical assistance to the wounded while locked down during the attacks.

Hamas militants also used phones, taking video of those they had kidnapped and sharing it on Telegram and other social-media platforms. Grinevetskiy has recognized some of his friends in photos posted on the Hamas Telegram channels.

For most of us outside of Israel right now, the smartphone is the tool that keeps us updated about the war. And yet, for the past week, it has felt like a tool I don’t have much control over. I’ve been glued to my social feeds. The algorithms show me more and more graphic images from both sides of the Gaza border.

This past week, many Jewish organizations advised parents to monitor and limit their children’s use of social media to limit exposure to violent and disturbing posts. As adults, it’s important not to hide from what’s happening, but we should have control over what we see. (See some tips here from my colleagues.)

It doesn’t matter if you scroll for five seconds or five hours, the result is the same: an overpowering sense of helplessness. What can I do that will have an impact on the other side of the screen?

The greatest use of our smartphones right now is connecting with others. And I mean genuinely checking in, actually using your phone as a phone, not commenting on a public Instagram thread where everyone is YELLING AT EACH OTHER IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

Groups are banding together on private social networks—WhatsApp, iMessage, Messenger—to talk and share news, advice and ways to donate to relief efforts. In the past 24 hours, I’ve had new chains pop up with parents at my son’s school and friends at work. While the notifications have been overwhelming, the sense of community has been healing.

Grinevetskiy sent me the videos he recorded as he fled last Saturday’s music festival attack, where more than 250 people were discovered dead. You can hear the rapid gunfire and the screaming. You can see the smoke from the car fires and young people crouching and hiding.

Unlike the black-and-white photos of the past century’s wars, we now have a crystal clear, ultra-high-definition window into the horrors. And everything is not b’seder.

Joanna Stern is an Emmy Award-winning Wall Street Journal journalist who has spent the better part of two decades covering gadgets and apps, and helping people make smarter tech decisions. Her documentary “E-Ternal: A Tech Quest to Live Forever” won the 2021 Emmy in the category of outstanding science, technology or environmental coverage.

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