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How Social Media Is Upending College Life During The Israel-Gaza War

todayNovember 9, 2023 2

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Mainstream platforms, and popular websites built for students, are at the heart of Gen Z discourse about Israel and Gaza. But with anonymity the norm and fake social media users becoming more prevalent, some forums are inflaming tensions at universities.

By Alexandra S. Levine, Forbes Staff


Kathleen Margaret Connelly has inflammatory thoughts about the Israel-Gaza war.

She’d been sharing them regularly with her more than 2,000 Facebook “friends” since Hamas violently massacred 1,400 people in Israel, and kidnapped hundreds more, on October 7, prompting Israel to launch a deadly offensive aimed at decimating Hamas in Gaza. As an apparent employee at the University of Pennsylvania—with a PhD from Penn, a master’s from Georgetown and a bachelor’s degree from Fordham, according to her Facebook—Kathleen’s voice, and anti-Israel diatribes, held weight.

But Kathleen Margaret Connelly isn’t real. There is no record of her ever attending, graduating from or working at any of these schools, they all confirmed to Forbes. And the striking green-eyed, red-haired woman who appeared in Kathleen’s Facebook profile picture is, in fact, a young actress in Dublin who told Forbes she was not aware the account had been using photos of her face for well over a year.

As the Israel-Gaza war crosses the one-month mark, college campuses across the United States are facing an ideological reckoning and have become ground zero for protests, counter protests and debates over hate speech and freedom of expression. But mainstream social media platforms, as well as those geared toward college students, are increasingly becoming vehicles to spread threats, stir up fear and sow division at American universities, including by agitators who may not even be part of the school community. Anonymous emails are similarly being weaponized.

In an email obtained by Forbes, the director of the Penn Museum—where Kathleen purported to be employed as a “cultural anthropologist”—wrote to the Museum Board and other leaders about the fake account. He described its “disturbing social media posts… that contain hate-filled messages and antisemitic content” and said the school believed it to be “an AI-created fake account designed to sow discord.”


For well over a year, the fake account had been using personal photos lifted from a stranger halfway across the world without that person knowing. We’ve omitted the profile picture to protect her privacy.

Kathleen’s account claimed she’d earned a PhD from Penn in 2020, and that for the last six years, she’s been employed by the Penn Museum. She also claimed she’d earned an MA from Georgetown in 2014 and a BA from Fordham in 2012.

A number of Kathleen’s “friends” appeared to be sharing or reposting the same divisive content around the same time. But Meta said that “for now” it has not seen evidence of the account being part of a larger, coordinated network.

All three schools whose credentials were touted by the fake account confirmed that a person named Kathleen Margaret Connelly never attended, graduated from or worked at any of them. It is unclear who is behind the account.


Penn did not respond to multiple requests for comment about whether it has identified other fake social media accounts like Kathleen’s—impersonating students, staffers or alums—posting content seemingly intended to inflame student conversations about the war. But this week, Penn president Liz Magill said the FBI and Penn Police were investigating a potential hate crime on campus after an unknown sender emailed threats against the school’s Jewish community, and specific buildings, to several Penn staffers. The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that “undisclosed individuals” have also used social media and email to threaten people at Penn who’ve voiced support for Palestinians. And last week, following an FBI investigation into anonymous threats that targeted Jewish students at Cornell, a 21-year-old student was arrested on a federal criminal complaint and charged with “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications.” (Disclosure: I graduated from Penn over a decade ago.)

The Cornell threats were shared on top college-focused site Greekrank—where users can post anonymously about life on campus without needing school credentials—and similar problems are playing out on rivals like Sidechat and Yik Yak. (Those two require a school email to sign up, but Forbes was able to register and post using a .edu address that is more than a decade old. Neither responded to a request for comment.) Across a range of platforms, the easy masking of individuals’ identities is intensifying discord and outrage between Gen Z supporters and critics in all corners of the conflict.

“Social media is only escalating an already emotionally charged and tragic conflict,” said Penn junior Allison Santa-Cruz, who recently penned an op-ed in the student newspaper about the effect of tech platforms on the Penn community.

“It is extremely dangerous for fake social media accounts to pose as students, faculty, or administrators and post inflammatory, divisive material and misinformation online,” she added. “Especially now when people are routinely punished for what they say online and in the era of cancel culture, these poser [social] accounts are more dangerous than ever.”


An old problem in a new frontier

It’s not unusual to see suspicious, potentially dangerous social media activity aimed at shifting public opinion or inflaming discourse during high stakes national and global events. In recent years, for example, Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—has uncovered so-called influence operations and taken down networks of accounts and pages working in tandem to mislead or deceive people using its platforms. (A number of these have originated from China, Russia and Iran, and some targeted the U.S. during recent presidential and midterm elections.) But now, in the midst of a war with no end in sight, some experts fear that American colleges are an easy target for individuals and groups, inside or outside the student body, looking to stoke discord and wreak havoc.

“[These] accounts don’t necessarily try to change anyone’s mind; they try to heighten polarization by encouraging Americans to go for each other’s jugular.”

Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU Stern’s Center for Business and Human Rights

“Why university campuses? Because they are hotspots in the debate about the Palestinians, Hamas and Israel,” said misinformation researcher Paul Barrett, who is deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “College and grad students are already passionately divided over who is to blame for the strife in the Middle East,” and fake or anonymous social media accounts “[appear] to be egging them on, trying to get both sides more riled up.”

Adversaries have long “specialized in trying to exacerbate division within U.S. society,” Barrett added, citing Russia as a key example. “Russian accounts don’t necessarily try to change anyone’s mind; they try to heighten polarization by encouraging Americans to go for each other’s jugular.”

The Facebook account purporting to be Ivy League grad and current Penn Museum employee Kathleen Margaret Connelly wasn’t new, either. Before the Israel-Gaza war began, the account was fomenting anger around the Ukraine-Russia war—promoting Russia, attacking Ukraine and going so far as to suggest that Ukrainians are Nazis. Other posts championed China and cast doubt on vaccines.

But Kathleen shifted her focus at the start of the war in the Middle East to attack Israel. She called for “the end for Israel,” accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” and spread misinformation about the conflict—including false claims about the now well-documented horrors at the music festival where Hamas brutally murdered at least 260 people, and kidnapped others, on October 7. “No one was killed at the concert; witnesses say Hamas treated people with kindness,” Kathleen shared in a photo on October 14. The U.S. government has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization and several of its members as terrorists.

“On a college campus… individuals are retreating to dangerous ideology and doing the dirty work of terrorist regimes.”

Eyal Yakoby, senior at Penn

“Each person who spreads information [through social media] has the responsibility to make sure it is not misinformation, promotes violence, or signals a message that is not aligned with morality,” said Penn senior Eyal Yakoby, who is focused on political science and modern Middle East studies. “On a college campus, where you would think these principles are being upheld and emphasized most, individuals are retreating to dangerous ideology and doing the dirty work of terrorist regimes.”

It remains unclear who is behind Kathleen’s account.

“The account strikes me as a very generic ‘American woman’ which could just signal that it was made to boost engagement, or was an anonymous account of someone who didn’t want to be known for their political beliefs,” said disinformation expert Joan Donovan, author of Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America. “Both are terms of service violations.”

When Forbes inquired about the account, Meta removed it for violating its policies. And though Meta did not say who was responsible for Kathleen’s persona, where it originated from or what their motives may have been, Barrett said “most telling is that the account began salting in anti-Ukraine content and then switched over to the Gaza/Israel conflict.” A number of Kathleen’s “friends” sometimes appeared to be sharing or reposting the same divisive content around the same time. But Meta said that “for now” it has not seen evidence of her account being part of a larger, coordinated network.


Online chaos spills on campus

College students across the U.S. have been vocal about what’s unfolding in Israel and Gaza.

At Harvard, shortly after the conflict began, a letter from a coalition of student groups blaming Israel for the Hamas atrocities prompted backlash from some of the school’s most prominent alums, who’ve pledged not to hire people who signed onto the missive. At Penn, where Jewish students have been assaulted, buildings have been vandalized and large anti-Israel protests have taken place, megadonors from Apollo CEO Mark Rowan to former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman have pledged to close their wallets to the university; many more have called for its leaders to resign over their handling of antisemitism on campus. Similar tensions are playing out at Stanford, UC Berkeley, NYU and beyond as students and locals protest the actions of the Israeli government and military, the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the rising civilian death toll there. The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says some 10,500 Palestinians have been killed since Israeli air strikes began in October.

But some of the organizing across higher education has boiled over into antisemitic and islamophobic hate speech and incitement to violence against Jews and Muslims on campus. The Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American Islamic Relations have reported surges in hate crimes, threats or harassment against both groups. FBI Director Christopher Wray had a similar message in Senate testimony last week, warning lawmakers about domestic violent extremism targeting Jewish and Muslim communities across the country.

For example, anonymous antisemitic and islamophobic posts that surfaced recently on a Cornell discussion forum on Greekrank (which is not affiliated with the university) threw the campus into chaos. The viral posts included violent hate speech and racism against Jewish and Muslim students, as well as threats to kill or commit other illegal acts against them.

Some took to Greekrank to complain that anonymous commenters were “fueling hatred on our campus” and criticized the website for allowing anyone, including people who may not be associated with Cornell, to broadcast harmful messages. “Any idiot can post whatever they want here … Greekrank needs to add user verification, like, yesterday,” one person said. Another noted that “this site is toxic and the anonymity makes everything worse.” When someone else lamented that “there are no safeguards to prevent threats or hate speech” in this wide-open, easily accessible forum, they were met with more hate speech and a reply declaring: “Free speech is free speech. Go suk ur moms c0ck.”

Greekrank said in a statement that “we unequivocally condemn any form of hate speech and have taken swift action to remove the offensive content as soon as we were made aware of it.” It also emphasized that “we have been working closely with law enforcement to provide any information that can aid in their investigation.” It added that Greekrank is taking steps to “review and strengthen our platform’s moderation processes” and that it is “dedicated to preventing the recurrence of such unacceptable incidents.”

Last week, following an FBI investigation, the Cornell junior charged with posting some of the threats made his first appearance before a federal court in upstate New York. Shortly after, he’d already become the subject of several new threads on Greekrank. One was quick to recognize that while the 21-year-old student had allegedly posted some of the threats, others targeting Cornell had come from individuals who are still unknown.

“Yeah, he posted at least some of them,” one Greekrank post said. “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. I can’t believe someone is grinding a Cornell engineering degree just to ruin it over being an insufferable troll.”

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