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Thursday, May 23, 2024

I Was in Israel. I Swiped Right on a Man in Palestine

From the other side of the military checkpoints and towering slabs of concrete that separate Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, a stranger greeted me through cyberspace.

I was in my sister’s apartment listening to the nighttime hum of Tel Aviv when I received the message from Samir (who requested I change his name for privacy). I opened Tinder and examined his profile. The photos were fairly typical: a tall man with long black curls and an earring laughing on the beach, posing in the gym, wearing a suit and button up. My attention moved to the bio section underneath his profile. Less typical: just the words “Ramallah boy” and a Palestinian flag emoji.


Ramallah? I thought, pulling up Google Maps to confirm what I already knew. Ramallah, only about 40 miles from Tel Aviv as the crow flies, is on the other side of the Green Line, a barrier of concrete and barbed wire between Israel and the territories that can be difficult, if not impossible, to cross, depending on who you are and where you’re going. But apparently Tinder’s algorithms are unconcerned with this geopolitical nuance. This was the first stroke of luck for my relationship with Samir. The second, I thought as I mistakenly tried to pay for the East Jerusalem bus to the West Bank with an Israeli transit pass, is that I’m able to cross the Green Line to go to Ramallah at all, thanks to my foreign passport.

This is swiping right from within the complex geopolitical reality of Israel and Palestine. When I tell people how Samir and I met—that we started talking during the six months I lived in Israel; that after two years of virtual friendship I finally crossed to meet him in Ramallah (a day trip while back in Tel Aviv visiting family); that I returned to see him the following year and we fell in love; that in 2019 we both moved to Washington, DC, where we’re currently based—I’m aware that it seems like a rather romantic portrait of how digital technology can bring people together across divides. But this is not really how I see our story. After all, if I were an Israeli citizen, like nearly everyone I was with at the time, Samir and I would likely never have been able to meet face to face. Though Tinder operates as if the nature of its technical apparatus allows it to transcend borders altogether, the truth is that, by default, the app reflects, and at times even reinforces, a bleak, segregated reality.

In 2017, eight months after matching with Samir while in Israel but before we’d ever met in person, I moved to Silicon Valley to work on user experience for Google Ads, then called AdWords. When I arrived on campus, I was struck by a sense of borderlessness—a kind of transnationalism that defined both the form and content of our work. In a single day I might meet virtually with a coworker in Switzerland, work on a project with designers or engineers from India, Germany, Hong Kong, and Norway, and conduct interviews with users in Romania and Milwaukee. As author and venture capitalist Scott Hartley optimistically wrote in a Forbes essay published in 2012 (the year Tinder was launched), the outlook of tech’s “borderless entrepreneurial class” is global because in the world of tech “products conform to platforms, not to borders.”

In that same spirit, my team treated our product—one that allows advertisers around the world to access an international clientele—as culturally agnostic, relevant as much to users locally as to those on the other side of the world. This ethos was itself a source of unspoken pride, an enactment of the tech industry’s righteous calling to bring people together and, in the process, erode the infrastructure at the heart of global conflict.

Paradoxically, this adoption of transnationalism as a matter of principle also seems to be the basis for Silicon Valley’s disengagement from concrete political questions globally. Andy Andersen, who works on international growth at Tinder and is the founder AppLocalization.io, a service that helps brands expand their international presence, explains that most companies aim to “live and let live and allow people to manage their own affairs” when launching a product in a new market. Andersen cited a few exceptions—Tinder’s 2019 decision to alert users when they enter a country where same-sex relationships are prohibited by law, for example—but said that, whenever possible, most companies avoid involving themselves in geopolitical affairs.


And yet it’s no secret that tech hasn’t managed to avoid political entanglement. Tools and platforms tend to receive the most scrutiny when it’s discovered that they have been exploited for explicitly political purposes, whether with the company’s overt or tacit cooperation. But other times, the functionality of the tech itself becomes political, though the ethos of neutrality remains.

Services like Tinder, for example, rely on geolocation data that is contextualized by maps, which are themselves geopolitical interpretations that are often hotly contested. This is especially true in regions like Israel and Palestine, where territories are disputed. For instance, a 2018 report by the Palestinian digital rights organization 7amleh (pronounced “hamleh”) outlined a number of ways that Google Maps, one of the largest digital mapping services in the world, imposes what it calls “the Israeli government narrative” on the landscape of the West Bank. The report notes that Israeli settlements in the territory, which exist in violation of the Geneva convention, are shown as part of Israel, though the term “West Bank” appears on the map as well. It also points out that the app doesn’t mark military checkpoints—army roadblocks that restrict movement within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Israel—and that its navigation defaults to routes that only Israelis are allowed to access, decisions by Google that the reports’ writers argued prioritize Israelis, endanger Palestinian users, and remove evidence of the occupation from the map. In an emailed response to WIRED, a Google spokesperson wrote that the company is committed to displaying disputed territories objectively.

In 2017, Amitay Dan, a cybersecurity researcher in Israel, discovered that Google’s mapping of contested areas also impacts the functionality of Tinder Passport. The premium feature allows users to choose their location and match with people in other parts of the world. While experimenting with the feature, Dan noticed that the app returned a “No location found” notification when he tried to change his location to anywhere within the Palestinian territories. To this day, searching for cities and towns within a disputed territory will return this error message. Users can swipe from their selected destination, but the location name will still appear as a blank space within the app. Dan brought his discovery to journalist Oded Yaron, who observed the same was true within other disputed regions, like Northern Cyprus. Yaron’s story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes that, when approached for comment on the issue, Tinder referred the author to Google, which did not respond. “The topic is like fire,” Dan tells me. “They don’t want to touch it.” Tinder did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.

On the ground, the particular geopolitical situation of Israel and Palestine, with its checkpoints and patchwork of territorial designations, also shapes who uses Tinder’s service and how. Although the interface includes no explicit mention of the separation barrier aside from a dashed gray line to indicate a disputed border, users in the region face a significant obstacle: When Palestinians and Jewish Israelis do match, there is often no legal way for them to meet without leaving the country entirely, despite their geographic proximity when swiping. Israelis can cross the Green Line to travel on segregated roads to Israeli settlements, but not to Palestinian cities or villages. Palestinians in the West Bank, meanwhile, cannot cross the Green Line at all without a permit, which can be exceedingly difficult to obtain. Palestinians who do have a Jerusalem ID or hold Israeli citizenship can travel freely in Israel and Palestine to go on dates when they find a match. But the users I spoke with who do not have this freedom of movement say they are deterred by the fact that the vast majority of people they see on the app are either on the other side of a line that they cannot cross, or are located in Israeli settlements, where it is generally unsafe for them to travel. As a result, in the occupied West Bank the ability of different populations to use Tinder’s service to talk to and meet geographically proximate people varies, largely along ethnic lines.


Of course Tinder is not itself responsible for the injustices of military occupation. Still, in not acknowledging the ways that existing political dynamics impact the scope of their service, the company effectively normalizes occupation, treating de jure segregation (and the access differential it creates) as an acceptable condition under which a geolocation-based dating app can operate.

Samir, for his part, encountered these obstacles many times. In the early days of our friendship, he told me that if I did come to Ramallah I would be the first person from the app he’d meet in person while swiping from Palestine. He had matched with Jewish Israelis before, but until I crossed the Green Line, his Tinder relationships had been purely virtual.

“A couple times we got to know each other and they’d say, ‘If you’re ever able to get a permit and you can come in, hit me up,’ but it never happened,” Samir recounts. He also mentions matching with an Israeli woman in Ariel, a nearby settlement, on Tinder, but says he was uncomfortable when he found out where she lived.

“She invited me to come to Ariel,” he tells me, “but I said, ‘Hell no.’”

In recent years, we as users have collectively begun to question the idea that technology companies bear no responsibility when their platforms are used to disseminate misinformation, sway elections, and wage war. What we have not paid enough attention to, however, is the potential for the core functionality of the technology itself to have incidental political implications, and for nonpartisan companies to participate in marginalization by default. Often, it seems, their obligation to thoughtfully and carefully navigate the geopolitical circumstances of prospective markets is overlooked by a culture that, even amid a techlash, sees access to the free market of technological tools as an indicator of progress.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the solution is simply for Tinder to stop offering its service in the occupied West Bank. Instead, I imagine a more nuanced approach that begins with in-app notifications acknowledging the separation barrier, military checkpoints, and other obstacles users might face. True, these notifications would likely not offer users anything they don’t already know, but they would at least be a step toward addressing the undeniable political implications of a tool so inextricably linked to place.

On a larger scale, it is also reasonable to insist tech companies grapple publicly with the issues that shape, and are shaped by, the tools they build—particularly when they enter new markets. It may not be realistic to expect that apps like Tinder will do much to solve the world’s problems, but their obligation at least extends to recognizing that, awe-inspiring as their technologies are, they too exist in a world that is wildly complex and exceedingly messy. They have the responsibility to solicit and incorporate the perspectives of marginalized users.

Still, my techno-skeptical misgivings aside, I can’t forget that I owe the privilege of knowing my beloved Samir to Tinder and its oblivious algorithms. If nothing else, this fact lays plain the absurdity of segregation in a digitally interconnected world.

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