Gaza war creates breeding ground for online misinformation

Gaza war creates breeding ground for online misinformation
News outlets have denounced the rapid spread of misinformation in the context of the Gaza-Israel war, placing social media users at risk of sharing incorrect news bites and blurring the lines of journalism.
4 min read
12 October, 2023
Many false posts have gone viral on TikTok, Instagram and X, often shared by influencer accounts and racking up millions of views and shares [Getty]

The Israel-Gaza war has created a breeding ground for the spread of fake news and misinformation on social media, monitors have warned, as researchers, journalists, and fact-checkers scramble to address a flood of out-of-date videos, doctored and graphic images and false information.

Social media platform X, formerly Twitter, has seen a surge in activity since Hamas's surprise attack on Israel - which left 1,200 people dead - the platform's safety account said on Tuesday, with more than 50 million posts on the subject globally since Saturday.

Some have contributed to misinformation, distorting narratives of the conflict and putting social media users at risk of sharing incorrect news, including journalists.

It comes after Israel launched a fierce bombardment of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with at least 1,200 Palestinians killed including more than 300 children.

Some of the posts shared on Gaza and Palestine have been debunked by open-source intelligence experts. These include footage of Israeli aircraft - later transpired to be from a video game - doctored US government documents, videos that alleged the use of white phosphorus, Israeli children apparently held in cages, and supposed links between Ukraine and Hamas.

Such posts have gone viral on TikTok, Instagram and X - often shared by influencers - racking up millions of views and shares.

One false claim flagged by the Reuters Fact Check team which had spread online showed a video with a wrong caption describing Hamas fighters with a kidnapped young girl. The video was posted on TikTok in September.

Since his takeover of Twitter last year, Elon Musk has been widely criticised for the rise in the number of 'bots' or fake accounts. Experts have pointed to the shrinking disinformation team at X after Musk fired many Twitter employees.

Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat, a Netherlands-based investigative journalism group, wrote on X on Tuesday that blue tick accounts have become a major source of false information.

"Last night, we saw a totally false claim about Israel bombing a church in Gaza go viral, thanks to multiple blue tick accounts repeating an unverified claim that had no evidence to back it up," he wrote.

"Musk has created a fundamental issue with Twitter's credibility in moments of crisis."

Blue tick accounts show that the user has a paid subscription to ‘X Premium’ - a feature introduced by Musk - and has met criteria set by the tech firm.

European Union Commissioner Thierry Breton wrote to Musk and Mark Zuckerberg of Meta this week warning that X was spreading "illegal content and disinformation" and reminding the tech bosses of the EU’s strict digital safety regulations.

X has recently introduced a ‘Community Notes’ feature which enables users to add context to posts.

However, Shayan Sardarizadeh, a disinformation journalist from BBC Verify, a specialist verification team, said that recent changes have made Community Notes appear faster under misleading posts.

"The main challenge remaining for X is addressing the issue of Twitter Blue accounts, whose false posts are not only boosted by the algorithm in feeds but also monetised," he said on X.

Sardarizadeh flagged a video on Wednesday with millions of views with the caption 'Israel bombing Gaza with phosphorus'. However, the video was taken in Algiers and shows fireworks and celebrations by football fans.

Medics, journalists and other video footage have since claimed that Israel has used white phosphorus in Gaza.

On Tuesday X’s Safety account said its teams "have actioned tens of thousands of posts for sharing graphic media, violent speech, and hateful conduct".

The spread of disinformation might make this even worse.