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What you need to know about disinformation in the Israel-Hamas war

Gelo Gonzales

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What you need to know about disinformation in the Israel-Hamas war

A poster with the words 'You'll never walk alone' and the emblem of Liverpool Football Club is seen inside a house following a deadly attack by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip on Kibbutz Kfar Aza, in southern Israel, October 15, 2023

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Amid the confusion caused by disinformation, what remains clear is that social media platforms, X in particular, aren't making the situation better

Social media is one of the frontlines of war, as what we saw, and continue to see with the Ukraine-Russia war, and what we are now seeing in the Israel-Hamas war. 

What patterns have emerged, and what techniques are being used? With the spread of disinformation in the Israel-Hamas war, we’ve seen once again how social media platforms – in this case, X, formerly Twitter – has been once again effective in hosting and spreading false information, leaving people extremely vulnerable to being manipulated. 

As we’ve seen in various reports, similar tricks from the Ukraine-Russia war are still in use, with some reports indicating how it may have gotten worse at X, with “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk at the helm. Transparency at social media platforms also remains problematic as attested to by disinformation researchers, with access to platform data becoming even harder. 

Just a week after the war began, reports have also shown how other countries are also playing a role in the confusion that the current war information ecosystem has created, showing how they can push their own agenda for their own purposes. 

As tensions escalate, we’re seeing how disinformation on social media continues to contribute, and what challenges we continue to face as far as disinformation is concerned in case of further conflict.

Videos and images are being taken out of context, and repurposed as real representation of the current war

It’s a technique that’s already been seen in the Ukraine-Russia war. For instance, a behind-the-scenes video of a Ukrainian short film was used to fuel allegations that the war is staged. Dramatic videos from old conflicts unrelated to the war in Ukraine have also been used for livestreams, with the user having the motive of asking for donations in the end. 

In the Israel war, in a report by The Guardian, a Palestinian short film was repurposed to allegedly show that Israel was creating fake footage of deaths, garnering 2 million views on X.

Another attracted the same amount of views, also on X, purportedly showing Israeli generals being captured by Hamas fighters, but it turned out it was a video released by the Azerbaijan government.

A doctored document signed by US President Joe Biden also spread, supposedly showing an $8-billion pledge by the US to Israel, but was in reality, a memo for Ukraine aid. 

Clips from the video game Arma 3, a military game with hyper-realistic graphics, also continue to spread as fake war footage. This was seen in the Ukraine war but is also being seen in the Israel war

The New York Times has a list of pieces of disinformation that has spread during the war.

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X has become eye in the storm for spread of war disinformation 

While other platforms are not free from blame, X is being seen as the worst offender. Owner Elon Musk’s moves have made sure of that, starting with gutting its trust and safety teams when he took over.

X has held a key role for the fastest source of breaking news in the past.

It has continued to spread new information fast, but without the former guardrails and other changes to the platform discussed below, and the platform has seemingly become the eye of the storm in conflict disinformation. 

Technology Transparency Project (TTP) director Katie Paul, as quoted by NBC News, said that while X had been the industry leader for combating false information in the past, the reverse is true now. “That leadership role has remained, but in the reverse direction,” Paul said. 

The EU has opened a probe on X on Israel-Hamas disinformation, while a US lawmaker has also sought answers from Meta, TikTok, and Google. Will changes ever arise from the inquiries fast enough? 

X features that aid disinformation 
  1. The blue checkmarks for sale

The blue checkmarks that immediately signaled a level of trustworthiness for a page have become a problem. Any user can now purchase the checkmark for a monthly price, but users are still conditioned to treat such users with trust. NBC reported that experts have found that the checkmark has also made it harder to distinguish journalists, public figures, and institutions from impostors. 

The TTP has also found that militant group Hamas had used premium blue checkmark-bearing accounts to spread propaganda videos. These accounts also enjoy “prioritized rankings in conversations and search” allowing for further spread of propaganda, the TTP said. 

  1. Crowdsourced fact-checking via Community Notes exacerbate the problem

Community Notes allow users to fact-check a post by themselves. The notes appear on relevant posts to warn users of possibly false information or to show correct information. That was the plan at least. 

An investigation by Wired appeared to show that it’s contributing to the problem, despite praise from Elon Musk and X CEO Linda Yaccarino as a powerful tool to combat war disinformation. 

Wired said the feature “may be vulnerable to coordinated manipulation by outside groups, and lacks transparency about how notes are approved. Sources also claim that it is filled with in-fighting and disinformation, and there appears to be no real oversight from the company itself.” 

David Rand, lead MIT researcher of a 2022 study that found users of the feature tend to fact-check posts that oppose their political views, told Wired of the tool’s shortcomings: “In a situation like what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now, where there’s a massive amount of unknowns, that gut-check of ‘Does this seem reasonable?’ is not great… With such a fast-moving and volatile situation, “what I expect the crowd to produce is a lot of noise.” 

API changes add to difficulties for disinformation researchers 

The Application Programming Interface (API) of a platform allows users such as researchers to collect and analyze data from the platforms to help them spot problematic or false posts, and see patterns in disinformation.

But these researchers are now finding it harder to access these APIs, reported NBC, which has further reduced the transparency we have on how these platforms work, and what the algorithms choose to spread. 

API access has long been limited at Facebook and YouTube, the report noted, but two platforms Reddit and X have added fees in order to access the APIs. In X’s case, this has again made it easier for disinformation to spread on the platform, without researchers being able to see as clearly as they have in the past. TikTok, for its part, has launched a research API to help researchers. 

CrowdTangle, a tool researchers use for studying Facebook and its content, has also been degraded, adding to researcher difficulties. 

Zeve Sanderson, the founding executive director at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics told NBC, “Researchers really don’t have either a wide or deep perspective onto the platforms.” 

“If you want to understand how those pieces of misinformation are fitting into an overall information ecosystem at a particular moment in time, that’s where the current data-access landscape is especially limiting.”

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Other countries are playing a part such as Russia and India 

Russia is pushing the narrative that Ukraine is selling NATO-provided weapons to Hamas.

The Guardian reported that former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, tweeted, “Well, Nato buddies, you’ve really got it, haven’t you? The weapons handed to the Nazi regime in Ukraine are now being actively used against Israel.”

A video posted on X by an account linked to Russian mercenary group Wagner purporting to show Hamas thanking Ukraine for the weapons has also been viewed 300,000 times, and shared by far-right US accounts. 

The news site added that in February, the Pentagon has found no evidence that such sales were being conducted, while Ukraine has accused Russia of placing seized western weapons in the hands of Hamas in an effort to undermine support for Ukraine. 

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has reported that a significant amount of anti-Palestine, and anti-Islam disinformation is spreading from Indian right-wing accounts.

BOOM, a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, found several verified Indian X users have been “mostly targeting Palestine negatively, or being supportive of Israel.” Al Jazeera wrote that the tropes peddled “have sought to showcase Palestinians as fundamentally brutal.”

The news site also quoted a tweet from Pratik Sinha, founder and editor of Indian fact-checker AltNews: “With India now exporting its disinformation actors in the Indian mainstream media and on social media in support of Israel, hopefully the world will now realise how the Indian right-wing has made India the disinformation capital of the world”.

Hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric in India has spread in the past, particularly in 2021 when tensions escalated between Israel and Palestine. – Rappler.com

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.