The worldwide war of words: Inside the disinformation campaigns surrounding the Israel-Hamas war

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:25 PM

Reading time: 7 minutes

The war between Israel and Hamas has morphed into a full-on world war that involves countries such as India, Iran, Russia, and China. However, not all of the fighting is not being carried out on a battleground, it’s happening online. While physical warfare is something we have become uncomfortably familiar with in recent weeks, information warfare is a concept encountered less frequently that has still made it to the forefront of the war.

On 3 November 2023, The New York Times reported that most of the states listed above have used state media as well as the world’s largest social networking platforms to support Hamas and undercut Israel. Independent researchers have recorded an avalanche of online propaganda and disinformation sponsored by these actors and it is happening on a scale never seen before. A primary objective of these campaigns seems to be denigrating Israel’s strongest ally, the United States. Additionally, the disinformation aims to pollute the global information ecosystem around the war. The Times also noted increased participation by extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

From the first hours of its attack, Hamas has employed a broad media strategy, inspired by groups like ISIS. This included broadcasting images and videos of its attack on social media to spread fear, anxiety and outrage. Terror, unfortunately, has long been used as advertisement and propaganda. The imagery was spread through bot accounts originating in places like Pakistan, to sidestep bans on Hamas on Facebook and X.

The horror online was exacerbated once pictures of Palestinian suffering started to circulate. As the war took a more dramatic turn and the death toll started to rise, the content shared by these actors became more visceral, emotionally charged, and “politically slanted.” It instrumentalised people’s deaths for political goals to stock anger, confusion and even violence beyond the borders of Israel and Gaza. This raised fears that it could inflame a wider conflict.

The campaigns do not appear to be coordinated, government officials have said. However, cooperation can not be ruled out. While Iran, Russia and China each have different motivations in backing Hamas over Israel, they have pushed the same themes since the war began. A network of accounts, for example, posted identical messages and photos, using the hashtag #AmericasponsorIsraelTerrorism.

Furthermore, the Russian overseas news outlet Sputnik India quoted a “military expert” stating, without evidence, that the US provided the bomb that destroyed Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on 17 October, although multiple Western intelligence agencies independently confirmed that a Palestinian rocket that went off inside Gaza caused the explosion.

Other content downplayed the 7 October attack, tried to create sympathy for Hamas, a designated terrorist group, or falsely claimed that Ukraine or other countries were providing weapons to Hamas.

To gain a deeper understanding of the rise of disinformation and misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war, SCREENSHOT spoke to Pippa Allen-Kinross, News and Online Editor of Full Fact, a charity that flags and corrects misinformation reported in the news and on social media.

“We’ve seen a lot of misinformation about Israel and Gaza. Almost straight after 7 October, it started and it’s still ongoing and it’s the main topic we are publishing about every week. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. It’s quite similar to when the Ukrainian war started and we saw lots of misinformation about Ukraine in the period directly after. This has definitely been going on for almost two months now and it doesn’t really seem to be letting up. We are seeing so much misinformation across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. There are a lot of fact-checkers and journalists right now, who are working really, really hard to combat it but there is just so much going around.”

Nevertheless, things grew increasingly more complicated when Bangalore-based disinformation journalist Mohammed Zubair claimed that roughly two-thirds of the disinformation about the conflict was coming from the Hindu right. Zubair called them the most formidable purveyors of propaganda in the world, in conversation with The Atlantic. As reasons for their participation in disinformation campaigns, he cited an entertainment value to a war that is happening far away from them, as well as an Islamophobic agenda that aims to vilianise Muslims by undermining Palestinians. Zubair is currently using his X page to debunk wrong news about the war.

Furthermore, more pro-Israel actors have entered the online battleground in recent weeks. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that a multimillion-dollar campaign attacking the pro-Palestine movement has spent more than $370,000 in the past month on viral adverts on Facebook and Instagram. The campaign, run by an organisation called Facts for Peace, has published videos that appear to conflate support for Palestine with backing for Hamas. There currently isn’t any evidence of who is behind the campaign and where its funding is coming from. Consequently, it cannot be determined whether it’s private or political actors.

However, it is clear that pro-Israeli campaigns are gaining traction. The Intercept reported that Facebook approved a series of advertisements dehumanising and calling for violence against Palestinians. The platform even greenlit a placement that called for the assassination of a pro-Palestinian activist. The ads were submitted in both Hebrew and Arabic and demanded a “Holocaust for the Palestinians,” as well as a wipeout of “Gazan women and children and the elderly.”

Experts have observed the majority of anti-Palestinian posts are focused on downplaying Palestinian deaths and suffering. A growing number of accounts, for instance, are dismissing imagery of deaths in Gaza as “Pallywood fake news.” The term Pallywood refers to “staged” imagery of deaths and attacks that present the Palestinians as helpless victims of Israeli aggression. This includes a post of a little girl on a gurney having make-up applied to her, which was quickly exposed as coming from a Lebanese film shoot.

How is online misinformation further inflaming polarisation?

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the structures of social media platforms amplify the emotive misinformation a lot of different actors are pushing right now because they drive user engagement. This, in turn, drives polarisation.

“One thing that has always been true is that people who are creating misinformation will prey on your emotions. If you have an emotional response to something, you are more likely to share it. Whether that’s sadness or disgust or anger, it makes you more inclined to share that information. That doesn’t mean that if you have an emotional response to something it’s not true, but it’s quite easy for people to play on these emotions,” Allen-Kinross replied.

This is where the echo-chamber effect of social media also comes into play, according to The Economist. Millions of people have watched footage of Hamas’ crimes in horror and are now watching in transfixed shock as Palestinians are being killed. This engagement is logged and then reproduced with similar content, some of which can be false. However, in wartime, “people are looking for reasons to confirm their biases,” Peter Pomerantsev of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore told the news organisation. According to him, the only thing more worrying than the amount of disinformation is the demand for it.

Issues around misinformation were further complicated once influencers and content creators decided to report on the war. Most of these posts simply show people offering their opinions or expressing support for one side. However, many others attempt to produce historical explainers and aim to cram a book’s worth of information into a one-minute clip. TikTok’s reliance on hot takes and short videos, consequently, leads to skewed, exaggerated, or false claims.

“In my view, the conflict between Hamas and Israel—as well as others around the globe—is extremely complicated and has a long, nuanced history of political, economic, religious, cultural, and social causes and implications,” Dr Yotam Ophir, assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo commented.

“While very few people are real experts on the topic, on social media it feels like everyone is eager to take a side immediately, and to cheer for one camp while demonising the other. This simplification, even if done with good intentions, can often lead to inaccuracies and reliance on problematic sources. For example, many of the images from Israel and Gaza spreading on social media these days are old photos taken at different times and even places. Content creators, despite their popularity, are not experts on such complex topics, and their opinion should not be considered more accurate than that of any other ordinary citizen.”

In recent years, some state actors have even worked with influencers who unintentionally or knowingly, regurgitated propagandistic information to their audiences, according to ISD. It needs to be highlighted that influencers aren’t journalists but content creators. They are engaged in commentary rather than newsgathering and can fall into the trap of conflating their opinions with facts. They do not work with subeditors who flag insensitive and incendiary language, independent fact-checkers who correct their scripts, or lawyers who advise them on legal and social media guidelines because their measures for quality and success are very different.

“The problem is when things aren’t explained properly or misinformation is shared. I wouldn’t discourage people from explaining things that they have seen online and explaining where they come from but really make sure that the information you are sharing is right as well and you don’t accidentally become part of the misinformation,” Allen-Kinross noted.

This is where the echo-chamber effect of social media also comes into play, according to The Economist. Millions of people have watched footage of Hamas’ crimes in horror and are now watching in transfixed shock as Palestinians are being killed. This engagement is logged and then reproduced with similar content, some of which can be false. However, in wartime, “people are looking for reasons to confirm their biases,” Peter Pomerantsev of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore told the news organisation. According to him, the only thing more worrying than the amount of disinformation is the demand for it.

A common argument in conversations around online disinformation is that it doesn’t have any real-life consequences. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that that is untrue. TikTok said that since the war broke out, it has removed over 775,000 videos and shut down over 14,000 live streams that violated its guidelines for promoting violence, terrorism, hate speech, or falsehoods, as of 30 October.

When I asked Dr Ophir about the best way to practise media literacy at this time, he replied: “Above anything else, I would recommend practising humility.”

He went on to say: “We don’t have to portray complex conflicts in terms of black and white, good and evil, etc. We don’t have to immediately take a side. We should realise and acknowledge that there are many things that we do not know, in part because during war reliable information is slow to accumulate, and in part because most of us do not know how to process complex geopolitical information. Maybe we should take a big breath before jumping to conclusions and sharing every bit of information we find online, as emotional and interesting as it may be.”

Antisemitic content soared more than 919 per cent on X and 28 per cent on Facebook in the month since 7 October, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group. Anti-Muslim hate speech on X jumped 422 per cent on 7 October and 8 October, and rose 297 per cent over the next five days, said the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based political advocacy group. Furthermore, there has been a stark increase in hate crimes on both sides since the war started.

Dr Ophir continued: “I would also hope people would [show] more compassion towards those affected by the conflict on both sides. Both Israelis and Palestinians report experiencing high levels of stress, and also encountering more prejudice and harassment these days—in my view, no matter how angry you are about the actions taken by a country, organisation or government, you shouldn’t take it on individuals, who may or may not even stand behind their leaders’ decisions. In short, be kind and patient.”

The online battleground has become a breeding ground for polarising narratives, misinformation, and hate speech, which seek to intensify the conflict rather than de-escalate it. And it’s a problem even well-intentioned individuals are contributing to.

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