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'Fog of war': The misinformation shaping views on the war in Gaza

Social media has been flooded with graphic footage and images showing casualties and destruction since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October. What is so different this time?
Social media has been flooded with graphic footage and images showing casualties and destruction since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October. What is so different this time?

Social media has been flooded with graphic footage and images showing casualties and destruction since Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October.

Such content emerges from all modern conflicts. However, this one has also seen a slew of demonstrably fake or mis-contextualised content being produced at a scale that has shocked even long-time observers of such conflicts.

"This is a new level," compared to other wars - including the one in Ukraine - says Dina Sadek, Middle East research fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

"We have been seeing misinformation, disinformation, and unverified and misleading content of everything under the sun," she added.

So, what is so different this time? Who is contributing to the problem, and what are their strategies and motivations?

General users amplifying false claims

"I think that's amplified the amount of people that are sharing misinformation and disinformation, perhaps unknowingly, online," said Charley Maher, social media editor from Bellingcat, an investigative website specialising in online research and image analysis.

Ms Maher said that unlike other conflicts there is a perceived need among people in many countries to publicly state a position about what is happening in the region.

The content many of those people are sharing often comes from media companies in the region, or with interests in the outcome of the conflict.

While much of the media content coming from Israeli and Arab outlets, and outlets in the wider Middle East, is accurate, some of it has been shown to be heavily skewed or incorrect.

Media Misinformation

The prominent Palestinian news agency Quds News Network, among others, has shared misleading footage and amplified false narratives.

Quds News Network reports extensively from Gaza and has been considered by the Palestinian Authority and US State Department to be affiliated with Hamas and the other Gaza-based armed group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

It is independently owned and has a strong social media presence in both Arabic and English. As a result, its footage of attacks and destruction in Gaza is consistently shared widely online.

However, those online posts are not always reliable.

In one instance on 9 November, Quds cited "media coverage" to amplify false claims circulated on social media purporting to show a video from an Israeli Apache helicopter firing on people attending the SuperNova music festival.

More than 350 people were killed at the festival during the Hamas attacks of 7 October, out of a total of over 1,200 people killed across southern Israel.

In response to the Hamas attacks, the Israeli military launched a massive air campaign that it said targeted Hamas-linked locations in Gaza.

Two days later, on 9 October, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) posted footage taken from planes and helicopters of the airborne operations. The footage that Quds later described as being of the Israeli military attacking the music festival was included within that IDF footage.

However, when Quds News Network reposted the video it incorrectly claimed it showed evidence that Israeli helicopters had shot at festival-goers.

That claim was analysed and debunked, including by researchers for the group GeoConfirmed and the BBC. They concluded it had been taken in an area nearer the Israeli-Gaza border, inside Gaza, not at the location of the festival.

Furthermore, the footage in the video published by the Israeli military was infrared, indicating it was recorded in the dark, while the attack on the festival began around 7am, well after dawn.

Other high-profile pro-Palestinian accounts amplified to the same claim about the footage. It was also posted on 19 November by Iranian state-affiliated news platform Tasnim News Agency.

The tweet posted by Quds has not been deleted or removed by X (formerly Twitter), and has been seen more than 550,000 times, and reposted almost 4,000 times.

It is just one of many examples of media misinformation since 7 October.

In this instance, researchers say the false claims may have been part of an attempt by Hamas, or elements sympathetic to them, to push back against criticism for killing civilians.

"That helicopter footage was being used to [say] that Hamas did not actually kill the rave concert goers, that it was the Israeli government. And that has been taken out of context," according to Moustafa Ayad, Executive Director of the Africa, the Middle East and Asia programme at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).

Russian social accounts have also been promoting claims relating to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

One heavily promoted claim was that Ukraine had provided weapons to Hamas. It was circulated on social media by Russian Telegram accounts through the production of a fake BBC News video report.

The content of the video claimed that the investigative website Bellingcat had obtained secret data containing evidence that Ukraine had sold arms to Hamas. The video was branded with the BBC logo and the text on screen was in the font and design style used in all online BBC videos.

"It's unclear if this is a Russian government disinformation campaign or a grassroots effort, but it's 100% fake," Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, tweeted.

A professor briefly featured in the video told Reuters that claims attributed to him in it were "entirely fake. Never said that".

Russian state-controlled media accounts, diplomatic accounts, and politicians on X, had pushed the same narrative since around 7 October.

The Russian Embassy in Kenya shared a post from a user 'Orwellian Nightmare', which said "Hamas openly thanked Ukraine for selling them weapons".

The post included an 11-second video of unknown origin showing weapons, with the voice of someone heard in the background speaking Arabic.

The same claims reached, or were pushed by, senior Russian politicians and state-funded media.

On Telegram, Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president, and current deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, also claimed weapons provided to Ukraine were being used by Hamas.

State-funded TV channel RT subsequently reported on Mr Medvedev’s "warning".

Officials Sources

Disinformation and misinformation are also being produced and amplified by officials and spokespeople involved in the conflict.

The Israeli Prime Minister's Arabic language spokesperson shared footage that he claimed was evidence Palestinians regularly fake injuries to blame Israel for civilian casualties caused by air strikes.

In one such case, the spokesperson, Ofir Gendelman, posted a video showing a young girl with blood on her face on a gurney with emergency workers.

"Watch how makeup is applied to the unharmed child and how 'treatment is provided' to civilians who were not injured, in front of the cameras," he tweeted in Arabic.

He then makes reference, as he has done so at numerous time over recent years, to "Pallywood".

Pallywood is a term used by accounts and people who say Palestinians are creating fake ‘Hollywood’ scenes and trying to pass them off as news footage.

In fact, the footage was not being distributed as news footage, it was taken a short Lebanese film about the suffering of Palestinians called 'The Reality'.

The source video was posted on the film director's Instagram account on 28 October. In a later video posted on 9 November, the director said it had been taken out of context by some trying to add to the Pallywood narrative.

Referring to other scenes in the original film, he asked why there would be balloons, confetti, and musical instruments in "staged war content".

"The Pallywood discourse, which has been promoted by the State of Israel's official X accounts are still getting a lot of traction," Mr Ayad of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue said.

"At one point, I think we had clocked something like there were 450,000-plus references to Pallywood and there were 350,000 unique accounts that were referencing the Pallywood sort of trope in and of itself," Mr Ayad said.

References to 'Pallywood’ are not new, and tend to peak online during times of increased Israeli-Palestinian tension, according to Ms Sadek of Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

"That was the case back during 2021 crisis, and again before that in 2014, and before that in 2009 and 2006."

"It is essentially saying that Palestinians are faking deaths," said Mr Ayad. "And on top of it, it's being layered with what you could say is just like mockery of civilian casualties."

Misleading or false narratives shared by official accounts not only dilute the online conversation but can have more serious consequences, says Ms Maher from Bellingcat.

"I think it can be highly problematic because it can sway political responses, which obviously have a direct impact on the conflict itself."

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