How fake news is thickening the fog of war in Israel and Gaza

Hundred of deceptive or manufactured social media posts mean sites like X can no longer be fully trusted

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A black-clad Hamas fighter raises a hand-held rocket launcher to his shoulders and fires. Seconds later, an Israeli Apache attack helicopter explodes in a ball of flames.

It's an astonishing clip that shows the fury and intensity of conflict over the Gaza Strip that had been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social media.

Except it doesn't.

Despite the claims made for its authenticity, the scene is actually taken from a video game, Arma 3, which creates simulated battle scenes with surprising accuracy.

The conflict raging between Israel and Hamas has produced a flood of misinformation on social media, much of it on X, formerly known as Twitter, which this week was labelled a “fog of war machine” by the magazine Slate.

A distorted narrative

Hundreds of posts seen by millions of users have created a distorted narrative of what is really happening on the ground. They have not just deceived gullible teenagers glued to their phones, but world leaders too.

On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden declared that “I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children.”

Despite rumours, the president had seen no such thing. He was reacting to unverified reports that Hamas had beheaded children in its assault on an Israeli kibbutz.

Some of this genuinely fake news might seem almost comical were it not for the power of platforms like X, TikTok and YouTube shaping opinions around the world.

A video on Facebook and X does not show Irish football fans waving Palestinian flags but are supporters of two Moroccan teams.

Palestinians wait in long queues for water and food in Gaza

Palestinians wait in long queues for water and food in Gaza

Another clip on X allegedly of Hamas capturing Israeli generals actually shows the arrest of Nagorno-Karabakh separatist leaders by Azerbaijan's security service.

A photograph of an aircraft filled with Israeli men flying home to enlist in the military is a fake generated by AI – a clue being passengers' hands with six fingers.

Another clip of a Hamas hang-glider killed after crashing into power lines and posted to Reddit is in fact a tragic accident in China first shown on YouTube three months ago. The post was later deleted by the user after fellow Reddit users said it was inaccurate.

Footage on TikTok of buildings in Gaza surrounded by smoke and red flames is actually football fans in Algiers celebrating a win with flares and fireworks.

A video posted by a Malaysian right-wing influencer, Ian Miles Cheong, and viewed over 12 million times, claimed to show Hamas going door-to-door hunting down Israelis. “Imagine if this was happening in your neighbourhood, to your family,” he wrote. It is actually footage of Israeli police conducting a raid on a house.

Other examples seem more sinister.

Sinister posts

A video, seen over a million times, claims to show Gazans faking deaths caused by Israel, when a person lying on the ground suddenly comes back to life and runs away. It is actually a video satirising Covid restrictions shot in Jordan.

A video posted on X, accompanied by a broken heart emoji, is not a kidnapped Israeli child with her Hamas abductor, but a family filmed at a military academy in Egypt in September.

Other posts mimic genuine media outlets or repost genuine footage from Gaza, but from earlier conflicts months or even years ago.

An account on X posted misinformation from a supposed BBC reporter called Verona Mark, who does not exist.

While it has since been suspended, it fooled British politician Chris Clarkson – a Conservative Member of Parliament – who launched a blistering attack on the broadcaster.

Not in my brother’s name, Israeli peace activist calls for halt to Gaza bombings

Not in my brother’s name, Israeli peace activist calls for halt to Gaza bombings

Outlets as diverse as Al Jazeera and the Jerusalem Post have also suffered from fake accounts, including claims that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been taken to hospital.

Despite its low user numbers for a social media platform, X is often the first port of call for misinformation.

Since Elon Musk took over, dozens of content moderators have been laid off. A verified user “blue tick” can now be bought for a $8 monthly subscription via Twitter Blue.

Musk says he is committed to free speech and that “our policy is that everything is open source and transparent.”

However, Slate says that X is now “a degraded site that can't be trusted for sensitive breaking news”.

Debunking false claims

The BBC now has an entire department called Verify to fact-check news. In the days following the first Hamas attack and Israeli's response, monitoring social media about the conflict has become a full time job.

Ironically, much of this monitoring happens on X, where BBC Verify staff member Shayan Sardarizadeh has debunked a host of false claims and reports that have been seen by millions.

These include a photo that wrongly claimed Netanyahu was sending his son to fight in Gaza and a video claiming to show Israel's use of white phosphorus which was actually a Russian attack on Ukraine in March.

The motives of those posting misinformation are varied.

They may be trolls acting on behalf of state actors like Iran, or simply supporters of the various waring sides making trouble. Many simply post what gets the most likes to raise their profile.

Most are eventually debunked on the platforms they appear, but not before they have been seen by millions in their original state.

The BBC's Sardairzadeh writes that “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.”

The awful truth is what is really happening in Gaza and Israel is far more horrifying than the false claims on social media.

As Sardarizadeh says: “War is not a game for retweets and likes on social media.”

Updated: October 23, 2023, 10:46 AM