Social media platforms swamped with fake news on the Israel-Hamas war

Of all platforms, Elon Musk’s X appears to have had the worst outbreak of fake news related to the war.

Palestinians wave their national flag and celebrate by a destroyed Israeli tank at the Gaza Strip fence east of Khan Younis southern Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. The militant Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations by air, land, and sea and catching the country off-guard on a major holiday. (AP Photo/Yousef Masoud)
Disinformation - fake news that is spread deliberately - about the Israel-Palestine conflict has spread across all social networks like X, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok [Yousef Masoud/AP]

Hours after Hamas, the armed Palestinian group, attacked Israel on Saturday, X, the social network owned by the world’s richest man Elon Musk was awash with fake videos, photos and misleading information about the conflict.

“Imagine if this was happening in our neighbourhood, to your family,” posted Ian Miles Cheong, a far-right commentator whom Musk interacts with often, along with a video that he claimed showed Palestinian fighters killing Israeli citizens.

A Community Note, an X feature that lets users add context to posts, stated that the people in the clip were members of Israeli law enforcement, not Hamas.

But the video is still up and has racked up millions of impressions. And hundreds of other X accounts have shared the clip on the platform, some of them with verified check marks, an Al Jazeera search showed.

Disinformation – fake news that is spread deliberately – about the war and the Israel-Palestine conflict in general spread across other social networks like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok too, but thanks to Musk’s revamped policies that let anyone pay to be verified as well as large scale layoffs in X’s Trust and Safety teams, the platform appears to have seen the worst of it.

X, Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and Threads, TikTok, and BlueSky, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

On Monday, X declared there were more than 50 million posts on the platform over the weekend about the conflict.

In response, the company said it had removed newly-created accounts affiliated with Hamas, escalated “tens of thousands of posts” for sharing graphic media and hate speech, and updated its policies that define what the platform considers “newsworthy”.

“These massive companies are still stumped by the proliferation of disinformation, even as no one is still surprised by it,” said Irina Raicu, the director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University.

“They put out numbers – how many posts they’ve taken down, how many accounts they’ve blocked, what settings you might want to change if you don’t want to see carnage. What they don’t put out are their metrics of their failures: how many distortions were not accompanied by ‘Community Notes’ or otherwise labelled, and for how long. It’s left to the journalists and researchers to document their failures after they happen.”

‘Old and recycled footage’

Over the last few years, bad actors have repeatedly used social media platforms to spread disinformation in response to real-world conflicts. In 2019, for instance, Twitter and Facebook were flooded with rumours and hoaxes after India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, came to the brink of war following Pakistan’s shooting down of two Indian warplanes and its capture of an Indian pilot.

This week, on X, a user called The Indian Muslim shared a video with the caption “More power to you #Hamas” and claimed that the clip showed a Hamas armed fighter firing a large, shoulder-mounted rocket cannon and taking down an Israeli helicopter.

Multiple disinformation researchers, both on social media and in interviews with Al Jazeera, pointed out that the footage was from a video game called Arma 3. The post, which has Community Notes on it, is still up and has more than half a million views.

Another post by Jim Ferguson, a British social media influencer, claims to show Hamas soldiers using US weapons “left behind in Afghanistan used to attack Israel”.

But according to Community Notes, the photo shows Taliban soldiers from 2021, not Hamas. Fergusson’s post, which is still available on the platform, has more than 10 million views.

Dina Sadek, a Middle East research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab, told Al Jazeera that another false narrative her team had seen spreading on platforms was that Hamas had received help from inside Israel to plan the attack.

“There’s old and recycled footage circulating online that is overwhelming and makes it difficult for users to discern what is real and what is not,” Sadek said.

Disinformation around the attack is also travelling between platforms, Sadek added. “Some TikTok videos find their way to X, and some footage that appeared on Telegram first is then seen on X,” she said.

“The flood of grifters spreading lies and hate about the Israel-Gaza crisis in recent days, combined with algorithms that aggressively promote extreme and disturbing content, is exactly why social media has become such a bad place to access reliable information,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told Al Jazeera.

“Tech companies have proven themselves uninterested, if not utterly complicit, in the spread of dangerous propaganda.”

Source: Al Jazeera