Hamas-Israel war: Unverified claims and Islamophobia breed on X in India

By: ilma hasan&
October 13 2023

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Hamas-Israel war: Unverified claims and Islamophobia breed on X in India

Palestine fires rockets in response to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City. (Source: Ahmed Zakot/Reuters)

As unverified information and falsehoods spread unchecked on social media following the war between Israel and Hamas, a Logically Facts analysis of numerous hashtags showed that accounts in India form a significant portion of the global online discourse on the war. We further found that these hashtags were used to spread Islamophobic rhetoric and for electoral gains in India.

On October 7, Hamas, an Islamist militant group that controls Palestine’s Gaza Strip launched a strike on Israel as fighters crossed into the country at several points. Israel retaliated with missile strikes across Gaza. Reportedly, at least 1,300 people in Israel and over 1,537 people in Gaza had been killed as of October 12, while thousands have been injured on both sides.

Whether pro-Israel or pro-Palestine narratives, a large proportion of mentions from unique handles are originating from India – thousands of accounts are using the hashtags #IsraelUnderAttack, #IStandWithIsrael, #Israel_Under_Attack, and #IStandWithPalestine.

Over 20 percent mentions of #IsraelUnderAttack and #IStandWithIsrael are emerging from India from the one million and 656,000 mentions of each hashtag respectively at the time of writing. In addition, a network of handles are disseminating anti-Islam rhetoric based on the conflict that erupted following Hamas’ unprecedented attack on Israel. 

Brandwatch’s search tool showing Logically Facts’s analysis of the use of #IsraelUnderAttack by country.

Brandwatch’s search tool showing Logically Facts’s analysis of the use of #IStandWithIsrael by country. 

Anti-Muslim narratives shared widely 

Users are linking the attacks by Hamas militants to the Kashmir conflict, misattributing images and videos, and using it to spread Islamophobic content. Indian accounts have also relied on misinformation to target opposition parties. 

For instance, several users shared a video claiming that “Islamists” are building narratives by showing fake dead bodies. A video showing a group of men carrying what appears to be a dead body on a stretcher in the middle of the street; then the group and the person on the stretcher running away when sirens started blaring was shared on X (formerly Twitter). The posts received over 120,000 views combined. Archives links can be viewed here and here. However, the video was posted by Arab news website 24.ae in March 2020 on X and is reportedly from Jordan. It was also shared by an X user on June 5 this year, and on Iran-based video sharing platform Aparat on July 6, indicating it was online before the war. 

Video shared with a claim that these men were carrying a fake dead body. (Source: X/Screenshot)

Logically Facts has also debunked a clip from a short film that was used to falsely claim that both Hamas and Israel are producing fake news about injured children. 

In another instance, a user with over a 100,000 followers posted a video that was shared by many alleging, “Hamas Terrorists proudly recording butchering a bedridden Israeli woman and her Indian Caregiver. The video shows a militant The caregiver is a Kerala Hindu woman as per reports. These *Trads* are CONgi IT Celliyas aka Hamas supporting cult (sic).” 

The undated video shows a Hamas militant entering a room with an elderly lady lying in bed and another woman on the floor, as he speaks to the camera in Arabic. The post received close to 670,000 views and was reshared and posted by thousands of users.

However, BoomLive, a fact-checking Indian website, confirmed with Arabic speakers that the man in the video spoke about not harming women and children. Yet, it was shared with misleading claims. The same claim was also made by accounts appearing to have a pro-Palestine stance. 

Vilifying Islam and Muslims, a user with almost 66,000 followers in this post said, “Killing Jews in Israel, Hindus in Kashmir, Bengal Buddhists in Myanmar, Sri Lanka. Christians in Nigeria & Somalia. Are they all misinterpreting the book (Quran)? Or is what they’re doing the actual interpretation?” The post had over 182,000 views and 2,300 reshares. 

A post by a verified account stating, “If you have a picture in short clothes on Instagram, Muslim hijabi influencers will justify terrorists parading your naked body across town,” got over 44,000 views. 

A few users also targeted the students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) claiming that they carried out a protest in support of Hamas. This claim was propagated in other posts as ‘open support for Hamas terrorist activities’ and used to make more Islamophobic comments. For instance, a user on X wrote, “I want more Indian Muslims to support Hamas Terrorists openly. Jamia students should also protest like AMU. The world should see the mentality of these "oppressed" people.” 

According to students from AMU quoted in reports, the protest was not in favor of Hamas but in support of Palestine. The police clarified that they booked students participating in the protest because it did not have permission and “inflammatory slogans” were raised at the event – though they have not clarified what the inflammatory slogans in question were. 

On Thursday, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi reiterated India’s stand on Palestine calling for “direct negotiations” towards establishing a “sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine living within secure and recognized borders, side by side at peace with Israel.”

Unverified information shared unchecked 

While there is a barrage of disinformation, a lot of unverified and unsubstantiated information is also being shared on X.

Several users on the platform shared an image of a list claiming 17 Indian civilians in Israel have been taken hostage by Hamas, of which ten are suspected to have been “killed or executed.” A few shared a screenshot of a list (here, here, and here) with the unverified claim which reportedly shows the names of 17 Nepali nationals who were working on a farm at Kibbutz Alumim, an area near the Gaza Strip. Logically Facts has not been able to independently verify the list. 

However, Nepal’s foreign minister confirmed Monday at least ten civilians were killed in Israel. Over 20,000 Indians live in Israel, but so far no reports of any Indian nationals being killed or getting injured in the war have surfaced, Israel's Consul General in Mumbai said.

Unverified news about ‘40 babies beheaded’ in Israel by Hamas has also been widely amplified not just online or by media outlets, but also by political leaders. On October 12, the official X handle of Israel’s prime minister shared graphic pictures of babies, but no specific evidence about this claim was made available till the time of writing this story. In its post, the prime minister’s office wrote, “These are horrifying photos of babies murdered and burned by the Hamas monsters.”

As per a report published by CNN on October 12, an Israeli government official said that while Hamas militants "carried out beheadings," it can’t be confirmed whether the victims were children, men, women, or adults. This however contradicts a statement by the Israeli prime minister’s office. An Israeli Defense Force (IDF) spokesperson Jonathan Conricus also said in a X video, “I think we can say with relative confidence that this is, unfortunately, what happened in Be’eri. This is what Hamas did to Israeli civilians.”

The allegation that “children were decapitated” emerged on Tuesday in Israeli media. 

While it is hard to verify this amid the contradictions and lack of evidence, violence of any kind can’t be condoned. And while reports of crimes by Hamas are drawing condemnation worldwide, the consequences of “uncorroborated reports broadcast alongside legitimate, equally horrific ones” are dangerous, The Intercept’s Alice Speri noted in this article.

Targeted misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, and misleading media has blurred the lines between what information is legitimate and what’s not on X. Although the social media platform has assured its treating the crisis with the “highest level of response” experts allege X has become particularly vulnerable to harmful misinformation. Musk’s changes to the platform - including downsizing its content moderation team - has made it hard to monitor credibility of accounts. 

“Introduction of view monetization has created perverse incentives for war-focused accounts to post as many times as possible, even unverified rumors, and to make the most salacious claims possible,” Atlantic Council’s Emerson Brooking said, according to the Associated Press. 

2024 Indian elections in sight

With India’s general elections scheduled for next year, online handles are using statements made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the opposing Congress party to spread election propaganda in Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) favor. 

On Sunday, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) released the following statement: “The CWC expresses its dismay and anguish on the war that has broken out in the Middle East where over a thousand people have been killed in the last two days. The CWC reiterates its long-standing support for the rights of the Palestinian people to land, self-government and to live with dignity and respect.” 

This statement was heavily criticized by the BJP which claimed Congress was supporting Hamas since it did not explicitly condemn the attack. BJP accused the opposition party of supporting terrorism and being a "hostage to minority vote bank politics.” 

This narrative was astroturfed by users, and posts of some handles displaying bot or bot-like activity got exponentially more views. 

Sharing a clip of two videos playing simultaneously - one of an Israeli woman purportedly being pushed into a truck and taken hostage by Hamas militants, and one of a clip from an Indian film - a user wrote, “The situation in Israel now is the same as it was in 1990 during Congress rule. Now wake up Hindus, Modi ji has done so much for Hindus, now it is our turn in 2024.” Although the user has five followers, the post has received nearly 14,000 views. The day the attack started, BJP’s official account also posted a video on X drawing a parallel with terror attacks under the Congress government before 2014, which was criticized by journalists

BJP party members also shared similar narratives urging them to vote for Modi in 2024 claiming Congress defends terrorists.

Screenshots of posts calling to vote for BJP in 2024 (Source:X)

Indian handles also labeled users who criticized Modi over his delayed response to the ethnic conflict in the northeastern state of Manipur but reacted to the ongoing war swiftly as  “potential terrorists.”

Several handles used copypasta techniques - a tactic where the same text is copied and pasted to amplify a certain narrative. This method was likely adopted since specific spellings were taken from the original post  - ‘terrorist’ was spelled ‘terr0rist.’ One such post received over 155,000 views and 1,376 reshares. 

Users adopting copypasta behavior on X.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of 406,000 mentions of #IStandWithPalestine and ten percent mentions from two million of #FreePalestine are being shared by Indian handles as of October 13.  

Logically Facts also found thousands of handles based from India or seemingly-based from India have added the Israel flag in addition to the Indian flag in their handle names.

Indian handles on X with Israel flag in handle name (Source:X)

Many of these handles also have the Russian flag - our findings last year analyzed how India’s X discourse was subject to a coordinated effort to spread pro-Russian narratives as the country invaded Ukraine. In an ongoing geopolitical situation, and with the significant numbers in which Indian handles are posting on the Hamas-Israel war, a similar pattern to influence conversation is emerging.

Update: The story was updated to include additional evidence that the video of a group of men allegedly carrying a "fake dead body" on a stretcher was also posted by 24.ae on March 24, 2020, and therefore was online years before the Hamas-Israel war. 

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before