Israel-Gaza conflict: How airing unverified ‘news’ is aiding disinformation

By: ilma hasan&
November 8 2023

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Israel-Gaza conflict: How airing unverified ‘news’ is aiding disinformation

Palestinians carry their belongings as they flee their houses in Gaza City November 7, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Mohammed Al-Masri)

(Trigger Warning: This story contains descriptions of distressing visuals, and mentions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.)

On October 17, The New York Times published a report about an airstrike at Al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital in Gaza that reportedly killed close to 500 people. The initial report was titled, "Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say." However, within two hours, the headline had changed twice to reflect how Israel and Hamas were trading blame for the tragic incident.

A week later, the newspaper issued an editor's note, stating, "Early versions of the coverage - relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was."

This note was issued amid ongoing confusion, as Israeli authorities attributed the incident to a misfired rocket from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group, while Hamas held Israel responsible. With the question of culpability still unresolved, the initial reporting highlights how coverage of the conflict, which is often relying heavily on witness-based accounts, single-source statements, and lacks explicit reminders about the unverified nature of information, contributes to misinformation and disinformation.

Lee McIntyre, a professor at Boston University and the author of "On Disinformation," told Logically Facts, "If the news accounts just say that there was a bombing at the hospital and that both sides blame one another, or Hamas claims that Israel did it; and Israel denies it, that's really not enough context.”

"Once you show that video then people are already polarized. I mean they're going to believe the narrative that they already want to believe, and that video is going to suit their narrative. That's an irresponsible way to use the footage or even to use the reports," he added.

The New York Times, along with several other news organizations (BBC, MSNBC, CNN, and The Washington Post), initially gave significant weight to Hamas's claim that the hospital blast resulted from an Israeli airstrike. These reports were later revised.

Unverified claims make it to the news

On October 30, the Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed the death of Shani Louk, a 23-year-old German national allegedly abducted by Hamas militants from the Nova music festival near Kibbutz Be'eri in Israel. The details of her death remain unknown, but her mother reported that, although her body had not been found, a fragment of a skull with matching DNA was discovered at the event site. The fragment reportedly suggested an injury Louk could not have survived, indicating she died at the rave site.

During an interview, Israeli President Isaac Herzog claimed, "They found her skull, which means these barbaric sadistic animals simply chopped off her head." Many news organizations widely reported Herzog's claim as fact, sometimes only mentioning the lack of independent verification deep into their articles. 

Screenshots of news reports by Newsweek, Business Today, and India Today

"On a global scale, media outlets have taken the liberty of sharing graphic-heavy footage to generate more viewership and visibility. This trend was born partly around criticism that mainstream media does not show ‘all the facts,’” Ruslan Trad, a researcher at Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab, told Logically Facts.

“While provoked by a desire to show reality and express empathy for victims, the current conflict between Hamas and Israel has shown bad practices have had offline consequences, such as the rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism,” Trad added.

Screenshots by blue tick handles claiming Louk was beheaded (Source: X/Screenshot)

There are several other examples from the ongoing conflict that highlight the perils of sharing unverified information. In early October, a claim circulated that Hamas militants had cut open a pregnant woman's stomach and removed her fetus. Despite limited or no supporting evidence, this claim went viral.

i24 News, an Israeli television channel, amplified this story, relying on the statement of Yossi Landau, a commander of ZAKA South, a search and rescue organization. Other media organizations, such as Zee News, LiveMint, and The Sun, also reported on this incident. In the absence of evidence, it is not possible to confirm whether this barbaric act occurred but in this backdrop, an old video from Mexico was shared on social media giving credence to this claim.

Another unverifiable claim that garnered media attention was the alleged "beheading of 40 babies" by Hamas militants. This claim too was initially reported on by i24, with their correspondent present in Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, stating, “The Israeli military still says they don't have a clear number (of the casualties), but they say what they've witnessed is these different communities – babies, their heads cut off."

This information was widely shared on social and news media, often without rigorous verification. Indian news channels, including India Today, broadcasted this ground report by i24, a network considered favoring Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lee McIntyre emphasized the importance of responsible reporting, saying, "Anytime the media reports on a story that hasn't been verified or is something that they think might be disinformation – it's not enough merely to say we have not been able to independently verify this report, or we can't guarantee this information and then just make the report because, to the lay public, there's really no distinction in their mind."

"They'll just roll the tape but by doing that they're doing damage. If that is disinformation, it's too late," he added.

The credibility of the claim, about the beheaded babies, was supported by Israeli government authorities when Netanyahu's spokesperson told CNN that babies and toddlers were found with their "heads decapitated." However, the following day, an official stated that these claims could not be verified. Even U.S. President Joe Biden initially mentioned having seen confirmed pictures of the beheadings, only for the White House to later clarify that Biden was referring to reports of beheadings and not actual images.

Making a bad situation worse

As news cycles reported these developments and clarifications, some online users shared this information to vilify pro-Palestine protests worldwide, falsely portraying demonstrators as defending the atrocities meted out by the militant group.

"The false claims are often exciting and sensational and get shared a lot more widely. It often prompts a lot more outrage and when the eventual debunk comes along it's boring," Jean LeRoux, a researcher at Atlantic Councils Digital Forensics Lab told Logically Facts.

 "The news cycles moved on. It's not as interesting or exciting or macabre as the original story was so it doesn't get the same level of traction. And people tend to discount information that contradicts their own worldview," he added.

In situations like these, it’s hard to verify information and that vacuum leads to the spread of disinformation. What makes the problem worse is the legitimacy offered to handles by social media platforms. 

In mid-October, a user on X (formerly Twitter) impersonated an Al Jazeera reporter under the name Farida Khan. This user claimed to possess a video showing a Hamas missile striking Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital. Many other social media accounts on X and Facebook reiterated this claim and its caption. 

Screenshot of the post by one Farida Khan. (Source: Wayback Machine/Screenshot)

However, Al Jazeera, in an official statement, disassociated itself from this account. Although the account was subsequently deactivated, it has resurfaced online with its location set to Gaza and continues to post multiple updates per hour on the conflict and the ongoing International Men's Cricket World Cup.

Similarly, a user with blue tick verification and over 637,000 followers, Edy Cohen, who identified himself as a journalist, has regularly shared misleading content. Cohen posted an image on November 2 depicting two men walking through a tunnel while holding what appears to be packets of fast food from KFC, accompanied by the caption, "The world is boycotting the West. Hamas ISIS eats Western products."

While the image in question is from Gaza, it’s as old as 2013 and reportedly shows “smugglers bringing KFC into Gaza from Egypt.” Cohen has also posted unrelated videos to push the narrative that the deaths in Gaza were being “faked.”

Experts highlight that accounts claiming to be Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) analysts complicate debunking efforts. “I think lay people who don't have the same kind of investigative background, it is well within their rights to trust an account that looks as authoritative as this. They are simply acting as conduits taking content from Telegram which has got no kind of moderation policy in place at all and then just reposting that content without providing much analysis and in some cases even blatantly getting it wrong," LeRoux said.

Fact-checkers and experts combating disinformation globally contend that the nature of claims during this current conflict is unlike any other, including Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. The key difference is that this time, the majority of countries are not rallying behind a single nation, and there have been changes in platform monetization, especially on X.

They also argue that while the media, at times, aligns with ideological agendas, it may also unwittingly be susceptible to misleading misinformation for the sake of staying on top of the news cycle. McIntyre recalls a time when Russian state channels ran promotional videos of former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson after he called the Ukraine invasion and its aftermath a U.S.-led "regime-change war" against Russia on his show. 

Additionally, he notes that presenting footage without proper context can be inflammatory, adding that networks prioritize ratings and financial interests over impartial reporting.

"They care about their ratings. They care about the money. They don't want to seem politically biased so sometimes they'll make claims like so and so says this, and the other one denies it. They need to hold back in fanning the flames rather than just trying to absolve themselves of responsibility,” states McIntyre.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in its annual Digital News Report 2023, highlighted that trust in news remains low, possibly due to political polarization and the spread of misinformation.

According to Leroux, the sheer scale of misinformation has been the biggest challenge in the last month, with false claims circulating on both sides. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that questionable claims have more affinity for monetization on X.

To address this issue, Trad suggests that media outlets should return to "slow" reporting, allowing time for reactions and in-depth analysis before rushing to be the first to report – a formula that makes certain weekly publications more reliable.

“We need analysis, we need expertise to put the brakes on the infodemic and thus the audience – and the journalists themselves – get informed data," he said.

(Edited by Nitish Rampal)

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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