By: sam doak
October 27 2023
It has been almost impossible to avoid the images and videos coming out of Israel and Gaza in recent weeks, and lately, a separate disturbing kind of content has appeared across multiple platforms. Influencers mocking victims and people claiming that Palestine is using crisis actors have become prevalent. Often citing the term “Pallywood,” social media users found receptive audiences for content denying and often mocking incidents involving actual civilian harm.
The belief that Palestinians routinely create fake footage in an attempt to sway international public opinion is nothing new. First coined by Richard Landes in a 2005 documentary entitled “Pallywood: According to Palestinian Sources,” the pejorative portmanteau of “Palestinian” and “Hollywood” has since become a shorthand used to dismiss the veracity of media presented as evidence of civilian harm in Gaza and the West Bank.
While it is not uncommon for organizations and individuals to present misleading footage and images during conflicts, the term “Pallywood” hints at a long-running, concerted effort on the part of Palestinians on an industrial scale. As a concept, the danger of this particular idea arguably lies in how it implies an intense degree of skepticism ought to be applied to media purportedly showing civilian harm.
Speaking to Logically Facts, Kyle Walter, Head of Research at Logically, commented on the issues presented by claims of this nature during times of conflict. “Claims of the use of crisis actors distract from real humanitarian issues facing civilian populations,” Walter said.
He added, “Whether related to a mass shooting in the U.S., or Gaza, the intent is to plant a seed of suspicion in the minds of agnostic observers about the truth of the media they are consuming. This can have a significant impact on timelines related to things like humanitarian aid and negotiations.”
The concept of “Pallywood” has not only enabled the denial of civilian harm but has also given rise to content that frames footage from Gaza as an object of ridicule.
In the last week, this was demonstrated by videos posted by Eve Cohen, an Israeli VFX producer, which subsequently went viral across various social media platforms. In the first, Cohen can be seen wearing a headscarf and cradling a fruit, addressing it as though it were an injured child. In the other, Cohen smears ketchup on her forehead before feigning injury.
Stills from an Instagram reel posted by Eve Cohen, reposted on TikTok. (Source: Intsagram/TikTok)
While Cohen’s videos are particularly eye-catching examples, content grounded in the same belief that Palestinians feign hardship to court public opinion has become increasingly common on social media platforms throughout the recent conflict.
A particularly stark example concerns the death of a four-year-old boy named Omar Bilal al-Banna, who was killed by Israeli forces targeting Zeitoun, a neighborhood in the south of Gaza City, on October 12. News of Al-Banna’s death spread rapidly online by social media users keen to highlight the human cost of a conflict that has reportedly already resulted in a death toll in the thousands.
Immediately following al-Banna’s death, graphic footage showing the child’s body being held in Al-Shifa hospital’s morgue went viral on X. While it might be easily assumed the majority of people who chose to share this footage did so to highlight its tragic nature, this does not appear to have been the case. Noting the stiff appearance of Al-Banna’s body, social media users instead proceeded to baselessly claim his death was a hoax.
Official accounts operated on behalf of the Israeli government were among the most high-profile sources of this narrative, sharing images of Al-Banna on both Instagram and X on October 13 with the caption, “Hamas accidentally posted a video of a doll (yes a doll) suggesting that it was a part of casualties caused by an IDF attack.” Logically Facts has debunked this.
A screenshot of a post shared on X by an official account falsely claiming Omar Bilal al-Banna’s death was faked using a doll
The claim that footage of Al-Banna’s body was staged with a doll was subsequently repeated by X accounts operated by Israel’s embassies in Austria and France and numerous other users of the platform. In a particularly direct post, one such individual posted, “We are delighted to introduce you to #Pallywood. A spectacular blockbuster was filmed in the #Gaza Strip, purporting to represent victims of IDF strikes. The victim turned out to be a doll. When do you think the second series of these breathtaking episodes will be released?”
Over the course of covering this conflict, Logically Facts has debunked numerous similar claims. Notable examples include a video showing the making of a student film in Egypt, which was falsely presented as evidence that Palestinians were posing as dead bodies. In other instances, an old video filmed in Jordan was shared as evidence that funerals were being faked, and a clip from 2017 was misrepresented as footage of Palestinians being taught how to fake injuries.
To explore the use of the term in recent weeks, Logically Facts used social media monitoring tools to collect data on online mentions of “Pallywood” between September 27 and October 26. According to the results of these inquiries, the volume of posts citing “Pallywood” increased steadily in the days after October 7, when Palestinian militants attacked Israeli territory, killing over 1,400 people.
While the number of posts mentioning “Pallywood” has remained comparably high after October 7, the data suggests users have cited the term much more frequently in periods immediately following escalations in the conflict interpreted as likely to result in increased Palestinian casualties.
One of the most notable spikes occurred soon after footage showing the body of Omar Bilal al-Banna was initially shared on October 13. On the same day, the Israeli military issued an order under which an estimated 1.1 million people in the north of the Gaza Strip were given 24 hours to evacuate to the south.
According to the data obtained by Logically Facts, the term “Pallywood” was mentioned 9,585 times the following day, a more than threefold increase on the 3,153 instances recorded on October 13.
A comparably large increase occurred on the day following October 21, when Israeli officials warned of their intent to enter the Gaza Strip and announced an imminent escalation in the number of airstrikes targeting the Palestinian enclave. A third spike can be observed immediately following October 24, a day on which CNN reported that over 700 people in Gaza had been killed over a 24-hour period, the largest death toll recorded in the territory up to this point in the conflict.
According to available data, the term “Pallywood” was mentioned over 146,000 times by more than 82,000 unique users between the start of the current conflict on October 7 and October 27. While this does not include data from TikTok, a search on the platform carried out on October 26 revealed that videos grouped with the hashtag “Pallywood” were viewed over 3 million times prior to this date.
A visualization of data pertaining to the geographical origin of posts citing the term “Pallywood,” showing the United States and India were the most common locations identified, followed by Israel, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany.
A screenshot of search results for the term “Pallywood” on TikTok
Data obtained by Logically Facts suggests that the increased popularity of this term has been largely driven by users based outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Of the 55,857 posts that mentioned “Pallywood” and contained geographical data recorded between September 28 and October 27, 14,988 were attributed to users in the United States. The second most common geographical origin reflected in this data is India, which accounts for 7,685 posts.
For comparison, only 3,793 posts – just under 7 percent – were tagged as originating in Israel.
Many of the “Pallywood” claims that have emerged in recent weeks bear a striking resemblance to historical crisis actor claims from elsewhere, in which victims of tragedies are baselessly framed as actors and evidence of harm is written off as fraudulent.
In such cases, social media companies have historically taken a hard line in moderating content that promotes these arguments. TikTok, for example, does not allow users to search for the term “false flag” on its platform. Similarly, Facebook returns no results when users search for false flag narratives relating to several recent tragedies. This is not the case for the term “Pallywood.”
To understand why content promoting these narratives, and the term itself, have not been moderated in a comparable way, Logically Facts spoke to Alexis Crews, a Resident Fellow at The Integrity Institute. Crews noted that a number of factors, including the presence of real disinformation campaigns carried out by belligerents, present severe difficulties for social media platforms attempting to moderate content relating to Gaza.
“Between new life loss daily and the lack of multiple organizations on the ground to provide accurate information, social media, like traditional news organizations, are left with incomplete information,” she said.