Speculation, misinformation, and accusations in the wake of the Gaza hospital blast

Speculation, misinformation, and accusations in the wake of the Gaza hospital blast

By: sam doak&
sanyukta dharmadhikari&
October 19 2023

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Speculation, misinformation, and accusations in the wake of the Gaza hospital blast

Palestinians evacuate the Al-Ahli Hospital for safer spots after it was hit in Gaza City, Gaza on October 18, 2023. (Source: Reuters Connect)

Around 7 p.m. on October 17, an explosion occurred on the grounds of al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital in Gaza’s Old City. While precise details of the number of people killed and wounded are unknown, the Gaza Health Ministry stated on October 18 that at least 500 had died in this tragedy. Gaza Civil Defense separately reported an estimated death toll of 300. These numbers will likely increase as more information surfaces in the coming days.

Following the explosion, Israel and Hamas were quick to attribute responsibility to one another. Hamas has put forward that the hospital was hit by an airstrike by Israeli forces. For their part, Israeli officials have claimed that the explosion was caused when a rocket purportedly directed by Palestinian militants misfired.

As of October 19, there is not enough evidence to sustain either account. This, however, has not prevented social media users, journalists, and researchers from attempting to piece together what happened from available sources, often in a highly speculative manner.

The limited nature of the currently available evidence

Footage taken from a livestream by Al Jazeera at 6.59 p.m. local time shows a bright light moving across the sky. The object appears to alter course before exploding. This video, alongside others and others that appear to show the same object above the area of al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital around the time of the explosion, have frequently been presented as evidence that a failed rocket launched by Palestinian forces caused the blast.

(A still from Al Jazeera’s coverage of the conflict, which captured the object in question on a live feed.
Source: Al Jazeera/X)

While many have interpreted these videos as showing a missile malfunctioning and causing the explosion, Logically Facts has determined that, at present, there is insufficient evidence this is the case. The available footage, filmed from a distance at night, does not provide a detailed image of the object shown or what type of munition it is. It is also impossible to place the site of impact with sufficient accuracy. As such, these videos do not provide enough visual evidence to prove a misfired or intercepted missile caused the explosion or rule out other potential causes. Attempts at verification carried out by the BBC, Channel 4, and other outlets have similarly concluded that available evidence does not establish the cause of the explosion.

Al Jazeera has addressed the possibility that the video taken from its livestream shows the object that caused the explosion at al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital. According to the outlet, examination of this footage and comparison with other sources reveals the object to be the last rocket fired from Gaza before the explosion. Ultimately, Al Jazeera concluded that this interception caused an explosion on the ground some distance from the one that occurred at the hospital.

(Two stills from Al Jazeera’s post concerning the interception of the rocket above Gaza
Source: Al Jazeera/X)

On Wednesday, images emerged showing the aftermath. In these images, a crater is visible in the hospital’s car park, adjacent to several burnt-out vehicles and debris. As with the footage captured the previous night, some have attempted to use this material to conclude the cause of the blast and who is culpable. Reviewing these images, Logically Facts has determined that they do not provide sufficient evidence to answer such questions with certainty.    

Misinformation concerning the al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital explosion   

Minutes after the news broke concerning the explosion at al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital, the official X account of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) posted CCTV footage. Stating it showed “an enemy rocket barrage” directed at Israel, the account cited “intelligence information” to claim that the Palestinian militants had caused the blast. While officials, including Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, shared this footage, the clip appears to have been recorded a full hour after the strike, as pointed out by Aric Toler of The New York Times visual investigations team.

(Source: X)

For social media users attempting to determine what happened in the moments before the explosion, this was complicated by a large number of old and misattributed videos circulated as news of the event spread. A particularly viral example showing what appears to be a missile visible in the night sky above a residential area was shared with claims it showed a missile fired by Palestinian militants striking the hospital. Despite many appearing to initially accept this as evidence of what exactly occurred, Logically Facts found that the video has been online since 2022.

(Source: Logically Facts) 

A noticeable theme in the hours after the explosion was the success of social media users impersonating journalists and officials to push their preferred narratives. In one such case, an X account labeled “Farida Khan,” which self-identified as a journalist from Al Jazeera, shared a post claiming Al Jazeera was “lying” and that it was in possession of a video showing “a Hamas missile landing in the hospital.” Later, Al Jazeera clarified that the account had no affiliation with the news outlet. While this account was subsequently deleted, the claims spread rapidly across the platform. 

Similarly, an image was shared on X showing a diagram of an MK-84 bomb. The user who uploaded this image, an anonymous account that routinely shares pro-Kremlin misinformation, accompanied it with the claim that the Wall Street Journal had reported this was the munition that caused the explosion. While many social media users appear to have initially taken this at face value, the Wall Street Journal has published no such statement.

Among the deceptive posts that went viral was a Facebook post shared by a page claiming to be the IDF’s Arabic-language representative on the platform. Roughly translated, the now-deleted post stated, “Due to the lack of medical equipment and the lack of medical staff, it was decided to bomb the Baptist Hospital in Gaza and give them euthanasia death.” While fact-checkers quickly pointed out that this was not an official account, claims that Israel had accepted responsibility for the attack quickly spread across social media.

(Source: X)

The difficulty of open source research concerning Gaza  

Within hours of the blast, social media users provided a dizzying range of interpretations of the available footage and images, competing to prove narratives for which sufficient evidence is not yet available. Far from providing clarity, these attempts illustrated the difficulties that arise when carrying out open-source research concerning events in Gaza. 

To understand these challenges, Logically Facts spoke to Chris Osieck, an open-source researcher focused on human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. Osieck pointed out that work of this nature is particularly difficult for multiple reasons, including a lack of up-to-date satellite imagery, an absence of street-view providers, and the prevalence of misinformation concerning contentious events.

According to Osieck, these factors require research to be carried out carefully and meticulously. “In Gaza, it requires you to approach it in a similar way that archaeologists conclude their work,” Osieck told Logically Facts, “So you need to collect tiny pieces of evidence, challenge yourself, set certain hypotheses, challenge these hypotheses, and then be able to collect all this evidence and – kind of like how birds put together a nest – collect it all together, and basically check it a few times.”Addressing the tendency among journalists and researchers to race to publish their findings ahead of one another, Osieck noted that in contexts in which competing politically charged narratives are circulating, it is preferable to proceed meticulously rather than chasing a scoop.

While many of those seeking to piece together the events that led up to the explosion may have carried out open-source investigative work before, the current conflict presents challenges to those who lack specific experience and knowledge of the region. On this, Osieck stated, “Some of the open source community, they just see this conflict now. They don't know, for example, what happened during the Nakba. They don't know what happened in other operations by Israel or other wars between Israel and Gaza.” Because of this, he continued, some may not maintain the skepticism required in the face of conflicting statements and narratives.

Open-source research is inherently limited by the sources available to those carrying it out. Addressing this, Osieck told Logically Facts, “It's become clear to me that some people see open source intelligence as the Holy Grail. Personally, I'd like to be a little bit more pessimistic about that.” Pointing out that unsound research has the potential to “bring wrong conclusions to the world, which afterward could potentially fuel misinformation,” Osieck noted the importance of recognizing gaps in available sources, background knowledge, and expertise.

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