- WASHINGTON POST
Inside the Israel-Hamas Information War, from Insider Attacks to Fleeing Leaders
12:10 JST, October 15, 2023
A WhatsApp voice memo purporting to have insider information ricocheted across hundreds of group chats in Israel early on Monday. The Israeli army was planning for another “battle like we’ve never experienced before,” the anonymous woman said in Hebrew, warning that people should prepare to lose access to food, water and internet service for a week.
Across the country, Israelis raced to the banks and to the grocery stores, anticipating another attack. But the message, the army clarified hours later on X, turned out to be a falsehood.
One week into the war between Israel and Gaza, social media is inducing a fog of war surpassing previous clashes in the region – one that’s shaping how panicked citizens and a global public view the conflict.
Social media has long played a critical role in battles in the area. During the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021, posts of carnage in Gaza rallied the public to the Palestinian cause. Researchers say increased internet access and the spread of smartphones enabled a watershed moment, revealing how tech platforms could show the horror and human toll of such events.
But now, a volatile, months-long fight over Israel’s democratic future has primed conspiracies and false information to spread within its borders. Tech platforms, diminished from waves of layoffs, have receded from policing falsehoods, disinformation and hate speech online. Electricity outages and strikes on telecommunications infrastructure in Gaza threaten Palestinians’ connectivity, according to human rights organizations.
While social media has been a critical tool for disseminating wartime information in recent days, a barrage of images, memes and testimonials is making it difficult to assess what is real. Activists in the region warn that viral horror stories that turn out not to be true may lead people to further distrust authority figures – and could spark hate, violence and retaliation against innocent people.
“I’m terrified,” Marwa Fatafta, a policy analyst at Al Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank and regional policy manager for the nonprofit digital human rights group Access Now. “There’s a lot of information being shared that is not verified, a lot of calls to violence and dehumanization. And all this is fanning the flames for further massacres [of Palestinians].”
Foreign disinformation – a key element of Russia’s global strategy – has been a major feature of the protracted war in Ukraine.
But in the current Middle East war, researchers have so far found only minimal evidence of disinformation originating abroad, said John Hultquist, chief analyst with the Google-owned cybersecurity firm Mandiant.
Instead, much misinformation about the war is directed inward.
Posts, videos and memes falsely claim that the attack stemmed from collusion between Hamas and Israel. In the 24 hours after the Hamas attack, the hashtag “TraitorsFromWithin” became the top trend on X, formerly Twitter, in Hebrew. Some threads posited that Palestinian citizen of Israel workers were stationed at the border fence, while others claimed the attack was orchestrated to push a peace deal with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Months of protests over the country’s future, deep domestic polarization and broad distrust of authorities have caused these theories to spread, said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog organization dedicated to fighting disinformation and hate speech online.
One viral TikTok video featured a woman who identified herself as a former soldier on the Gaza Strip. She claimed that the border was so tightly controlled that even “a cockroach” would have been detected in advance – a description many commenters took to mean that Israel would have had to have aided Hamas in penetrating it.
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken to calling critics of his far-right government traitors in recent months, said Schatz. Now the narrative is bleeding into the current conflict.
“People don’t want to believe that their leader has failed them,” he said. “So it must have been an inside job.”
Hamas and its supporters have taken advantage of Israel’s disunity: On Monday a pro-Hamas account called Gaza Now shared an image suggesting that former left-wing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was fleeing the country. The image was undated and showed him in the baggage claim at an airport. The Gaza Now account had picked it up from a Jewish Israeli influencer who supports the far-right government of Netanyahu, and had shared the content to criticize Israel’s left. The influencer ultimately issued an apology on X.
Two years ago, when a war broke out between Israel and Hamas, locals used their cellphones to broadcast a play-by-play of the demonstrations and subsequent bombardment to the world.
But the stakes are far higher in today’s conflict, said Fatafta. While the 2021 conflict resulted in 250 deaths in Gaza and 13 in Israel, at least 1,300 people in Israel and more than 1,799 people in Gaza have been killed in the current war.
And unlike in 2021, Palestinians in Gaza are already losing access to the internet, she said, compromising their ability to tell their story to the world.
“People don’t have enough electricity to charge up their devices,” she said. “There are people who can’t send SMS messages, some telecommunications infrastructure has been damaged . . . It’s becoming an information blackout.”
Hamas’ swift and violent attack is more difficult to parse than the events in 2021. “No one knows what really happened on the border,” Schatz said. “It was too big, too fast and too brutal.”
This void is being filled by misinformation that appeals to people’s rage – which researchers warn could lead to more antisemitic attacks or violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel – and to justify a more brutal retaliation in Gaza.
Another WhatsApp voice memo featured the voice of a man claiming to be a soldier with intelligence that the country’s Arab citizens – roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population – were planning a coordinated attack. The audio message, which was played for The Washington Post, said Palestinian citizens were going to show up in vehicles with Israeli plates and “start shooting people.”
WhatsApp, a Meta-owned messaging platform, is the default communication across the region and enables people to forward audio messages to many groups, each of which can include more than a thousand members. But the source of such messages, and the extent of their spread, is nearly impossible to trace.
A Palestinian digital rights organization called 7amleh says it has detected more than 19,000 cases of hate speech and violent incitement against Palestinians in the Hebrew language on X since Oct. 7, the first day of escalations. The organization’s executive director, Nadim Nashif, said he wasn’t able to flag the content to X because the organization’s former points of contact at the company had been fired by Elon Musk, who has dramatically shrunk the company’s workforce since he took ownership last year.
One such story is an allegation that Hamas beheaded babies in Kfar Aza, a kibbutz near Israel’s southern border with Gaza. The unconfirmed story appears to stem from a single Israeli news report on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister’s office appeared to validate the report, with a spokesperson saying the babies were found with their “heads decapitated.” The claim went viral, spreading across newspapers, social media platforms and a CNN broadcast.
President Biden appeared to advance the story in a meeting with Jewish community leaders. “I have been doing this a long time, I never really thought that I would see . . . have confirmed pictures of terrorist beheading children,” he said.
An administration official later clarified Biden’s remarks, saying that Biden was referring to public statements from officials and media reports and had not actually seen the photos.
Less than a day later, the Israeli government backtracked. “There have been cases of Hamas militants carrying out beheadings and other ISIS-style atrocities,” according to a Thursday statement provided to CNN. “However, we cannot confirm if the victims were men or women, soldiers or civilians, adults or children.”
To combat disinformation, FakeReporter is running a war room staffed with 2,500 volunteers across Israel. The volunteers flag and report suspicious, malicious, and graphic content to the platforms themselves, and FakeReporter also debunks misleading narratives on social media.
But over the last year, tech companies’ abilities to field these complaints has been compromised by waves of layoffs in units responsible for policing problematic content. Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has laid off many members of a global operations team that monitors the platform, including Arabic speakers, according to a person familiar with the layoffs who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Under the leadership of Musk, X has fired the teams that acted as point people on the ground for advocates in the region. On Wednesday the European Union announced a probe into X for failures to moderate potentially illegal content and disinformation on its service.
Schatz said there is little communication from Meta-owned WhatsApp because the messaging platform is viewed as a private, encrypted service. And at X, he echoed Nashif’s account that, over the last year, “there has been no one to talk to” due to the firings. He said the company had reached out for the first time this week.
Mandiant’s Hultquist said that in comparison to the cacophony at the local level, foreign disinformation is, so far, playing a small role. He said that his team had detected fake accounts tied to Iran – whose leader has repeatedly called for the annihilation of Israel – posing as Egyptians across all social media platforms to celebrate Israel’s “humiliation.”
But Eric Feinberg, vice president for content moderation at the Coalition for a Safer Web, noted that Hamas and its supporters have been able to use X to share antisemitic propaganda across the Arab world relatively unchecked. He provided screenshots of pro-Hamas accounts using WhatsApp and X in English to rally support for the organization’s attacks on Israel in Pakistan.
“Right now,” said Hultquist, “it’s very difficult for a lay person to get to ground truth.”
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