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Antifake

Fake news of mass destruction: War between Israel and Hamas triggers flood of disinformation from both sides

The October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists and the IDF's subsequent response left few indifferent. Israel's supporters and opponents describe the current events from drastically different perspectives, often quick to accept any information as long as it confirms their point of view (a phenomenon commonly referred to as confirmation bias). This is a perfect occasion for spreading fake news, which instantly filled the media space – and disinformation continues to flow from both sides of the conflict. Whereas Russia is all too familiar with this effect due to the war in Ukraine, the global society was not ready for such a barrage of hoaxes. The Insider examines the most blatant examples of fake news that have become rampant since Israel plunged into war.

Content
  • Hospital strike: Bilateral disinformation campaign

  • Instructors from Russia and weapons from Ukraine

  • Social media sets the tone: Caged children and Nagorno-Karabakh president as “Israeli general”

  • The real Pink vs. the fake Ronaldo

  • X (Twitter): Fighting fake news in word only

  • How to detect fake news: Selected techniques

RU

Hospital strike: Bilateral disinformation campaign

On the evening of October 17, Hamas blamed the Israeli army for the strike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Hospital. In turn, the IDF claimed the hospital had been hit by a rocket launched by the terrorists themselves. The incident instantly triggered an information war – which quickly turned into a war of disinformation. Hamas (and the Gaza Health Ministry under its control) released the “official” death toll, which purportedly stood at 500, with “thousands” reported wounded. The world's mass media and news agencies picked up these figures, citing “public officials” or even broadcasting them as a confirmed fact:

Hamas aimed to portray the explosion as the deadliest attack in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and indeed, the news of such massive civilian casualties sparked a wave of pro-Palestinian protests around the world: in London alone, several thousand people rallied against the strike as early as October 19.

Had the media not rushed to release Hamas' figures, they would’ve had time to ponder: how could a strike on a parking lot next to an 80-bed hospital – which sustained hard any damage, by the way – have killed an astonishing 500 people? To compare, here is what the world saw in Baghdad in 2016 after an explosion that claimed 350 lives:

The aftermath of the Baghdad bombing in 2016
The aftermath of the Baghdad bombing in 2016

And here's the site of the explosion in the Gaza parking lot: plenty of burned cars, but the damage to surrounding buildings is limited to windows blown out by the blast.

However, if the hospital building was virtually unharmed, who were the people who got killed in the parking lot, according to multiple reports? The answer is simple: the casualties were not hospital patients or staff but refugees, whose camp occupied a small (10 by 15 meters) city square next to the parking lot.

The exact population of the camp is unknown but there is no way it could have accumulated as many as 500 people. Australian OSINT specialist Nathan Ruser pointed out that the area of damage was approximated at 228 square meters, and much of that space was occupied by cars. The only way one could squeeze 500 people into that space is by removing all cars and having people stand shoulder to shoulder (and in that scenario, there wouldn't be any survivors).

Therefore, Hamas exaggerated the real number of casualties tenfold or so, and it would’ve become clear, had the media waited for the morning's footage from the site.

The attribution of the rocket was slightly more problematic. The main argument in Israel's favor is the Gaza authorities’ failure to provide the remains of the shell. Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said to The New York Times: “The missile has dissolved like salt in the water. It’s vaporized. Nothing is left.”

However, some media were too quick to broadcast Israel's arguments without verification. An IDF spokesman appeared on CNN and BBC with a printed screenshot from an Al Jazeera video showing a shell exploding in the sky and claimed it was the very rocket that had hit the hospital. The official IDF account on X (formerly Twitter) backed his statements.

An IDF spokesman cites Al Jazeera video as evidence that Hamas had launched the rocket that had hit the hospital (screenshot of BBC broadcast, October 18, 2023)
An IDF spokesman cites Al Jazeera video as evidence that Hamas had launched the rocket that had hit the hospital (screenshot of BBC broadcast, October 18, 2023)

Yet the video raised more questions than answers: if this rocket exploded in the air, how did it explode again in the parking lot? Nevertheless, many media outlets and bloggers published the video as an unequivocal confirmation of the Israeli position. On October 25, The New York Times published an in-depth analysis of the footage. According to this analysis, the rocket captured in the video was fired from the Israeli Kibbutz Nahal Oz toward Gaza but exploded in the air about 3,200 meters from Al-Ahli Hospital and had nothing to do with the hospital explosion.

Instructors from Russia and weapons from Ukraine

The information war related to the war in Israel has curiously overlapped with the agenda of the Russian-Ukrainian war, spawning a special category of hoaxes.

On October 12, the Al Jazeera TV channel published a series of videos from the chest DVRs of Hamas fighters. Several prominent public figures (including the advisor to Ukraine's Interior Minister Anton Gerashchenko and Gulagu.net founder Vladimir Osechkin) asserted that the militants in the video were speaking Russian. They claimed to hear them say prikryvayte (“cover!” in Russian). Osechkin saw it as validation of his theory about Hamas using instructors from Russia.

In reality, the men in the video speak the Palestinian dialect of Arabic. First, one of the militants tells the others: “Put your heads down!” The word social media users mistook for prikryvayte is difficult to discern, but the possible options are “silencer” (كواتم), “medical personnel” (كوادر), a swear word (قوادين), “cover it!” (غطّي) or the name Jawad (جواد).

As could be expected, Russian propaganda paid back in kind. On October 10, Sheikh Tamir, the Telegram channel of blogger Maxim Shikhaliyev, published a fake investigation, allegedly conducted by Bellingcat and the BBC, claiming that most of Hamas' weapons had been supplied from Ukraine. “It's unclear if this is a Russian government disinformation campaign or a grassroots effort, but it's 100% fake,” Bellingcat founder Elliott Higgins commented on the video.

The video uses archive footage interspersed with claims that the terror attack in Israel is linked to Ukraine's “failed summer counteroffensive.” However, it fails to provide any specific evidence of arms shipments from Ukraine to the Gaza Strip.

Screenshots from the video posted on the Sheikh Tamir Telegram channel
Screenshots from the video posted on the Sheikh Tamir Telegram channel

A little earlier, Nikolai Dulskiy, a far-right pro-Russian blogger of Ukrainian origin, posted a video of small arms laid out on the floor in some room.

The voice-over speaks in Arabic with an Eastern European accent: “We thank the Ukrainian authorities for sending us these weapons. We will use them against our enemy – against Israel.” Dulskiy claims that “most of the RPGs used by Hamas” were supplied by Ukraine. Further on, an X (Twitter) user who calls himself the “cousin of a Wagner PMC artilleryman” posted the same video with the same description, which was soon picked up by other users allegedly living in the United States. Among them is Joey Mannarino, the host of a far-right podcast, who added a disclaimer that he couldn't guarantee the authenticity of the video.

Dulskiy claims that “most of the RPGs used by Hamas” were supplied by Ukraine

In total, The Insider estimates that the video has gained at least 10 million views. Fragments from this video were also used in the fake report allegedly created by the BBC and Bellingcat.

A screenshot from the video purportedly showing a shipment of weapons from Ukraine to Hamas
A screenshot from the video purportedly showing a shipment of weapons from Ukraine to Hamas

According to the France 24 TV channel, the video shows the launch tube of a U.S. Javelin anti-tank system and a U.S. M240 machine gun. Hamas militants have never been seen using either of the weapons. Moreover, neither Hamas nor the IDF has made any official statements about Ukrainian weapons falling into Palestinian hands. Robert Storch, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense, said earlier at a congressional hearing that there was no evidence of the weapons supplied to Ukraine ending up anywhere outside the country.

Social media sets the tone: Caged children and Nagorno-Karabakh president as “Israeli general”

What makes the war in Israel different from many previous conflicts? On the one hand, it has exposed a rift in the entire Western society (just like the war in Ukraine previously split Russian society). On the other hand, it’s unfolding in an era when short videos on social media gain millions of views daily, so every microblogger can suddenly have an audience comparable to a conventional media outlet that pays more attention to verifying information. As a result, an emotional caption about “defenseless women and children” under a video is enough for millions of sympathetic followers to repost it without even pausing to figure out what’s happening on the screen.

Thus, just hours after Hamas invaded Israel, Malaysian blogger Ian Miles Cheong, who's popular with alt-right Americans, published a video that allegedly captured Hamas militants breaking into the home of an Israeli family. “Hamas is going from house to house, butchering the people inside, including women and children taking shelter in basements. Imagine if this was happening in your neighborhood, to your family,” he wrote. The video gained nearly 13 million views in the next five days on his account alone. American comedian Terrence Williams reposted it with a similar message for his nearly two-million audience, and so did many other accounts around the world.

In fact, the video shows Israeli police officers carrying out an operation on the morning of October 7 to free the hostages taken by militants of Hamas' Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in the town of Ofakim in southern Israel. This was reported by the Al Jazeera media holding, and the video was originally published on Israeli Telegram channel Yediot News with the caption: “Terrorists shooting at security officers.” Photos and footage of the house were also published after the hostages were rescued.

The uniforms of the officers who cordoned off a house in Ofakim vs. Israeli police uniform
The uniforms of the officers who cordoned off a house in Ofakim vs. Israeli police uniform

In the video, one can see that the armed individuals around the house are wearing black Israeli police uniforms. Meanwhile, Al-Qassam Brigades fighters typically wear military camouflage and distinctive green headbands.

On the anti-Israeli side, such hoaxes are just as numerous. Pakistani TikTok star Hareem Shah, who poses as a London-based journalist, is notorious for her questionable publications. She claimed, for instance, that the Pakistani cricket team had lost to the Indians in 2023 because of “black magic,” and her father even once had to apologize for her scandalous videos featuring Pakistani politicians. After the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, the blogger began to regularly publish videos from the Middle East. Some of them turned out to be fake – incidentally, they were also the ones that earned the most views. Thus, on October 7, Hareem published a post: “LATEST: Israeli air force is bombing targets in Gaza, Palestine,” adding a video made and released by Sky News as early as in May 2023.

Screenshots from Hareem Shah's X account
Screenshots from Hareem Shah's X account

On the following day, Hareem published a similar update, specifying that the shelling was taking place in the northern Gaza Strip. However, the video she used to illustrate her words had been shot in Algeria and published on TikTok a week before the war started. The video was verified by the Reuters team, who found the exact filming location in the Algerian capital. The video presumably captures CR Belouizdad association football club fans celebrating its victory by lighting hundreds of red flares.

Hareem Shah also passed off the arrest of former Nagorno-Karabakh President Bako Sahakyan by Azerbaijani security forces for the capture of Israeli generals by Hamas militants. Even Azerbaijani flags on the uniforms of law enforcers did nothing to stop her. In Shah's blog, an April video of Gaza shelling transformed into a “massive explosion” in Israel's Sderot. Hareem Shah presented a video of Israeli patrol cars being set on fire in the village of Burqa in the northern West Bank, which was published in September, as an update on incidents near the Gaza Strip. A strike on Syria that took place in February 2020 resurfaced as the shelling of Tel Aviv airport. The hoaxes that Hareem posted on X (Twitter) racked up tens of thousands of comments and millions of views.

But the most infamous hoax may have been posted by Ashlea Simon, chairwoman of the far-right British party and hate group Britain First. With a limited X (Twitter) following of about 55,000 users, she managed to launch one of the most popular fakes since the war began. On October 8, she posted a TikTok video showing children locked in chicken cages. The voiceover laughs and speaks in Arabic. Ashlea accompanied the caption: “Israeli children kidnapped and kept in cages by Hamas. This is barbaric but what do you expect from savages.” On her account alone, the video has gained more than 2 million views, and other accounts that shared the video with a similar caption in different languages gathered tens of thousands of views across all platforms. Some accounts claimed those were Palestinian children kidnapped and caged by Israeli police.

In reality, this video had been released three days before the war started. The audio used for the voiceover is popular on Arabic-language TikTok and is featured in thousands of comic videos, meaning it was assumed to be just a joke. TikTok deleted the account of its author, a Gazan with a nickname that translates as “oppressed in my country,” after the video went viral, but later restored it. At the moment, his account features only a response to one of the comments below the original video. A follower asks: “Is it true these are Zionists’ children?” And the user replies: “These children are my relatives. They’re not Zionist children. The video was taken three days before the escalation.” However, copies of the video have continued to circulate on social media, with some users claiming it was shot in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen years ago.

Videos from Syria have been particularly popular among anti-Israel bloggers. When Assad carpet-bombed entire cities with Putin's support, social media didn’t seem to care, but now those old Syrian videos have come in handy. For example, Sulaiman Ahmed, who calls himself an “investigative journalist” on X (Twitter), published photos of the corpses of Syrian children killed in the Ghouta chemical attack, captioning the image as follows: “Child genocide in Palestine. 614 Palestinian children have been killed by the Israeli occupation forces.” Almost 20,000 users reposted the image, including U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and American basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom. The post garnered a multi-million audience, just like many other Sulaiman Ahmed’s hoaxes.

Among influencers who have broadcast fake news featuring photos from Syria and Syrian refugee camps to millions of their followers were Danish physician Anastasia Maria Loupis, showman and entrepreneur Mario Naufal, the aforementioned Hareem Shah, and hundreds of other less popular private accounts and news outlets. Syrian activist Kareem Rifai has collected many examples of photos and videos falsely presented on social media as images from the Gaza Strip. Thanks to blue check marks and popular hashtags, they were getting millions of views even on small accounts.

To be fair, Israel's official accounts aren't particularly careful about the authenticity of their videos either: On October 15, the Israeli Air Force released aerial footage of the bombing of buildings that ostensibly took place inside the Gaza Strip. Two days later, the same video re-emerged in the official account – only this time as retaliatory shelling of Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon. After users noticed the discrepancy, the second post was removed.

Many Russian bloggers also peddle fake news about the war in Israel. On October 30, Alexander Nevzorov published a video allegedly showing the bodies of dead Palestinians, wrapped in shrouds with names and dates of death written on them. Suddenly, one of the “corpses” in the video starts to budge.

Nevzorov and other bloggers are circulating this video as proof that the information about the death toll in the Gaza Strip is false. However, this video was actually filmed in Egypt in 2013 during a student protest at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. In 2018, the same video appeared on Syrian pro-Assad propagandist media with the same message.

Nevzorov passed off a video from Jenin, a city in the West Bank, as footage from Gaza, noting that the people in the video “have electricity,” thus invalidating their complaints about lack of communication.

Nevzorov also presented a 2017 movie about the Palestinian film industry as a “falsification of Palestinian suffering.”

"Hamas' actors are preparing for shooting. Word is, the makeup artist is preparing an actress for the story about the hospital bombing," Nevzorov writes
"Hamas' actors are preparing for shooting. Word is, the makeup artist is preparing an actress for the story about the hospital bombing," Nevzorov writes

Like many accounts, he took six-year-old footage supposedly taken in Syria and posted it in October 2023, captioning it «A terrorist’s fate.” Over the years, this video was passed off as Kadyrovites in Donbas, Azerbaijani troops, and now that the war in Israel has begun, as footage from the Gaza Strip.

Admittedly, these and many other hoaxes posted on Nevzorov’s channel emerged in other accounts and other languages. What matters is that his Telegram channel has more than a million followers, with each post gaining hundreds of thousands of views.

The real Pink vs. the fake Ronaldo

Both sides strive to garner support from celebrities, and since show business stars are reluctant to take sides, the warring parties have to resort to fakes. Taking off in the summer of 2023, the singer P!nk’s Summer Carnival concert tour has spanned across Europe, the United States, and Canada. During one of the dance routines, the dancers pull out colored ribbons and start waving them. This caught the attention of Israel's official X (ex-Twitter) account, which shared a video of her concert on October 15 captioning it “Thank you P!nk ❤️.” The video was originally posted by Creative Community for Peace, an American pro-Israel organization, which claimed that the performer had waved Israeli flags at the concert. The video has gained millions of views.

The singer responded a few hours later. “I am getting many threats because people mistakenly believe I am flying Israeli flags in my show. I am not. I have been using Poi flags since the beginning of this tour. These were used many, many years ago by the Māori people in New Zealand and because they and the Māori people are beautiful to me, we use them. I do not fly flags in my show in support of anything or anyone except the rainbow flag,” she wrote on her X (Twitter) account. Both Israel's official account and Creative Community for Peace have since deleted their posts.

Around the same time, a few X and Facebook accounts circulated a video in which soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo ostensibly speaks in support of the children of Palestine. The video is overlaid with a Palestinian song, and it's not easy to make out what Ronaldo says in the beginning.

In fact, this video was made in 2016 as Ronaldo’s address to the children of Syria, not Palestine. “The world is with you. We care about you. I am with you,” says the soccer player.

X (Twitter): Fighting fake news in word only

In the first three days after the attack alone, more than 50 million posts about the conflict appeared on X (Twitter). The social network said it was deleting newly registered accounts linked to Hamas and trying to discourage the spread of “terrorist content” and to remove anti-Semitic speech and hundreds of accounts that attempt to manipulate public opinion. Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, announced that content praising Hamas is unacceptable on its platforms. Meta noted that it engages independent fact-checkers to combat misinformation and downgrades publications they mark as untrustworthy.

Russian social networks – VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Telegram – don’t have a policy against false information and haven’t made any statements in this regard. However, Telegram blocked Hamas-related channels for users of the App Store and Play Store versions of the app on October 23. At the same time, Telegram offered users to download an “uncensored” version of the app from the official website.

Telegram blocked Hamas-linked channels while offering users to download an “uncensored” version of the app

As for X’s (Twitter’s) promises to fight fake news, they are yet to bear fruit. Only a fraction of the fake posts identified by The Insider and other journalist teams included “community notes” – additional information that typically exposes an untruth or manipulation in a post. The Insider often found misleading information even in these notes. Sometimes the annotations would disappear from the tweets with false information after a while. Overall, as conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild noted in a conversation with The Insider, X (Twitter) is making the largest contribution to the spread of misinformation:

“Social media, particularly X/Twitter, have been superspreaders of myths and misinformation. X allows almost anything to gain traction, and has incentivized spreading false stories and conspiracy theories for ad revenue. They absolutely contribute to the spread of disinformation in general.”

A significant portion of fake news detected by The Insider on X was published by users with “verified” accounts. Meanwhile, the very principle of verification has lost its meaning after Musk's reforms: a checkmark used to mean that the account owner was a real public person or company, but now anyone can go and buy it. Moreover, such accounts dominate recommendations, with X officially promoting them more actively than free accounts.

A significant portion of fake news on X (formerly Twitter) was published by users with “verified” accounts

Shayan Sardarizadeh, a senior journalist with the BBC's Verify project, agrees that such accounts are probably spreading much of the false information. The Israeli-Palestinian escalation has caused an unprecedented barrage of fake news, says he: “In the first couple of days of the conflict, the volume of misinformation on X was beyond anything I've ever seen,” remarks Sardarizadeh.

International Crisis Group analyst Alessandro Accorsi notes in a conversation with The Insider that the situation with the spread of hoaxes on X has deteriorated. He said the site remains a major source of information during milestone events, causing fake and emotionally charged statements to polarize users:

“Transparency policies have been completely thrown out of the window. X has stopped publishing transparency reports, or when it did the company published total numbers of content taken down without context or verifiable data. Meanwhile, as mentioned, researchers lost access or have reduced access to the API, which means that third party independent investigations into misinformation and disinformation, into what X is doing to prevent manipulation of its platform or how it contributes to the spread of false information and hate speech cannot take place in the same way it did before.”

Accorsi notes that user posts with a verification checkbox reach a much larger audience. At the same time, they’re the ones publishing “gory images» with captions that evoke strong emotions in readers, as this is the kind of content that ensures the most engagement, which can be monetized.

The analyst emphasizes that, with Elon Musk’s innovations, researchers can’t download X posts automatically anymore, which makes it problematic to even assess the scale of the fake news issue in the current conflict. “It is quite telling that every expert confirms that misinformation is rampant, but we have little data about it,” he concludes.

How to detect fake news: Selected techniques

Bellingcat researchers have identified several main techniques that are being used to spread fake photos and videos:

  • Using old photos of shelling from Palestine, including the Gaza Strip, Syria, Ukraine, or elsewhere.
  • Using old footage that doesn't pertain to any military conflict. Thus, a video purportedly showing Hamas militants arriving at the site of the music festival was actually made in Egypt and published on TikTok in September 2023; another video, which shows a girl allegedly burned alive at the festival, was shot in Guatemala in 2015.
  • Spreading completely false reports, for instance, about the shelling of the Church of St. Porphyrius in Gaza, although representatives of the church confirmed in the official account that it had not been hit;
  • Dissemination of forged documents, for instance, about the U.S. approving $8 billion in military aid to Israel.

Most of the hoaxes are being spread as photos and videos. To check if the image you are offered was truly taken where the source (be it a journalist, activist, or blogger) claims, you can try to find out whether it was published before. For this purpose, you can use the reverse image search technology, available in the form of multiple tools:

An important consideration: you don't always need the exact date the image was taken. It’s often enough to figure out if it was taken before or after some point in time. For example, even if we didn't know that the video of the caged children had been published by a relative as a joke, this technology would at least reveal that the video predates the Hamas invasion.

You should bear in mind that Yandex Images and Google Lens may offer you an image similar to the one you're looking for. Sometimes this can give you a lead, as was the case with the red flares of Algerian soccer fans that were passed off as Gaza bombings. In other cases, the similarity could be misleading.

The same tools can also be used for finding the original video. You just need to make a few distinctive screenshots and run a reverse search on them.

Finding the original photo or video is not always a quick process, especially if the hoax has been shared many, but is very often possible. Bellingcat experts have also compiled a more detailed guide to checking online posts for fake news (available in English, Russian, and Spanish).

The vast majority of fake news about the war in Israel wouldn’t have spread if social media users and journalists had made even a minimal effort to verify the information before sharing it. More often than not, false information isn't spread because it’s hard to verify but because no one bothers to do it.

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