The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media documented on Thursday more than 19,000 cases of hate speech and incitement in Hebrew on X.
Global attention has shifted towards Palestine this week as Israel wages its deadliest war on the besieged Gaza Strip in years.
Within a week, Israel’s occupation forces have killed at least 2,329 Palestinians, including at least 724 children, in Gaza – though the figure is only expected to rise as Israel continues to pummel the Palestinian enclave.
As the disturbing events unfold, social media has once again served as the main source for amplify the voices of millions of Palestinians in Gaza and monitoring updated information on the catastrophes occurring on the ground.
However, it has also proven to be a double-edged sword that can either benefit the victims or empower the perpetrators.
“The amount of unverified information currently disseminated online about the Israel-Hamas conflict is a great source of concern for the protection of civilians and the stabilisation of the region,” Hajer Naili, spokesperson and director of communications at Center for Civilians in Conflict, told Doha News.
Western media and pro-Israel social media users spread uncorroborated allegations on Palestine’s Hamas fighters allegedly “beheading” Israeli babies.
The disturbing claims spread further following remarks made by the President of the United States Joe Biden on Wednesday, who claimed he had seen “confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children”.
The following day, a White House spokesperson clarified to The Washington Post that President Biden’s remarks were primarily based on the Israeli reports and claims by Israeli diplomats.
The Washington official said on Thursday that no member of the Biden administration, including the president himself, had seen such images. Not even the Israelis have seen the alleged images.
This is not a lone incident – it comes under a wider online propaganda campaign that has existed for years, fuelled by what activists have called a bias by the Western press and social media giants in pushing pro-Israel content to overshadow Palestinians narratives.
The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media (7amleh) documented on Thursday more than 19,000 cases of hate speech and incitement using the Hebrew language on X, formerly known as Twitter. The watchdog noted that the increase of such content started on 7 October, the first day of the escalations.
At least 30% of the hate content documented by 7amleh included fake news or the promotion of violence or incitement.
“The Israeli government is taking advantage of the current international sentiment to continue exerting pressure on social media companies to censor the Palestinian narrative and silence voices critical of Israeli policies,” 7amleh said in a statement last week.
Just this week, X said it had assembled to remove “illegal content” and accounts linked to Palestinian resistance movement Hamas, designated by the US as a terrorist organisation.
Alessandro Accorsi, Senior Analyst for Social Media and Conflict at Crisis Group, told Doha News that ever since X stopped access to data for researchers, it has been difficult to access figures over misinformation.
“It is also hard to tell at this point how much of the misinformation circulating is the result of disinformation, that is a coordinated attempt at spreading false information with intent, and how much of it is simply the result of users sharing false claims without verifying them,” the expert said.
He added that X’s blue tick policy in which paying accounts receive algorithmic promotion makes it more difficult to verify information on the platform.
“Right now the main effect of misinformation is that the sheer amount of false information is making it harder to use social media as a resource to save lives and understand what is actually happening on the ground,” Accorsi said.
Despite X’s policies against “harmful content”, the thousands of incidents reported by 7amleh have continued despite the presence of so-called content regulation. Leading social media platforms have instead been accused of serving as a breeding ground for misinformation, most notably over last weekend’s surprise attack by Hamas.
Last year, Meta-owned WhatsApp banned numerous Palestinian accounts from the platform. WhatsApp’s co-founder also donated $2 million to the United Democracy Project (Political Action Committee) that promotes candidates “that support the US’ partnership with Israel“.
Just last month, Meta deleted the account of Al Jazeera presenter Tamer Almisshal within 24 hours after an expose that unveiled the social media giant’s censorship of Palestinian content.
Naili said that misinformation and disinformation generally “add another layer of complexity to the protection of civilians in armed conflict”.
“Receiving and sharing true and accurate information is critical to civilian populations in armed conflict so they can organise to seek shelter, stock food and medicines, and come up with strategies for self-protection,” she said.
Naili noted that recent years have proven “that misinformation and disinformation can hamper humanitarian responses by undermining the work of humanitarian workers, potentially depriving people affected by armed conflict and violence from assistance”.
On Monday, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a complete siege on Gaza while describing Palestinians in the Strip as “human animals”, making it impossible for humanitarian aid to enter the enclave and cutting off all access to basic necessities for the more than two million people.
“In times of armed conflict, mis- and disinformation have also been used to dehumanise the other sides of the conflict, thus creating a breeding ground for hatred, propaganda and calls to violence, including killing,” Naili said.
Know your news
Beyond the social media biases, users sharing content related to the latest events in Gaza have posted images from other events around the world.
Several images used to display the level of destruction on the ground in Gaza were actually traced back to attacks in Syria by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Accorsi advised social media users to instead “slow down the sharing of information especially around breaking news” to verify the sources.
“We have already seen many cases of incidents that have been disproven a few hours later or that still have to be confirmed. It is harder to be rightly informed by uncritically exposing themselves to and consuming a huge amount of information,” he said.
Separately, Emmanuel Chenze, an expert at Africa Uncensored, told Doha News that social media users must trust their “sixth sense” by questioning information that may seem “unusual or out of place”.
“This can be a photo that you suspect has been manipulated / digitally altered, a video that you probably think you’ve seen before and is being resurfaced as being from a recent occurrence / happening and the likes,” Chenze said.
Similarly, deep fakes can now distort images of actual events or victims and almost instantly circulate on social media. Chenze advised to instead take a minute before “WhatsApp forward” and to rely on verified sources, such as journalists on the ground, or visit fact-checking websites.
There are multiple fact-checking units developed by renowned news agencies, such as AFP and Reuters, that have enabled media consumers to get the full picture of events worldwide. In the Middle East, Eekad has emerged as a reliable platform for fact-checking of content in the region and beyond.
This week, Eekad has worked to expose doctored content and fabricated news regarding the escalations in Gaza. On Thursday, the unit debunked a video that had depicted Israeli children allegedly confined in a cage by Hamas during Operation Al Aqsa Flood.
Eekad sourced the video back to 4 October, days before the operation, and the videos have been deleted from TikTok.
“It’s 2023 and misinformation and disinformation is not new to us. It just keeps evolving,” Chenze said.
“There have been lots of resources dedicated to countering misinformation and disinformation[…]You may be surprised how much ‘truth’ is actually falsehoods that have been packaged nicely by various parties – including your favourite politicians.”