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Disinformation surge threatens to fuel Israel-Hamas conflict

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AMSTERDAM/LONDON, Oct 18 (Reuters) – As the Israel-Hamas war rages, regulators and analysts say a wave of online disinformation risks further inflaming passions and escalating the conflict in an electronic fog of war.

An explosion at a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds of Palestinians on Tuesday is the latest focus of the surge of activity as supporters of both sides in the battle between Israel and Hamas try to bolster their own side’s narrative and cast doubts on the other’s.

U.S. President Joe Biden referred to the challenge of verifying information during the conflict in remarks about the hospital blast on a visit to Israel on Wednesday, saying responsibility for the incident appeared to lie with Israel’s adversaries.

“But there’s a lot of people out there not sure, so we’ve got a lot — we’ve got to overcome a lot of things,” Biden said.

Reuters fact-checking unit has identified numerous cases of social media posts using fake images and information about the Israel-Hamas conflict, and others in which confusion rather than deliberate disinformation appears to have heightened tensions.

These include:

* An X account under the name Farida Khan claiming to be an Al Jazeera journalist in Gaza posted a message saying they had a video of a “Hamas missile landing in the hospital” in Tuesday’s incident. Al Jazeera subsequently alerted social media users that the account had no ties to the news service. Al Jazeera told Reuters it does not employ a person with the name Farida Khan. The account was later removed.

* A video of Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking about Ukraine last year was shared this month with fabricated subtitles warning the U.S. not to interfere in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

* Amid genuine images showing dead bodies of those killed by Hamas on Oct. 7, a 2015 video of the lynching of a 16-year-old girl in Guatemala has been misrepresented online as showing a young Israeli woman being burnt by a “Palestinian mob”.

* After receiving online criticism about blue and white flags used in her act, the pop singer Pink posted a tweet saying: “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.”

REAL-WORLD CONSEQUENCES

Heightened tensions can have real-world consequences beyond the Israeli towns and kibbutzes where 1,400 Israelis were killed by Hamas gunmen on Oct. 7, and in Gaza, where more than 3,000 Palestinians have been killed so far by Israel’s retaliatory bombardment.

France has been put on its highest security alert after a teacher was killed in an Islamist attack and bomb alerts forced the evacuation of the Louvre museum. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the attack bore a link to events in the Middle East.

In Illinois a landlord was charged with hate crimes, accused of stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy to death and wounding his mother, who were his tenants. The sheriff’s office said they were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”.

Jewish schools in London closed over the weekend after a Jewish charity that provides security recorded an increase of 400% in antisemitic incidents since the attacks when compared to the same period last year.

In modern conflicts, across the globe as well as in the Middle East, warring sides have long used television – and more recently the internet – to win the war for hearts and minds as well as the war on the ground, often mixing truth with fiction.

Regulators are watching. The EU’s industry chief Thierry Breton called out X, Facebook parent company Meta, TikTok and YouTube for not doing enough to curb disinformation following the attacks. Each company has said they have taken steps to address harmful content.

Since Oct. 7 the Cyber Unit at Israel’s Office of the State Attorney has begun to work to remove content on social networks that distribute content which, they say, incites violence associated with Hamas.

The Israeli prosecutor’s office said it has submitted about 4,450 requests to remove content, according to the following division, most of them to Facebook, TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter.

Rafi Mendelsohn, a vice-president of the Israeli bot-monitoring firm Cyabra, said more than 40,000 fake accounts have pushed pro-Hamas narratives online, and thousands of them were created more than a year before the attack.

“The scale suggests there was pre-prepared content and manpower into getting it out. We haven’t seen such sophistication with a militant group,” he told Reuters.

TWO NARRATIVES

Some accounts also seem to be involved in pushing out falsehoods, targeting Palestinians and Middle East countries perceived to be pro-Palestinian.

In 2014 the spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, Abu Obaidah, posted a video acknowledging Iranian support for Hamas. In recent days that was reposted online and misrepresented as being recent, to directly implicate Tehran in the latest attack.

And while Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has been critical of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, incorrect subtitles were added to a viral video that circulated on X and Facebook in recent days warning the U.S. not to intervene and that Turkey was “ready to defend Palestine at any price”.

Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation expert and professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said there was often a rise in disinformation during conflicts.

“I think Hamas are sending mixed messages. On the one hand, videos of attacks that are obviously brutal, on the other, some attempts to try and deflect that with stories about being humane. Clearly they seem directed at different audiences, but the combined effect is to muddy the waters about the truth in the conflict,” he said.

Similarly, he said, anti-Palestinian narratives included claims that Palestinians were staging injuries and deaths with “crisis actors” .

“It is also designed to muddy the waters and paint Palestinians as dishonest – while making people doubt whether the images they see of Palestinian suffering are genuine.”

By Stephanie Burnett in Amsterdam, Stephen Farrell in London and Hardik Vyas in Bangalore. Additional reporting by Abdel Fattah Sherif, Neha Mustafi, Jonathan B Mathew, Reuters Fact Check, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, James Mackenzie in Jerusalem and Andrew Mills in Doha, Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Text and video journalist, most recently in Ukraine and as bureau chief in Jerusalem. Stephen has reported from the Middle East, Iraq, South Asia, New York and UK. Previously worked at The New York Times and The Times of London. Co-author of the book ‘Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement’.

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