- Misinformation about ongoing Israel-Palestine violence continues to spread on social media.
- Viral posts, some bolstered by the Israeli government, often contain false claims.
- Social-media companies have not taken a strong stance on the polarizing misinformation.
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In order to fact-check misinformation, both empirical evidence and an agreed-upon bedrock of reality are required. This is increasingly difficult when parsing through social media posts about Israel and Palestine in the heat of escalating violence.
Palestinian protests erupted in the region throughout April as Israel’s Supreme Court weighed a decision to evict Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem occupied by Israel, to make room for Israeli settlers. The Supreme Court has since delayed the Sheikh Jarrah decision.
Rising tensions came to a head on May 7, when Israeli police stormed the Islamic holy site al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, injuring over 200 people, according to the humanitarian group Palestinian Red Crescent.
Violence escalated and led to Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group, firing rockets into Israel from Gaza, then Israel retaliated with airstrikes of their own at Gaza. The death toll in the region has reached nearly 200 Palestinians, according to The New York Times, and 10 Israelis, as reported by Reuters.
Depending on your own social-media ecosystem and community, you may be learning about these events through inaccurate or misleading posts. Social media platforms have mostly remained quiet about any plans to combat the growing amount of false or misleading claims perpetuating online.
Palestinians walk next to the remains of a destroyed 15 story building after being hit by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021.
Abdel Kareem Hana/Associated Press
Video clips, infographics, tweets, and memes that get important details wrong or bend the truth — to the favor or detriment of both the Israelis and the Palestinians — are now spreading quickly on social media, where some have gone viral with boosts from celebrities’ large platforms and even government social-media pages.
The Israeli government is spreading false and misleading claims
The Israeli government is among the sources directly spreading misinformation online.
Bella Hadid, an American model whose father is Palestinian, came under fire online after she posted a since-deleted infographic that originated from the account @key48return. The viral infographic has been criticized by some in the Jewish community for describing the region as being under apartheid and military occupation, language that’s disputed by pro-Israel activists who have called it antisemitic.
On Sunday, the official Israeli government Twitter account accused Hadid of being an “advocate for throwing Jews into the sea,” along with a screenshot from an Instagram Live showing Hadid at a pro-Palestine protest in New York City earlier that day.
But Hadid never said that. In the video, protesters can be heard chanting, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a Palestinian activist chant that has been used for decades and refers to the country’s boundaries of the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Pro-Israel activists have claimed this chant is a dog whistle calling for the elimination of Israel as a state, though pro-Palestinian protesters deny this connection.
—Tammi (@TLaTela) May 16, 2021
Misinformation has also come from Israeli leaders.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson, Ofir Gendelman, tweeted a video of explosions in a street, positioning it as the current state of Gaza.
In reality, it was a clip from 2018 that is believed to show rockets sent from Syria or Libya, The New York Times reported. Twitter removed the post on Thursday for containing misleading content, according to The Times.
On Friday, The New York Times published an article containing allegations that the Israeli military purposely misled media outlets with a Twitter announcement of a ground invasion that hadn’t actually happened, in order to manipulate Palestinian forces. Israel disputed this account in numerous statements.
Old videos that purport to show the current conflict are going viral — but they are misleading
Viral videos spread without proper context are part of a recurring problem during moments of civil unrest worldwide.
Old videos are posted online to appear as current footage, or videos are taken out of context, to boost one’s political perspective — a frequent occurrence during the chaos of the 2020 US presidential election.
One of the most viral videos of the past week showed Israelis dancing, chanting, and waving flags with flames in the background. Competing narratives erupted immediately, with some claiming the Israelis were celebrating a burning mosque, while others claimed they were celebrating Jerusalem Day. But the video actually showed a tree that was set on fire near the mosque, according to Reuters, and there were conflicting reports on how it was set ablaze. The available video points to it being from fireworks, but it remains unclear if this was intentional or an accident.
Another clip on Twitter showed a young girl crying to the camera, saying, “They are bombing us every single day.” The video was shared with quotes including, “imagine if it was your children being bombed,” and hashtags like #FreePalestine. It was actually from a three-year-old clip of a Syrian girl who was presented as a Palestinian in the video, as Al Jazeera reporter Leah Harding said in a tweet.
—Leah Harding (@LeahHardingAJE) May 12, 2021
Similarly, an image of two dust-covered boys embracing has gone viral on several platforms, framing them as two brothers from Gaza. Reuters confirmed the photo showed two Syrian boys after a bombing in 2016.
According to The New York Times, there has also been a great deal of misinformation spread through WhatsApp groups over the last week, including blocks of text or audio files in Hebrew baselessly alleging that Palestinian mobs were preparing to descend on Israeli citizens, as well as others in Arabic warning that Israeli soldiers were set to invade the Gaza Strip.
Platforms have yet to make major statements on this misinformation
The spread of misinformation on social media in real-time during moments of unrest has long been a problem on the internet.
During the January 6 Capitol riot, a viral video appeared to show police removing barriers to allow insurrectionists easier entry to the building. But protesters had already breached the gates, and police had to stand down while being understaffed, PolitiFact later reported. Similar misleading videos went viral during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of Global Affairs, and Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of Global Public Policy, met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz via
last Thursday to discuss the spread of misinformation on their platform, according to a report from Politico. They were joined by TikTok executives, just days before Israel bombed the headquarters of Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and other media companies based in Gaza, and the group plans to meet with a Palestinian authority this week, Politico reported.
Smoke billows from a building housing various international media, including The Associated Press, after an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Gaza City.
Mahmud Hams /Pool Photo via AP
Facebook declined to comment on the record. According to a report from Politico, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement: “In response to the violence, we are working to make sure our services are a safe place for our community. We will continue to remove content that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow hate speech or incitement to violence, and will proactively explain and promote dialogue on these policies to policymakers.”
When reached for comment on Israel-Palestine misinformation, a Twitter spokesperson said, “We encourage people to report to us, and we also have proactive systems in place to reduce the burden on the victims of all forms of harassment and abuse. We will remain vigilant.”
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
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