The American supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid have long had their every word about Israel and Palestine pored over and dissected. Their father, Mohamed Hadid, is a Palestinian-American real estate developer whose family fled their home when he was a baby and became refugees.
This scrutiny intensified a thousandfold after Hamas militants launched unprecedented and brutal attacks in southern Israel on 7 October, triggering Israel to declare war against Hamas. The Hamas gunmen killed more than 1,400 people and took 230 hostages, and the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry says more than 8,000 people have been killed in retaliatory Israeli strikes.
Bella Hadid called the situation an “urgent humanitarian crisis in Gaza that must be attended to” on Instagram, revealing her phone number had been leaked and that she got “hundreds of death threats daily”.
Then a video started circulating in which she purportedly apologises for her “past remarks” about Israel. It was viewed millions of times.
But, as BBC Verify senior journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh pointed out on X (formerly Twitter), the video was a deepfake – a manipulated version of Hadid’s remarks at a 2016 Lyme alliance ceremony. (She has Lyme disease.)
Sardarizadeh investigates disinformation, conspiracy theories, and extremism online. He has been debunking misleading viral information and visuals in daily threads on X since the Hamas attack.
A deluge of misleading and false claims started within hours of the Hamas attack on prominent platforms such as X, Youtube, TikTok and Instagram, Sardarizadeh has said, and he posted that fact-checkers could simply not keep up.
To compound matters, real footage of victims is falsely flagged in Community Notes as being of “crisis actors”. (Community Notes on X places the onus on users to correct facts.) False crisis actor videos mocking victims of the war on both sides is the latest twist in sordid online content.
Many of the accounts sprouting falsehoods, Sardarizadeh told CBC, seemed to be users “farming engagement”, using conflict to increase their influence, gain followers or even make money on certain platforms. This includes footage from other conflict zones, action movies, fake screenshots, doctored photos or even video games.
Why anyone would want to make atrocities up, if not for nefarious reasons, astounds me. The truth is devastating enough; the real footage more than shocking enough. And there are journalists risking their lives on the ground to report as accurately as they can. (At least 29 journalists have been killed in the Israel-Gaza conflict in less than three weeks, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.) Which is not to say that the legacy media have not struggled to distinguish the maelstrom of mis- and disinformation.
In any conflict, the information war is as important as the military war as it frames the narrative. And in any war, there will be disinformation. We also saw a surge in false claims when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 across platforms.
But the information chaos emanating from the Israel-Gaza situation is beyond a dystopian nightmare.
In the Arab Spring, there were hopes Twitter could become a powerful platform to keep us informed about crises and even spread democracy, circumventing censorship or information clampdowns. But it has been manipulated, hollowed out by a lack of moderation and distorted by algorithms. Much has been written about X in the first anniversary of the Elon Musk era. Suffice to say that, crucially, he removed blue check marks from the accounts of news organisations and journalists, among others, and sold them to subscribers. These accounts are amplified by X and users are eligible for payment if they go viral.
The problem is that there is no real alternative to Twitter. And many of us will keep returning there until there is another platform where we can satisfy our thirst for real-time updates.
So, we all have to verify posts. For our own sanity, but also to stop spreading harmful falsehoods.
The fact-checkers and investigative journalists Bellingcat have compiled a guide to help people spot false claims, cautioning to basically question everything.
The BBC’s Sardarizadeh recommends practical tools, such as reverse searching images with Google Lens and New York-based On The Media has an excellent Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook to avoid obvious spreaders of hogwash.
The Poynter Institute’s Alex Mahadevan recommends asking three questions developed by the Stanford History Education Group:
- Who’s behind the information?
- What’s the evidence?
- What do other sources say?
Read Mahadevan’s easy-to-follow tips here.
And my favourite? Mahadevan’s reminder that it’s important to remember that you don’t have to share anything about the conflict on social media.
*If your head doesn’t hurt yet, bear in mind that we have also seen the rise of fake fact-checkers. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, for example, Russian propaganda outlets are pretending to debunk rumours, but are, in fact, spreading disinformation.
Here are my recommendations for (real) fact-checkers to follow:
- AP Fact Check is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, a unit of the Poynter Institute dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. The team are respected in the industry as no-nonsense and straightforward.
- BBC Verify’s Shayan Sardarizadeh.
- Bellingcat has long irked Musk – he has called them “psychological operations” – but any list of fact-checkers would be amiss not to include them. I particularly admired their work on the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
- Aric Toler heads up visual investigations at the New York Times. He used to work with Bellingcat.
- The Washington Post’s Fact Check, which aim is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures.
- AFP’s fact-checking platform.
Adri Kotze has been a journalist for as long as she can remember, including stints as a features writer, political journalist, investigative reporter and commissioning editor. She now writes about all things media and publishing. Contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or LinkedIn.