The war in Gaza has dominated social media since Hamas attacked Israel last Saturday. There’s been plenty of credible reporting and horrific imagery shared by those on the ground, but the influx of posts has also included one of the most staggering floods of unchecked misinformation in recent memory.
X, formerly known as Twitter, has been particularly vulnerable. The platform’s dismantling of content moderation teams, shift to a pay-for-verification model, and the launch of engagement-based revenue sharing have opened the floodgates for users looking to cash in off sensational content. Meta, TikTok, and YouTube have also been affected, with all four companies, including X, receiving warnings from the European Commission that the spread of misinformation, as well as violent and hateful content, may place them in violation of the EU’s Digital Services Act. Meta announced on Friday that in the three days following October 7, the company had “removed or marked as disturbing more than 795,000 pieces of content for violating [their] policies in Hebrew and Arabic.”
It is impossible to keep track of every individual piece of misinformation spreading across multiple social media platforms, but here are some of the biggest trends and debunkable claims identified in recent days.
Recycled footage and images
By sheer volume, the most prominent way false information about the conflict between Israel and Hamas is spreading is through the misrepresentation of old pictures and videos from past military conflicts.
Viral clips purporting to depict the current crisis have included missile strike footage of the Syrian War in 2020, footage of Egyptian troops paragliding over Cairo (there are confirmed reports that Hamas militants entered Israel with paragliders), and even footage of Bruno Mars fans running towards the stage at one of his concerts, which was falsely presented as video of Israelis fleeing a massacre by Hamas forces at a music festival outside of Gaza. Videos of casualties being pulled from the rubble, as well as troop mobilizations from past military conflicts, have also been circulated online.
“I can excuse anybody for feeling confused if they’ve been looking online in the last few days,” Shayan Sardarizadeh, a BBC journalist who’s been tracking and debunking misleading content told the Reuters Institute. “It’s been really difficult to sift through what is actually genuine footage from what’s been going on in Israel and Gaza, and what is either clickbait or unrelated footage or something that is being shared for clicks, engagement, or any sort of nefarious intent.”
Video game clips
One of the most bizarre pieces of viral misinformation circulating on social media is users attempting to pass off high-resolution video game footage as genuine combat videos. Arma 3, a hyper-realistic open-world combat video game that allows users significant freedom to customize gaming scenarios, has become the primary source of this kind of content.
Clips from Arma 3 depicting helicopters being shot down and in formation were presented as footage of Hamas fighters attacking Israeli military forces and racked up millions of views on X and TikTok. Images of fighter jets flying in formation were misrepresented as the Israeli response. On Twitter, several Arma 3 clips were tagged as fake by the site’s “Community Notes” feature, but many circulated without an added notice to users and few were outright removed from the website.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Arma 3 clips have circulated and misled the public during the outbreak of other military conflicts for years, including during the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022. Arma 3 videos depicting surface-to-air combat, missile launches, and drone strikes were falsely portrayed on social media as combat footage from the clash between the two countries.
Pavel Křižka, PR Manager for Arma 3’s production company Bohemia Interactive, has stated that the company works with fact-checking organizations to debunk the misleading videos they have identified. He told Rolling Stone this week that it’s “disheartening to see the labor of love of so many talented game [developers] and a beloved game for many players worldwide used in such [a] way. Abused by a few sick individuals who are deliberately spreading fake news and/or hunting for views and retweets.”
Political claims, including that the U.S. gave Iran $6 billion to fund Hamas’ attack
One of the most widely distributed pieces of misinformation is a claim that $6 billion in Iranian funds unfrozen by the Biden administration helped pay for Hamas’ attack against Israel. The claim has been repeated by countless Republican political figures, including former President Donald Trump, Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron Desantis, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
The $6 billion dollars are part of a prisoner swap deal the Biden administration negotiated last month with the government of Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas. The deal was not a payment, but rather the planned release of existing Iranian funds that had been frozen by South Korean banks following a U.S. embargo and sanctions against the country in 2019.
However, conditions in the negotiated agreement stipulated that the money would not be released directly to Iran, and could not be used for anything other than humanitarian-related purposes like the purchase of food and medicine. None of the money has even been released to Iran by Qatar, the country appointed to oversee and distribute the unfrozen funds.
“All of the money held in restricted accounts in Doha as part of the arrangement to secure the release of five Americans in September remains in Doha. Not a penny has been spent,” Brian Nelson, U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said earlier this week. “These restricted funds cannot go to Iran — it can only be used for future humanitarian-related purposes. Any suggestion to the contrary is false and misleading.”
Regardless, news broke on Thursday that the U.S. and Qatar had reached a “quiet understanding” to indefinitely halt the release of the funds.
Forged White House memos
Another viral piece of misinformation that circulated during the outbreak of the conflict was a forgery of a White House memo claiming the United States had released $8 billion in military aid to Israel. While President Biden and leaders at the Department of Defense have declared the government’s support for Israel and have started flying over weapons and munitions to help replenish Israel’s supplies, no funds have yet been authorized by the U.S. government.
The false memo was a doctored copy of a July 25, 2023 document authorizing the release of $400 million in aid to Ukraine.
A supposed White House document allocating $8 billion in military aid for Israel was a fake, a doctored version of a genuine memo about Ukraine. But it still took off on X, part of a flood of disinformation that swamped the site after the Hamas attacks. https://t.co/Bzn2N7NUq1 pic.twitter.com/dVNDj07YDR
— Bill McCarthy (@billdmccarthy) October 9, 2023
Funding for Israel cannot be approved by Congress until Republicans in the House of Representatives resolve their leadership crisis. Earlier this month, a faction of the lower chamber’s GOP caucus succeeded in ousting Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from his role as House Speaker. Since then, infighting and internal divisions have plagued the battle to vote in a replacement and paralyzed the U.S. Congress.
Border control nonsense
Amid the turmoil unfolding in Gaza and Israel, some American lawmakers have attempted to stir up fears that Hamas “sleeper cells” have infiltrated the United States and could launch domestic attacks against American citizens.
The conspiracy has been spread far and wide by Republicans pushing for stricter border control measures, and conservative media outlets. “The same people that raided Israel are pouring into our once beautiful USA, through our TOTALLY OPEN SOUTHERN BORDER, at Record Numbers,” Trump claimed Monday on Truth Social.
What happened to Israel could happen to America,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) wrote on X. “We have been invaded by aliens from over 160 different countries. We don’t know who they are or where they are. There are so many got-aways the Biden admin can’t even keep up with them. This should be a wake-up call.”
No evidence exists to back up these claims, and the White House addressed them on Friday. “I want to be completely and crystal clear on one thing,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesperson, told reporters. “At this time, none of our intel agencies have any specific intelligence indicating a threat to the United States stemming from the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel. That said, we continue to remain vigilant to any and all threats.”
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