Can you trust what you read on social media about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Even some of the most popular posts are misleading. With more and more people using social media as their primary news source, how can we make sure that we’re getting accurate information? This question becomes much more relevant in times of conflict, where misinformation could cause widescale violence. In this blog article, Tom Ansell looks at misinformation in times of conflict and what we can do to encourage better reporting in fast-moving and dangerous contexts.
Twitter/X has been accused of stoking the fires of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict by multiplying misinformation. Examples include a video shared over seven million times that supposedly shows Israeli soldiers going house to house in Gaza City. In reality, the video is from 2021 and actually shows an Israeli police operation. Another example is a video of Hamas fighters ‘shooting down an Israeli helicopter’ that is from a video game and has been viewed by over 300,000 people.
These posts are not only pushing false narratives but are also spreading emotionally charged misinformation that can certainly stoke more violence. With the cause of the explosion at the al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza unclear, and with competing narratives from Gazan and Israeli authorities, plenty of misleading accounts have sprung up on Twitter/X that show videos reportedly of the explosion but that are actually from 2022, which has further inflamed tensions.
This is a worrying development for two reasons. First, engagement with and trust in ‘legacy’ media organisations, including national newspapers and media conglomerates, is at an all-time low across the world. Accurate and nuanced reporting that has been factually verified is no longer the dominant way for people to get their news. In various countries worldwide, more than half of people get their news from social media, including in Spain (50%), India (52%), Turkey (54%), Hungary (61%), Greece (61%), Peru (66%), and Nigeria (78%), according to Statista.
Second, people seem to be more likely to spread false information. An MIT study from 2018 suggests that Tweets (or X’s) that contain lies are 70% more likely to be retweeted compared to truthful posts, likely due to users’ ‘novelty bias’ (where new, surprising information is shared), or due to social media websites’ own algorithms.
Meanwhile, only a few weeks ago, the EU formally warned Twitter and Facebook about the growing proportion of misinformation on their networks, a warning that was re-iterated in the wake of the new waves of violence in Israel and Palestine. Whilst there are fact-checking accounts and initiatives on both networks (and also on Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, etc.), the real-world impact of mis- and disinformation that were identified in the COVID-19 pandemic has now come back sharply into focus with the ongoing campaign of violence in Israel and Palestine.
Why we read and spread disinformation
An appetite for quick information and near real-time updates has never been higher. And with few journalists immediately available and able to build a clear picture in a fast-moving context, an information gap grows. It’s precisely this gap that technology-focused and consumer-hungry social media networks fill by providing super quick updates and, often, photos and videos from the centre of a conflict zone that can push emotionally charged narratives and incite further violence.
Whilst there are large numbers of journalists from multinational legacy media organisations that can access conflict zones — usually wearing the famous blue ‘press’ bulletproof vest — — places where there is no authoritative or fact-checked source of news. This is particularly true for acute outbreaks of severe violence, where it is nearly impossible for a news organisation that is held to a high standard of accuracy to access the conflict zone. And when people cannot access authoritative news sources, they turn to alternative sources such as social media.
In protracted and lower-intensity conflicts, too, it is likely that local media will be unable to operate whether due to power cuts, looting, commandeering of equipment, or attacks on staff. And let’s not forget that in contexts with authoritarian governments, an independent local media is likely to suffer. Again, this can feed into a situation where people cannot access information from trusted sources and may turn to social media for the latest news updates.
Moreover, what drives engagement is often activating strong emotional responses in users through, for example, powerful images, videos, or narratives. Particularly within a conflict situation, by definition multilayered and complex, this leads the internal mechanisms of social media companies (“the algorithms”) to spotlight easily accessible and emotionally charged content. This combined with a huge hunger for information seems to lead in one direction: emotionally charged narratives reaching thousands of people without factual verification.
Social media provides lots of information, but often of low quality
As with many laissez-faire approaches, openness and freedom is to a certain extent an illusion. This is because, in the case of Twitter and Meta (the parent company of Instagram and Facebook), the company doesn’t exist to provide an information service- it exists to satisfy its shareholders and investors. The model for making money from social media is now fairly well researched, but in short: social media companies work as advertising platforms and sell advertising space. The longer someone engages with the platform, the more can be charged for advertising space.
The great equalising hope for peer to peer (P2P) media, where anyone can publish their views and ideas without editorial gatekeeping, including social media, is that it can give disempowered people a platform to voice their grievances or struggle and can reach audiences without waiting for a legacy media company to provide that platform. Within a conflict situation, this could extend to giving civilians a voice in the conflict or providing an outlet for non-state actors to give ‘their side of the story’.
However, whilst there are plenty of cases of legacy media organisations stoking hate, there is at least some basis for holding them legally accountable, even if it is slow-moving and limited. Social media companies, on the other hand, are not classified as ‘publishers’ and so do not have to kneel to publishing guidelines and law.
A role for citizen journalists and more strictly regulated platforms?
So, how can we find a balance between providing platforms for those people who are routinely missed by legacy organisations to speak their truths? One option could be equitable partnerships between media platforms and citizen journalists. Outlets like The Guardian seem to have a workable model for this.
Another solution could be strong legislation that considers social media organisations as the publishers that they are, and so holds them legally accountable for spreading misinformation. Perhaps a longer-term and more holistic solution, though, is creating platforms where the overall target is sharing accurate information and true voices, rather than seeking maximum returns on investment.
Follow Bliss on LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the author:
Tom Ansell is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Studies Centre and International Humanitarian Studies Association.
Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.