June 14, 2024

Information Warfare: The Complex Dynamic of Breaking News, Misinformation and The Fog of War

The mixing of truth with falsehood creates an information ecosystem in which recognizing fact from fiction becomes increasingly difficult for the general population. Under these conditions, mainstream media institutions serve an incredibly important role as gatekeepers to legitimacy, with their reporting serving as signals of veracity for the public.

Ethnic Media Coverage Widens News Lens on Israel-Palestine War. Image Credit: Ted Eytan.

Since the violent attack on Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 and the tragedies emerging in the Gaza Strip from the subsequent Israeli military response, a deep fog of war has settled over the conflict, causing a severe uptick in mis- and dis- information propagating in public discourse. In fact, to just say there is a fog of war would grossly understate recent social media discussions surrounding Israel and Gaza.

In an interview with the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, Shayan Sardarizadeh, a senior journalist covering disinformation for BBC Verify, said, “The volume of misinformation on Twitter was beyond anything I’ve ever seen.” Social media platforms have become breeding grounds for misleading content related to the conflict. Graphic videos purporting to be from Gaza and Israel have flooded these spaces, blurring the line between both genuine and ingenuine footage

Among the footage falsely presented as part of the current conflict are scenes from video games, like this tweet, which presents a cutscene from the game Arma 2 as video of Hamas shooting down Israeli helicopters. There is also footage originating from other countries, like Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, videos falsely claiming injured Palestinians are crisis actors, and footage from previous Israel/Gaza conflicts presented as having been captured in 2023. 

This is on top of non-video based false and misleading information, such as tweets spreading a fake White House memo saying the United States had sent $8 billion in aid to Israel early in the conflict. The reasons for this surge are multifaceted. While there are notable cases of individual actors intentionally spreading disinformation, the majority of false information is spread by people unaware of the misleading status of such content. 

Individuals understandably experiencing heightened states of emotion are more likely to begin drawing strong partisan lines around political issues leading to an increased propensity for sharing inaccurate information. People tend to employ sense-making functions to craft narratives that fill in the gaps of uncertainty for their current situation, opening the door for less scrutinous intake of information that feeds into the particular narrative one has adopted, regardless of its underlying veracity.  

Having an information space congested with false information, a lack of consensus on the facts, and highly polarized groups discouraged from communicating with one another all signal the presence of “Truth Decay” – a concept coined by the RAND Corporation, referring to increases in disagreement among the public about what constitutes objective fact. The emotional intensity of conflicts like the 2023 Israel-Gaza war exacerbates this phenomenon, as individuals seek information that confirms their biases and discounts contrary evidence.

Palestinian supporters at a rally. Social media has created a platform for the crisis, although oftentimes shedding less light on those suffering. Image Credit: Montecruz Foto.

Social media also presents a challenge due to the sheer scale and speed of information spread. Digital platforms facilitate high-speed information sharing, as well as cross-platform cascade, making the ability to control the movement of information within them difficult. The issue extends beyond just the speed of dissemination; in one report, researchers found that false news reached more people and diffused faster than the truth, highlighting worrying vulnerabilities for our information infrastructure. 

Platforms such as X (formerly known as Twitter) have also seen specific shifts in their design, making them even more susceptible to this kind of dis/misinformation overload. Monetization of the verification process has inadvertently empowered individuals or entities with unchecked credibility to disseminate dubious information

With millions of people getting the lion’s share of their news from social media, this represents a significant issue. The mixing of truth with falsehood creates an information ecosystem in which recognizing fact from fiction becomes increasingly difficult for the general population. Under these conditions, mainstream media institutions serve an incredibly important role as gatekeepers to legitimacy, with their reporting serving as signals of veracity for the public. However, deficiencies inherent to the current 24/7 breaking news model that has become prominent among news organizations have brought into question the efficacy of these media organizations in playing their important structural role. 

One case relating to the current conflict that exemplifies the failures here can be identified in the coverage surrounding the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital. On Oct. 17, 2023, amidst the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Gaza Strip as Israel sustained its counter-offensive against Hamas, several news reports hit the home pages of their respective publications covering a hospital explosion in Gaza. Many of these reports featured headlines stating that more than 500 people had died in an explosion at the al-Ahli hospital as the result of an Israeli air strike, attributing the claim to the Palestinian Authority. These reports were met with severe reactions, setting off protests across the world, drawing criticism from U.S. politicians, and leading to the cancellation of a summit between President Biden and leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. 

Sentiments about the explosion immediately started spreading across social media, with knee-jerk responses. One prominent Israeli influencer, Hananya Naftali, immediately attempted to defend the bombing, assuming Israel was responsible, stating that the bombing had killed multiple Hamas members stationed at the al-Ahli hospital. He later deleted this post, issuing an apology for his premature attribution of the bombing to Israel. Regardless, the initial tweet was presented by other social media users as evidence of Israel admitting that it was responsible for the event. 

For its part, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) quickly denied any role in the al-Ahli explosion, claiming that it was likely the result of a misfired Palestinian militant rocket. This was met with significant skepticism given that Israel had previously targeted these kinds of facilities, using the justification that they were being used to store Hamas armament and fighters. In addition, the IDF has a history of denying previous offenses, such as the killing of American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, until mounting evidence forces them to acquiesce. However, as more details about the October 17 blast became clear, the picture of what exactly had occurred started to shift. 

As early as the morning after the hospital explosion was reported, questions around the initial narrative emerged. Photos showing the damage presented an impact crater several independent analysts described as being inconsistent with what would be expected from an Israeli airstrike. The explosion also seemed to have occurred in the courtyard of the hospital as opposed to the hospital buildings themselves, which received limited damage to their facades.

Coverage of what was happening also rapidly evolved as more information continued to flow in, with headlines changing within hours of the initial reporting as a result. Other countries’ investigatory bodies began releasing death estimates significantly lower than the Gazan Ministry of Health’s claims which has settled at around 471 deaths with U.S. intelligence agencies giving an estimate ranging between 100-300 deaths and one senior European Intelligence figure giving an estimated range as low as 10-50 deaths

Ethnic Media Coverage Widens News Lens on Israel-Palestine War. Image Credit: Ted Eytan.

Footage originating from Al-Jazeera became another point of contention, with the IDF citing it as evidence that the explosion originated from a rocket launched within Gaza by Palestinian fighters. For many, this was compelling evidence, with several visual analyses corroborating the claim that it was likely the explosion’s source. However, as more angles of the footage came out, both the New York Times and Washington Post released their own visual analyses, refuting the idea that the projectile shown in the Al-Jazeera footage could have been the cause. This also led to both CNN and the AP updating their own analyses, coming to similar conclusions as the Post and the Times. The exact origins of what happened remain inconclusive.

Criticism of mainstream coverage surrounding the reporting on the bombing was swift, with the New York Times and BBC both posting mea culpa for their coverage, apologizing for relying too heavily on claims by Hamas, as well as not making clear that said claims could not immediately be verified by the outlets. The Times’ early coverage was specifically egregious, initially showing a picture of an unrelated bombed-out building from Southern Gaza underneath a headline stating “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds, Palestinians say” — an action that could easily mislead readers into thinking it was a photo of the hospital itself. 

Where the initial death toll of 500 originated from is also a point of contention. When investigative journalist David Zwieg began reaching out to different media outlets who had reported on the bombing, he received no details on the origins from any of the news organizations, resulting in him attempting to find the original source himself. 

Over the course of his inquiry, he discovered that at 1:50 pm ET on Oct. 17, Al-Jazeera’s Arabic Twitter account posted a video clip showing an interview with Ashraf Al-Qidra, the Gazan Ministry of Health spokesperson. After translating the clip, he found that the spokesperson had not stated that more than 500 hundred people had died, but instead that there were over 500 victims, an important distinction as the term used for victims did not necessarily refer to dead people. In contrast to the Al-Jazeera Arabic tweet, its English counterpart had posted a tweet 11 minutes before, stating that the Health Ministry had said 500 people died in the explosion. This led Zweig to consider that the entire reporting fiasco had been the result of American journalists tracking the Al-Jazeera English Twitter account, unscrupulously parroting their reporting, and having the narrative snowball from there. 

The entire debacle has also contributed to a broader questioning of the legitimacy of death numbers reported by the Gazan Ministry of Health, considering its associations with Hamas as a governing entity over the region. United States President Joe Biden, for instance, stated in an Oct. 25 press conference that he had “no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.” This was despite the fact that, historically, the Gazan Ministry of Health has been considered generally reliable, with their tallies of casualties being roughly in line with those of both third party organizations and Israel, as well as the fact that the health body’s figures have been cited many times internally by the Biden administration.  

In the rush to report on the constantly evolving situation within Gaza, mainstream sources risk insufficient adherence to journalistic rigor, an inadequacy which — as seen in the case of reporting surrounding the al-Ahli hospital explosion — can have dire consequences. The incident highlights the challenges faced by media outlets in verifying information in real-time during complex and fast-paced events. The initial reliance on unverified claims and the subsequent spread of misinformation underscores the need for a more cautious approach to reporting, especially in conflict zones where the stakes are high.

Deficiencies in information dissemination are further exacerbated by the scarcity of on-the-ground journalists and hindered verification processes. The IDF imposes stringent restrictions, limiting the accessibility of journalists to key areas and impeding their ability to report firsthand. Moreover, the heightened risks faced by journalists in conflict zones, including potential targetings, pose a significant deterrent. These multifaceted challenges contribute to a notable information gap, hindering the accurate portrayal of events in the region. 

It cannot simply be a matter of relying solely on media institutions either; collectively, we must make an effort to uphold better information-sharing practices. This involves fostering media literacy among the public, encouraging critical thinking, and holding both traditional and social media accountable for the accuracy of the information they disseminate. As consumers of news, we bear a shared responsibility to verify and question the information we encounter, particularly in times of crisis when the fog of war is thick and misinformation can amplify the severity of an already sensitive situation.

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