A barrage of social media disinformation related to the escalating Israel-Palestine war has made it far more difficult to discern the credibility of visual evidence. Earlier this week, actor Jamie Lee Curtis used a photo of scared children looking up at the sky taken by freelance Palestinian photojournalist Samar Abu Elouf in her Instagram post in support of Israel, only to delete the post after the image was revealed to depict an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza strip. Curtis’s error shows how deceptively easy it is to take mischaracterized videos and images at face value in our desperation to raise awareness and show solidarity.
Even though Curtis’s post was quickly flagged due to her large platform, every run-of-the-mill social media user is susceptible to visual disinformation. Posts pertaining to war crimes and onsite atrocities have gone viral before fact-checkers could identify them as old or recycled footage, documentation of other international plights, and in one instance, a clip from a video game. Even more troubling is the rise of falsified media affiliates, including the creation of a now-suspended X account for a fake BBC journalist, and another masquerading as the Jerusalem Post news outlet — both of which spread large amounts of disinformation before their suspensions.
Earlier this week, claims that the Church of Saint Porphyrios in Gaza City had been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike reached various corners of the world before the church self-reported that it was intact on social media.
“Humans are vulnerable to misinformation in general, but we are particularly gullible when it comes to visual information,” Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communications and head of the Media Effects, Misinformation, and Extremism (MEME) lab at the University at Buffalo told Hyperallergic. “For millions of years we have evolved to trust our eyes. It is only in recent memory that we gained the ability to manipulate images and videos and lie with visual ‘evidence.’ Unfortunately, there are a lot of actors who willingly or unintentionally spread misinforming visuals.”
Ophir noted the prevalence of “wartime censorship” in Israel as well as Hamas’s ability to abuse visuals, both real and fabricated.
“Other countries, like Russia and Iran, may harness the opportunity to spread propaganda and misinformation as well,” he continued. “And above all, individuals who are thirsty for information and comprehension of the atrocities seen on their screens, will be open to believe and share more questionable information.”
Aside from taking the time to equip oneself with media literacy tools like fact-checking sites or browser extensions, cross-referencing claims through different news outlets, and using reverse image-search tools to verify the credibility of visual evidence samples, Ophir recommended that social media users “remain vigilant and skeptical, but not cynical.”
Lone social media users aren’t the only vulnerable party to disinformation. Dozens of news outlets picked up the Israel Defense Forces’s unverified claims that Hamas militants beheaded 40 babies, only for a spokesperson for the Israeli army to share that they have “no information confirming [the] allegations.”
In the thick of it, Elon Musk’s ultra-lax approach to disinformation and extremism on X, including but not limited to cutting the platform’s trust-and-safety team, creating paid subscriptions for verification status, reinstating banned accounts, and putting the onus on platform users to fact-check through the “community notes” feature long after false claims have gone viral, has enabled rumors to proliferate. False stories about the hospitalization of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden’s $8 billion aid package to Israel, and an edited video of Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo holding the Palestinian flag were spreading rapidly on the platform last weekend, while a three-year-old video from the Syrian civil war was repurposed to look like it was taken within the last few days.
Social media users should be aware that the spread of disinformation can be a deliberate tactical strategy, as evidenced by former President Donald Trump’s repeated claims alleging that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged, which resulted in the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC.
“This is propaganda 101,” Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told NPR. “You flood the gap, especially in those early hours, with content that suggests a certain narrative, whether it’s the strength of one faction over another, whether it’s the strength of one state over another, and try to get ahead of the curve.”
Editor’s note 10/12/23 7:32pm EST: A previous version of this article included a screenshot of X posts related to a photograph allegedly depicting Israeli or Palestinian children. Due to ambiguity surrounding the image depicted, the screenshot has been removed.