Rise of online disinformation amid Israeli-Hamas war

Over a century ago, U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson purportedly declared that “the first casualty when war comes is truth”. Similarly, Arthur Ponsonby in 1928 wrote that “when war is declared, truth is the first casualty”.  Both remarks can have their origin traced back even further to Samuel Johnson’s 1758 comments in the “The Idler” magazine which stated that “…among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

These aforementioned statements certainly carry water today as they did back in the days of yore, with the recent eruption of tensions between Israel and Hamas reminding us on how ideological narratives and propaganda could drown the truth in times of conflict. 

Since the brutal attacks carried out on civilians by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, both Israeli and Palestinian sides have been involved to varying degrees in disseminating disinformation and fake news, masquerading video game footage as reality and touting old images as new. 

Pro-Hamas voices on social media have leveraged Gaza hospital bombings to villainize Israel, as a disinformation specialist told Reuters, whereas pro-Israel users have slammed Palestinians for feigning injuries to discredit Palestinians’ plight. 

By inundating online news platforms with incendiary claims, these users have sought to push their own agendas, regardless of truth or consistency.

For example, when a Channel News Asia (CNA) journalist in Singapore set up a TikTok account merely to watch and “like” content related to the Israel-Hamas war, the journalist began seeing clips on her TikTok feed that contained misinformation showcasing legitimate footage from past military conflicts or tragedies that were paired with misleading captions. 

Video game visuals and digitally manipulated natural disasters emerged from time to time on Tiktok as well, according to the CNA journalist, with some of these clips posted by accounts launched just days after the conflict began.

In one video posted on November 1, footage of an “update” eventually was found to be that of a huge earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Nevertheless, the clip still obtained 5.5 million views, 106,000 likes and over 12,000 shares.

Social media is becoming a huge political weapon of our age, while the ongoing AI revolution will likely just exacerbate matters. Even traditional media outlets could act as tools for spreading misinformation. A recent Freedom House report indicated that in Communist China, state-controlled news outlets have sought to frame ideological narratives promoting official interpretations of the Israeli-Hamas war, in wake of Communist China’s long-standing links with the Palestinian national movement and Beijing’s adamance that Taiwan is a renegade province of the mainland, to be taken back by force, if necessary. 

Amid ongoing efforts by Taiwan’s authorities to tackle a barrage of Chinese money and disinformation, the Taipei District Prosecutors’ Office recently indicted members of the Taiwan People’s Communist Party for colluding with Beijing to influence the outcome of Taiwan’s January 2024 presidential election.

National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai Ming-yen also warned Taiwan’s legislature that Beijing’s methods of meddling with the elections have diversified, including manipulating public opinion polls and packaging false information as reports from international media.

Besides, liberal news outlets like The New York Times (NYT) have faced backlash over inaccurate reporting during the Israeli-Hamas clashes.

Although disinformation campaigns are regular features of war, advances in artificial intelligence have made it cheaper and easier to produce persuasive falsehoods to delude impartial audiences. For instance, as reported by the Reuters news outlet, various viral images claiming to display support for Palestinians or Israelis were in reality AI-generated fakes. 

Additionally, advanced deepfake technology has given rise to manufactured footage, such as a video of U.S. Democrat president Joe Biden claiming he would send American troops to aid Israel. 

Some observers have pointed out that the proliferation of AI fabrications can give rise to reservations and skepticism about even verifiable facts, with one AI researcher telling the NYT that “the real power of this technology is how it undermines truth and trust”.

Even worse than simply spreading disinformation, the powers-that-be have tried to capitalize on audiences’ increasing skepticism of even authentic news to push their own agendas. 

As terrorist violence plagues Europe following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, gave a plenary address on October 18 to the European Parliament on fighting disinformation in times of conflict, and called for a more stringent enforcement of the Digital Services Act (DSA), a new online-regulation law. 

The DSA, which came into effect in August this year, mandates online platforms like X (formerly Twitter), Meta, and YouTube to rapidly remove what the authority classify as illegal content, hate speech, and disinformation.

Breton has conducted a slew of investigations, first into X and now Meta and TikTok, requesting detailed information about the social media companies’ response to the Israel and Hamas war. If firms do not comply with DSA directives, they would face hefty fines of up to six percent of yearly global revenue. 

During a speech in September, EU vice president for values and transparency, Věra Jourová lashed out at X for allegedly having a particularly high level of disinformation compared to other sites, vowing further efforts to tackle X. 

After the probe by the European Commission, Elon Musk, owner of X, is reportedly now contemplating removing X from the EU, with a Business Insider article in October citing sources saying that no employees remained in Europe, as offices in Paris, Madrid and Berlin had closed. 

Nonetheless, according to the same Business Insider article, X’s Dublin and London offices remained open, with the UK no longer being part of the EU and recommending separate obligations for social media platforms.

Photo credit: iStock/ RyanKing999

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