Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra
Infiltration of Hamas into the territories of Israel and waging terror followed by attack by Israel army at Gaza between October 7 and 17, 2023, the first ten days of conflict, witnessed loss of lives of 15 journalists. A report published by New York based ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’ on October 17 revealed that among the dead 15 journalists, 11 belonged to Palestine, three to Israel and one Lebanon citizen. The organisation enquired into reports on eight wounded and three missing or detained journalists during the period.
On the very first day of the conflict, on October 7, six journalists were killed. It included three through attack by Hamas in Israel and three through attack by Israel army at Gaza. In the long history of conflict between Israel and Palestine at Gaza Strip, journalists reporting atrocities by military forces complained to be targeted by Israel army. The practice of ‘administrative detention’ to jail journalists for long periods without trail is widespread.
Data published by ‘Reporters Without Boarders’ indicated that before the war broke-out, during the previous three years, between 2020 and 2023, at least 30 journalists lost their lives in Palestine. It included one from Italy and one from Britain. ‘Palestinian Centre for Development and Media’ in its Annual Report for 2021 described 368 incidents of atrocities by Israel soldiers against Palestinian journalists. The report further revealed that 248 Palestinian journalists were imprisoned during the previous ten years.
Mass media played a pivotal role in reporting the long conflict between Israel and Hamas. However, the public attention was driven to social media platforms to access information during the October 2023 war on real time. People preferred social media posts on the go rather than sitting before television sets. But the emerging scenario also resulted in circulation of misinformation through text and videos. In cases, scenes from previous wars were posted and techniques of artificial intelligence were utilised to cook-up imaginary stories.
For example, a post in ‘X’ by a BBC journalist attached to ‘BBC Verify’ stated that on the seventh day of the war a video went viral depicting scene of bombardment in an area surrounded by buildings. It was mentioned that Israel bombed in a residential area in Palestine. The Video was viewed by 4 lakh 25 thousand people by the time of retrievel. It was misinformation. The BBC journalist clarified that the video depicts a scene from Yabroud city in Syria during war in 2013.
Efforts were undertaken by BBC along with a few other agencies to fact-check authenticity of information circulated in social media platforms in the earlier days of the war. Though it was not possible to review all the posts, few posts, those went viral, which means shared many times among consumers, were selected for verification.
To fact-check the suspicious videos the fact-checkers use technologies such as reverse-image search. Google has created ‘Google Search by Image’ platform since 2011. On uploading any photograph or video, a series of identical photographs and videos available in the internet are exhibited in the screen automatically. As a result, whether the selected photograph or video is original or copied can be easily identified.
According to the fact-checkers, during the first ten days of Israel-Hamas conflict a number of photographs and videos circulated in the social media were images of the previous wars scenes of the region or elsewhere.
In some other cases, the original scenes from the contemporary conflict were circulated with wrong captions. For example, on October 11, a scene of people entering homes for shelter in response to a siren in Haifa region went viral with a caption that Hezbollah terrorists have entered the northern-Israel. The information was false.
Examples were also evident of circulation of misinformation, fake photographs and videos in the social media platforms under unauthorised use of reputed news brands like BBC and Bellingcat during the initial days of Israel-Hamas war.
It is difficult to confront misinformation in the real time. On one hand, a sensational text or scene gets viral as soon as it is posted to reach a wide section of people. On the otherhand, fact checking misinformation is time consuming and it is difficult to identify misinformation amongst a huge stock of communication. However, technological interference by the social media platform operators yield results. How content relating to a sensitive issue should be circulated among the consumers can be controlled by the technology firms.
Within a week of starting the Israel-Hamas conflict major social media tech companies including Meta of Facebook and Instagram, TikTok and YouTube declared about steps undertaken for moderation of flow of misinformation on their platforms. Meta and Google owner of YouTube had since long time identified Hamas as a terrorist organization. Two platforms X and Telegram appeared to be widely used during the initial days of the war. Since Telegram protects encryption of the message and identity of users to a greater extent, communication in the conflict zones through the platform became popular. TikTok employed Arabic and Hebrew speaking fact-checkers to control misinformation in its platform and took down many videos depicting violence.
‘Cyabra’ is an acclaimed Israel based fact-checking establishment, famous in the international level, which worked for US presidential elections in the past. It revealed that a huge number of fake accounts controlled by robots in absence of humans became active during the first week of the conflict to circulate misinformation. In an example, on scrutiny of 20 lakh posts indentified 1,62,000 profiles in which about 25 percent found to be false. The statistics is alarming. An environment charged with a quarter of social media profiles working with mischievous intention in popular social media is a cause of concern for social coherence. The experience gathered in the Israel-Hamas conflict can be reflected in any other field and else where demands caution.
(English translation of the original Odia newsletter by the author circulated on October 20, 2023. https://tinyletter.com/pradeepmahapatra/letters/message-324. It is an open-access content, free for translation and reproduction)
Dr. Pradeep Mahapatra is a retired faculty of Journalism, Berhampur University, Odisha.https://about.me/pradeepmahapatra
Journalist casualties in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Committee to Protect Journalists. October 17, 2023
Mukherjee, Mitali. Israel-Gaza conflict : When social media fakes are rampant, news verification is vital. The Conversation. October 13, 2023
Suarez, Eduardo. BBC expert on debunking Israel-Hamas war visuals : The volume of misinformation on Twitter was beyond anything I’ve ever seen”. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. October 13, 2023
Sakek, Dina and Layala Mashkoor. In Israel-Hamas conflict, social media becomes tools of propaganda and disinformation. Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). October 12, 2023
Fischer, Sara. Social media firms scramble to curb wartime misinformation. Axios Media Trends. October 17, 2023