Social media

X’s Misinformation Problem Is Getting Worse

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has touted how X—the platform formally known as Twitter—could replace traditional media with near real-time updates as news is breaking. Yet, in the past week, X has instead been largely overtaken by misinformation coming out of the Middle East.

Since the start of the heaviest fighting seen in the region in nearly a decade, there has been a constant flow of fake photos, old videos, and in some cases even video game footage presented as coming from the region.

X has been accused of allowing fake social media accounts to spread misinformation about the ongoing conflict, and according to Cyabra, an Israeli analysis firm, one in five social media accounts participating in the online conversation about the war in Gaza are fake. BBC Verify, the new organization’s fact-checking unit, has also reported that there has been a “deluge” of false posts on the social media service.

X did not respond to a request for comment.

The Misinformation War

Whereas in past conflicts, it was largely journalists on the ground who created, or at least crafted, the narrative, social media has changed what is being reported to the world. Instead of providing unfiltered or unedited updates, we’re now seeing an increase in misinformation and even disinformation—where the former is false or inaccurate information that gets the facts wrong, while the latter is deliberately intended to mislead.

“The information war is growing in importance and may one day usurp the physical war,” warned Dr. William Pelfrey Jr., professor in the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Program at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Moreover, while misinformation on death and injury tolls, both exaggeration of effectiveness and minimization of internal victimization, has long been strategies of warfare, social media has only further made it impossible to tell fact from fiction.

“Terrorist agencies exacerbate these exaggerations to enhance their status and further their goals of stoking fear and recruitment tactics,” Pelfrey continued. “Hamas is telling stories of killed personnel such that they become martyrs for the cause, enhancing recruitment of future terrorist actors. Hamas and other non-state actors will focus on Palestinian children injured or killed in the bombing and Israel will do the same.”

Is it About Winning Hearts And Minds?

Both sides have sought to win hearts and minds largely by showing the brutality of the war.

“It must be stated that the situation is still unfolding, and it is probably one of the most complicated, complex scenarios for intelligence and influence operations to date,” explained Dr. Craig Albert, professor of political science and graduate director of Master of Arts in Intelligence and Security Studies at Augusta University. “Hamas has largely been trying to demonstrate that Israel is a rogue state, a pariah regime, oppressing and slaughtering innocent Palestinians. They are even posting videos and images of Russian phosphorus attacks against Ukraine earlier this year and stating that it is current Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip.”

That has been just one attempt by Hamas to gain sympathy and legitimacy for its actions.

“Their propaganda videos of their attacks which they are releasing generally show them in fights with Israeli Police and IDF, rather than against civilians,” Albert added.

Yet, some Hamas videos aren’t doctored or taken out of context and do show the brutality of assaults on civilians. This isn’t as much about misinformation and instead is about propaganda.

“Hamas is pulling this straight from the ISIS playbook: demonstrate success for recruitment purposes,” Albert noted.

Misinformation Is Coming From Far And Wide

What is also notable about the ongoing conflict is that it isn’t just the parties engaged in the fight that are currently involved that are using social media to spread misinformation/disinformation.

“Russia also seems to be conducting influence operations demonstrating how the U.S. has failed Israel, and the Middle East generally; it is their attempt at ‘narrative-setting’ to create the image that the U.S. is no longer a dependable hegemon in the area and are not at all a legitimate world power capable of establishing a lasting peace,” said Albert. “Iran is following suit and helping generate a pro-Palestinian narrative and to demonstrate a barbarous Israeli demeanor.”

Those efforts are appearing in Russian and Iranian state media, but they’re also being echoed on social media. The same holds true in the anti-Palestinian posts online—which are coming from an unexpected source.

“Some media watchers found out that there’s a lot of misinformation coming from India. Particularly from Hindu nationalist organizations and parties, which are essentially using this in order to create a case against the Indian Muslims,” said Dr. Roberto Mazza, global affairs and history professor at Northwestern University, and host of the Jerusalem Unplugged podcast. “To an extent, India can be equated to the campaigns of disinformation set by the Russians.”

As the conflict draws on, it is likely that misinformation will continue to be a problem on X—which has so far done little to combat its spread.

“Information, misinformation, and depiction will significantly influence public support, or lack thereof, as Israel continues efforts in Gaza,” said Pelfrey.

Social media is clearly only adding to the fog of war.

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