For more than a month now, a team of five fact checkers in a small office in occupied West Bank has been working 24x7 debunking hundreds of fake claims being shared about the Israel-Palestine war. “Determination, pride and anger” is what is driving them, says Riham AbuAita, co-founder, Kashif Fact Check even as the team ensures they and their loved ones remain safe.
AbuAita explains that their work, is no longer about debunking fake news connected to Palestine but has become so much more.
“It is about reclaiming the constant dehumanising of Palestinians that so many of the fake claims are aiming to achieve by believing and sharing misinformation.”
Triggered by a series of coordinated attacks by Hamas, the Islamist militant group based out of Palestine, Israel launched an offensive with multiple airstrikes and on ground attacks on the Gaza Strip in Palestine. The Gaza Strip, a long war-ravaged region has since been isolated from most aid -- monetary and essential – with Israel severely limiting access. In a televised broadcast, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to “turn cities where Hamas was hiding into cities of ruins”.
The attack by Hamas on October 7, left nearly 1,200 Israelis dead and 200 including soldiers taken as hostages. It is now considered one of the worst attacks on Israel in recent times. The retaliatory attack by Israel had till November 23, in 46 days, left nearly 14,800 Palestinians including over 6,000 children and 4000 women dead; with many still unreported.
After more than a month of continuous violence, a temporary truce has been announced between Hamas and Israel. The ceasefire agreement brokered bt Qatar is primarily to facilitate the exchange of Israeli hostakes held by Hamas with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.
“We have enough dead children and people in Palestine. Enough ruined houses and crying women and bodies lined up. The viral posts do not need to use photos of those deceased in other conflict regions,” says AbuAita wryly.
AbuAita says the attacks and fake news around it were almost simulataneous. “The news of the attack by Hamas on Israel broke out and in a few hours, even before the Israeli forces started air or land strikes, fake news had started spreading on Facebook, TikTok Instagram, X, Telegram and WhatsApp,” she says.
The Arabic language fact checking organisation based in the West Bank, the larger and currently slightly more safer of the two Palestinian territories, started to also publish fact checks in English language and upped their presence on social media platforms. The small team went from monitoring and debunking claims only in Arabic to writing fact checks for claims in Hebrew, English and Hindi.
AbuAita says they received at least 10-12 claims everyday from followers across the globe. This number was over and above the claims that they found via their own internal monitoring process.The team had no option but to publish fact checks in English as the claims were viral in non-Arabic speaking countries.
The year of 2023 has seen the Middle East regions tackle several natural and man made disasters like the earthquake in Turkey, the civil war in Sudan, floods in Libya, the continuing conflict in Syria. And each of them brought its own share of misinformation.
Saja Mortada, an investigative reporter and manager of the collective Arab Fact Checkers Network (AFCN) led by ARIJ recalls that as soon as news broke of the Hamas attack on Israel, she and her colleagues at AFCN chalked out an emergency response system to tackle the flood of misinformation. AFCN has nearly 20 fact checkers as members, all of them from Arab countries including Algeria, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Palestine and Iraq.
The AFCN, which in addition to providing emergency resources and funds for fact checkers in the conflict areas especially Palestine, is also analysing and building a database of the claims and fake news being shared.
By October 28, marking three weeks since the first attack by Hamas on October 7, approximately 1000 fact checks were published by nearly 20 fact-checking organisations, under the AFCN. All of them debunked claims around the Israel-Palestine war.
THE PALLYWOOD CAMPAIGN, USE OF AI GENERATED MISINFO
Pallywood, a sinister portmanteau of Palestine and Hollywood, is part of the disinformation being shared around the Israel-Palestine war.
The aim of the trending hashtag : to prove via photos and videos that Palestinians are faking their injuries, suffering and even deaths.
AbuAita says that the Pallywood campaign is an attempt to trivialise and mock the suffering of Palestinians by trying to prove that there are no casualties. "They want to collectively show that our children are not actually dead – but are just playing dead -- all so that the numbers can be hiked up for a global audience."
This thought, AbuAita says though, sounding absurd, has a sinister purpose. "It is not just to (wastefully) prove that Palestinians are lying, but to really dehumanise our suffering. To give it a layer of falsity, so that whoever hears about the the destruction looks at it with a sense of doubt and suspicion and not shock or empathy,” says AbuAita.
Kashif had by November 1, debunked nearly 12 to 15 such online claims which in reality used old or unrelated visuals, falsely connecting them to the Israel-Hamas conflict, to undermine the death toll in Gaza, Palestine.
Mortada makes a similar point and adds that the accounts sharing the Pallywood misinformation are not just Israeli accounts. “People want to believe that Palestninans are lying about their injuries. People are ready to believe any photo or video as long as it claims that things in Gaza are not as bad as is being reported.”
Haider al-Musawi, a fact checker with Iraq-based The Checker says they have verified and published more than 72 news stories related to the Palestinian war since it began.
“There is an attempt to mislead by linking Palestinians to terrorist organisations. This has a significant impact on the lives of civilians in Palestine and is an attempt to justify the killing of innocent people and the occupation of the land. We have verified that these rumours are false in our investigations,” Almousawi says.
Rana Salahat, a fact checker for Tahaqaq, based in Palestine has been fact checking and reporting from the ground since the war began. She points out that with restrictions placed on internet access, misinformation is now not just on social media but has also gone offline. The team has been debunking and publishing at least three to five fact checks per day since October 7.
“The circulation of misleading information isn’t confined solely to social media platforms but extends to real-life conversations among people. In Gaza, currently, most people are experiencing internet limitations, sometimes even internet outages. No war is devoid of deliberate misinformation, regardless of the methods used. It’s well-known to have been employed in the past and continues to be used for disseminating misleading or false information with the aim of influencing public opinion and tarnishing the image of the other side. It serves as a tool for psychological and propaganda warfare,” she says.
She says Artificial Intelligence has become a “powerful tool for disinformation, which can sometimes be challenging to counter due to its precision". "It can be said that the flood of misleading information in this war surpasses previous conflicts,” she added.
Saja Mortada puts it succinctly, "The most terrifying crisis in the Middle East currently."
“It may seem to many that only the Gaza strip or Palestine is the one dealing with this. But this war is having an impact on several Israel bordering nations Lebanon, Syria and Jordan; and other countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and even North African nations of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. It has taken a turn at a global level and all of this is showing in the misinformation being shared in those regions,” she explains
Lebanon, which shares a border with Israel, is also home to the militant group Hezbollah, is seeing a direct impact with Israel conducting airstrikes on the Southern part of the country. More than 80 people including journalists have been killed in Lebanon since Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. .
Ghadir Hamadi, the co-founder of Sawab, a fact checking outlet based in Lebanon says they are also seeing fake claims being shared about the violence perpetrated by Israel in their country.
“While the intensity of the firing in Lebanon is not as it is in Gaza, the fear and panic among people is palpable. And the same is reflected in the kind of misinformation that is going viral in the region. There are claims about the security situation in Gaza, about Israeli troops entering from the border region, about restriction on supply of essentials in the country – all aiming to instill fear in the masses,” explains Hamadi who has a full time job as a reporter with a local media outlet.
Sawab has written 77 fact checks since the recent conflict began on October 7. “We get at least a dozen claims everyday from readers on our Instagram page. We try to check most items immediately and reply to the sender directly.”
India Among Top Three In Sharing Misinformation Against Palestine
BOOM spoke to several fact checkers in the Arab region, all of whom named India as the top three regions they were monitoring to debunk claims about Israel and Palestine.
“There are tens of tweets and Facebook posts by Indians where they are sharing old, unrelated or out of context videos about Gaza,” says AbuAita of Kashif. “Some of the claims are so disturbing. One viral claim by an Indian journalist was that a baby was baked alive in an oven as Hamas members sexually assaulted the baby’s mother,” she said. Fact checkers at Kashif spent two days looking for the true story behind the claim and found that it matched "testimonies of Palestinian women" about the Shabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut, Lebanon conducted by Israelis in 1982.
The claim was shared by Aditya Raj Kaul, Executive Editor, TV9 Network on X. BOOM has also fact checked Kaul for sharing fake news related to the Israel-Palestine war.
AbuAita adds that claims are majorly in Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi and English. “Analysing the fact checks we have written to date, it shows that the top regions sharing misinformation, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and India.”
Salahat, while observing that it is difficult to attribute the spread of fake news around a war to a specific country, says, “…some of the prominent regions we dealt with include India, Russia, Belgium, America and certain Arab countries.” She added that they have also observed misleading materials from official accounts affiliated with Israeli journalists.
Holding a different view, al-Musawi, explains that their anaylisis points towards Israel as behind the spread of the misinformation.
“False news does not originate from a specific country but comes from an Israeli entity scattered around the world, deliberately spreading rumours.” He also says that the team at The Checker has found that individuals holding government positions and dedicated teams have been recruited to spread disinformation – systematically and intensively.He goes on to add that rumours that originate from countries, particularly Arab countries are spread for emotional and solidarity reasons with lack of awareness that they are false.
BOOM has also debunked a total of 91 fact checks around the Israel Hamas war. These include fake news spread by blue tick Indian accounts on X, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and prominent social media figures.
Read factchecks about the Israel- Palestine conflict on BOOM's WhatsApp Channel here
SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS NEED TO OWN UP
With social media the main conduit to share misinformation around the war, fact checkers are also relying on it to put out fact checks debunking the fake news. But this, many Arab fact checkers say, is now an increasing everyday challenge.
From accounts of the fact checking news outlets getting shadow banned or locked by platforms, constantly being reported and at times even hacked – fact checkers say, it is becoming extremely difficult to publish and share verified fact checks. Compared to how easy it is to share a piece of fake news.
"Social media platforms have played a crucial role in recent wars, specifically the ongoing one, creating a fertile environment for the spread of deceptive information. Moreover, as we work on fact checking on a global scale, we have noticed that some widely spread misleading information gets deleted from its original sources, and access to those sources is somewhat restricted.” She cites the example of a video featuring a group of children in birdcages, filmed in a humorous context, was being circulated widely with claims that they were Israeli children in Gaza. “When we attempted to access the original source to debunk the claims, we found that the video had been deleted, and the channel had faced restrictions and removal.”
She adds, “There are several challenges, including restricted access to the materials we publish on social media platforms, as it is considered Palestinian content. Additionally, our platform (Tahaqaq) has faced attempted breaches and numerous instances of electronic spam appearing on our posts,” says Salahat.
AbuAita says that their TikTok was locked by the platform after they shared a fact check with hashtags related to the war. This despite their account bio and description clearly stating the credentials of the organisation.
“We wrote them an email and they unlocked it only for them to put a warning again and reduce access to our posts. We wrote to them again explaining that we are fact checkers but there was no response." She says that the views on their posts have drastically reduced from being in tens of thousands before the war and now to a mere hundreds on most.
"Social media platforms need to be able to distinguish between those sharing verified fact checks and those sharing false news or propaganda. If they cannot do this during a war and a crisis, then when will there ever be a right time to do so?” she asks.
BOOM made repeated attempts to contact fact checkers based in Israel for the story but received no response.