How fake news fuels hate and confusion in Israel-Palestine conflict
A Palestinian child is silhouetted behind a Palestinian flag in a tent on Gaza beach in Gaza City on August 1, 2021. /CFP
A Palestinian child is silhouetted behind a Palestinian flag in a tent on Gaza beach in Gaza City on August 1, 2021. /CFP

A Palestinian child is silhouetted behind a Palestinian flag in a tent on Gaza beach in Gaza City on August 1, 2021. /CFP

In recent days, a series of shocking reports of beheadings of babies supposedly by Hamas militants have spread rapidly on social media platforms, fanning more extreme emotions in the already bitter and violent war between Israel and Palestine.

Yet the most high-profile amplification came from U.S. President Joe Biden, who said last week that he had seen photographic evidence supporting the claims. The White House later walked back on Biden's statement, saying he was referring to news reports about beheadings.

The claims blew up after a reporter with Tel Aviv-based news channel i24, Nicole Zedek, said during a live broadcast that she had spoken to Israeli soldiers who had witnessed decapitated babies.

Doron Spielman, an Israeli Defense Force spokesperson told NBC News last Tuesday that he could not confirm i24NEWS's report. Despite being unverified and highly dubious, the claim and its related messages spread like wildfire on social media platforms through the accounts of celebrities and politicians with tens of millions of views.

"Stranger Things" star Noah Schnapp posted the shocking claim to his 25 million Instagram followers: "40 babies were beheaded and burned alive in front of their parents by Hamas," noted NBC. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz made reference to the beheaded babies in a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), while Senator Mike McCaul echoed the allegations on CNN.

The "40 babies beheaded" claim had over 44 million impressions on X, with over 300,000 likes and more than 100,000 reposts, according to Marc Owen Jones, an associate professor of Middle East studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar who studies misinformation.

Since the latest round of conflict began on Oct 7, misinformation, false narratives, and manipulated content are being spread with alarming speed and efficiency on social media platforms, adding another layer of complexity to an already complicated situation.

In recent days, a photo depicting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accompanying his son to join the military has been widely circulated on social media.

However, it turned out that this viral image actually dates back to 2014 and was featured in Israeli media reports after Netanyahu's son, Avner, was slightly injured during military training.

There were also reports circulating claiming that "Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was urgently rushed to Soroka Hospital" following the latest conflict. This message quickly reached 700,000 people on social media platform X, but it was later confirmed to be false information.

It can be confirmed that the various messages inundating the internet, particularly what are often claimed to be "on-the-ground" reports, are largely products of deliberate manipulation behind the scenes. These include the proliferation of fake news generated by individual accounts under the influence of nationalist sentiments, but a more substantial portion of disinformation comes from organized entities.

More insidious are the organizations that operate covertly, sometimes masked behind front organizations. For instance, during the height of the Syrian conflict, the "White Helmets" garnered much attention and sympathy from Western media outlets.

While presenting itself as a humanitarian rescue group, its funding primarily came from the U.S. and UK foreign affairs departments, making it, in fact, a tool in the cognitive war orchestrated by these countries. The organization has admitted to fabricating fake news and shooting false videos to vilify the Syrian government.

These information warfare and cognitive warfare tactics disseminate their counterfeit news products on a large scale through government agencies, social media platforms, and biased traditional media outlets.

The impact of online disinformation on the Israel-Palestine conflict is far-reaching and deeply troubling. Misinformation can lead to increased tensions and aggression on the ground. False claims and misleading information can incite violence, deepen divisions, and hinder efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution.

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