Israel, Palestine and the (Mis) Information Overload
A 2018 MIT study about misinformation on Twitter tells us that false information spreads 6 times faster than the truth.
It's no surprise that false information spreads so fast, given that even powerful leaders end up sharing it.
US President Joe Biden, who tweeted about unconfirmed reports of Hamas militants beheading infants. The Israeli military refused to verify or officially confirm these claims, which later led to the White House releasing a statement, stating that the President had not seen any such pictures and had not independently confirmed reports about the beheading.
Elon Musk, the owner of X (formerly known as Twitter) who directed his 150 million followers to get news from two verified accounts that have a clear history of sharing false information. Musk’s recommendation had at least 11 million views before it was deleted.
What happens if we consume, believe and share such false information?
1. Misinformation could make you believe false information and act on it.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a well-meaning person share false information on social media. (*pauses typing to raise both hands high*). While we may think that accidentally sharing a false post isn’t a big deal, it’s important to remember that the internet connects us all. This means that we could be playing a part in amplifying false and hateful portrayals of people and communities.
In all the videos being shared of deaths in Palestine, a 2015 video of the death of a 16-year-old girl in Guatemala was shared online as a young Israeli woman being burnt by a "Palestinian mob".
Consuming false information of how either side is terrible or inhumane affects the way we view these people and communities. In the USA, a 6 year old Palestinian American boy was killed and his mother was wounded by their landlord. The sheriff’s office said they were "targeted due to them being Muslim”, the landlord having consumed lots of polarizing information about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
2. Disinformation makes it hard to find the truth and be well informed, active citizens.
It’s not just well-meaning people that share false news on social media. A lot of false messages on X were shared by non-journalism accounts, but that have a blue verification tick. Some accounts are eligible to receive payments for ads shown in their content, which urges them to share viral media for greater user engagement - even if it is sensitive or unverified content.
Journalists also fall prey to misinformation, unable to keep up with the videos emerging from Gaza on social media. Take the example of the bombing of the Al Ahli Arab hospital last week. Hamas released a statement holding Israeli rockets responsible for the strike. Initial reports from many news outlets including the New York Times reported this very headline. Then reports emerged from Israel, which held a Palestinian missile responsible for the hospital bombing. Outlets issued corrections and modified headlines.
The frustration that a common citizen can feel is evident in Afsaar, a student at Ashoka University.
“(I’m hesitant in sharing my opinion because) a lot of reporting I have heard and the news which is coming up is third party or second hand which is later falsified by one or the other sources. Therefore it cannot be trusted. In the face of such consequences, how can we better navigate information about the conflict?”
This search for the truth can leave us unable to comment on issues as well.
“While I have made sure that I get views from both the parties and sides. I still do not feel comfortable putting up an opinion on who is right in the conflict and justify the support of any one country involved in the conflict. And these are the two questions which (information) is centred around.”, Afsaar says.
Many of us would think to turn to sources that are capable of identifying truth from false, like AI. But that doesn’t seem to bode well either. Mona Chalabi, an award-winning journalist and illustrator, set out to ask ChatGPT about the conflict. These results tell us a dismaying story.
3. Disinformation makes us cynical, sceptical or want to disengage with the news.
With so much critical thinking to do, we’d want to turn to the sources we trust. But who can we trust?
Take the NYT headline about the explosion and fire at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. When the headline was revised, it caused intense online scrutiny. The original headline was seen as evidence of the publication being biased towards information emerging from the Palestinian side. However, in the pro-Palestine sections of social media, The New York Times is seen to support Israel and its policies.
The BBC in the U.K., too, faced a similar issue. One of its initial social media posts on the conflict spoke of many Israelis having been “killed” while many Palestinians had “died”.
A video soon went viral, claiming that this difference in terms shows Western media’s pro-Israel bias. Meanwhile, in pro-Israel circles, the BBC is seen as being biased towards the Palestinian cause.
With trust in news sources eroded, and great difficulty in sifting through information, we tend to become one of the 38% respondents of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019 - we begin to avoid the news. We might even become one of the 36% that say the news have a negative impact on their mood.
In the face of these consequences, we leave you with an invitation to engage with the news responsibly and the acknowledgement that it’s not easy to do so, despite our best efforts. It’s ok if you’re struggling to pick a side. It’s ok if you’re still piecing together the long and complicated history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The sheer volume of information, both accurate and otherwise, only makes it harder to understand the issue and take a stand for what’s right.
But here’s a thought - there’s no downside to standing up for peace and humanity. Advocating for a kinder world where all children, irrespective of their nationality, their gender, the colour of their skin or their last name live in peace is in everyone's favour.
The next time you engage with news (or the uncle who shares hateful content on social media), remember this?
Written by Sukriti Pant