After Hamas militants launched a surprise attack on Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,500 and taking at least 150 hostages, and Israel declared war against Hamas and retaliated, photographs and videos of violence flooded out of the region and onto social media. Some of the images were posted by victims on the ground at the attacks. Some were reportedly seeded by Hamas, but others were years old, taken from conflict zones in other parts of the world, or even from a fictional video game. For the average internet user, knowing what information to trust online has never been more challenging.
Doctored news segments designed to smear a war correspondent. Bogus warnings of Russian threats. Video game footage masquerading as breaking news.
These are some of the examples of the misinformation, disinformation, and unchecked reports that have spread on social media since hostilities between Hamas and Israel grew far deadlier over the weekend. And unsurprisingly, Elon Musk’s X, formerly known as Twitter, has been one of their chief culprits.
One account on the platform circulated a fake White House document claiming that Joe Biden had agreed to provide an $8 billion aid package to Israel. Another account pretending to be The Jerusalem Post falsely reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been hospitalized over the weekend. And a third, attaching false English subtitles to old remarks from Vladimir Putin, claimed that the Russian president had threatened to throw his support behind Palestine. (The actual video is from January and showed Putin discussing the threat of nuclear war.)
Musk has personally played a part in spreading sham news items. He authored a post on Sunday advising his 150 million followers to get their war news from a pair of accounts with reported track records of sharing false information. (He later deleted that post.) On Wednesday, he also reacted with a laughing emoji to a video of CNN’s Clarissa Ward that included doctored audio portraying her as an actor. The video is real; Ward was filmed crouching in a ditch near the Gaza-Israel border amid a rocket salvo.
But the audio track, as a CNN spokesperson later explained, “is fabricated, inaccurate, and irresponsibly distorts the reality of the moment that was covered live on CNN, which people should watch in full for themselves on a trusted platform.” (A disclaimer on the post, written by users of X, now reads, “The video is clearly intended as a parody but people who don’t follow the account could misinterpret it as genuine given the seriousness and persistence of the events.”)
Despite Musk’s social media activity, X chief executive Linda Yaccarino has said the company is approaching the war with the utmost care. “X is committed to serving the public conversation, especially in critical moments like this and understands the importance of addressing any illegal content that may be disseminated through the platform,” Yaccarino said in a statement Thursday, adding that X has “assembled a leadership group to assess the situation.”
That statement came after the EU’s commissioner for internal market, Thierry Breton, told Musk in a letter Wednesday that it had received reports of “illegal content and disinformation” and “fake and manipulated images” circulating on the platform. The commissioner gave X 24 hours to respond or it could face penalties under the EU’s new Digital Services Act. Yaccarino, in turn, said that X has acquiesced to dozens of requests from the European Commission to remove the offending content “within required timelines in a diligent and objective manner.”
While X’s previous ownership was infamous for its often ham-fisted or ineffective approach to containing disinformation, under Musk, content on the platform has grown significantly less reliable. Musk has dismantled and reorganized X’s trust and safety division and eliminated the account authentication system that provided free verified badges to news outlets, politicians, and governments. These badges can now be bought and paid for by anyone, offering any “verified” users increased visibility on the site and payouts from X if their content achieves a certain level of engagement, regardless of its veracity.
Check-in with yourself
During acts of unfathomable violence, videos of death and maiming circulate online with the imperative to witness. Please understand that you do not have to view violent footage circulating online in order to process a horrible event, whether you feel you can handle seeing it or not.
Check-in with yourself and think critically about the role you want to play on- and offline in a moment like this. That might mean resisting the impulse to become an instant breaking news reporter in your group chat. If you don’t have the skill set to evaluate for accuracy the videos of on-the-ground footage in a neighborhood you’ve never visited, you’re not likely to develop it in a matter of minutes.
I’ve tried to avoid giving specific instructions in this guide in terms of what platforms to use or not use as a regular person trying to get news. I’m going to make one now: Especially if you’re unfamiliar with Telegram, now is not the time to indulge in your curiosity and dive into the app looking for “raw” footage and live updates. In addition to the risk of encountering and engaging with literal propaganda, Telegram is notoriously bad at surfacing good information.
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