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Facts vs. Fiction: The Spread of Misinformation amidst the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Jordan Smith


It was the official declaration of Israel as a state by the United Nations in 1948 that sparked the first Muslim-Jewish war. As a result of this conflict, the Middle Eastern territory was split into Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Over the past few decades, tensions and clashes have risen between the two states and their neighbors, such as Egypt and Jordan. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine stems from over 60 years of history. This conflict is complex, and it has most recently culminated in the October 7th attack by Hamas, a militant Palestinian terrorist group, on Israel. To date, Netanyahu has stated that Israel’s main goals are to conquer Hamas, bring home hostages, and make the Gaza Strip inhabitable. Nations have called upon Israel and Palestine to enter into a cease-fire ever since the two parties resumed fighting following a 7-day cessation period. Since its inception, this long standing armed conflict has received worldwide coverage from a myriad of sources, including news channels and social media applications. However, this modern moment in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s history has brought a new issue into play: the spread of misinformation via social media. 

The Dangers of Misinformation

Misinformation has been an issue ever since the emergence of media, and it has only grown with the rise of social media. In a recent worldwide survey, only 39% of respondents from the U.S. trust the media as a source of reliable information. Further, only 40% of the U.S. population is confident in their ability to distinguish real news from fake news. This can be attributed to the increasing political bias and unprecedented levels of misinformation being presented online. Social media has allotted people the power to freely share their opinions and thoughts, as well as what they perceive as “facts,” online. Due to this, the “truth” has seemingly become subjective. With people not knowing what to believe online, the importance of fact-checking has risen. This trend has also made it imperative for individuals to conduct thorough research before drawing conclusions. 

Today, TikTok is many people’s primary source of news, with 43% of users getting their news from the app, a fact that has its advantages and disadvantages. Many people share content on this platform in hopes of reaching the masses. Considering that many people do not take the time to watch or read news stories, this new method of spreading information often proves effective. However, the short video method that TikTok utilizes often fails in its ability to provide accurate context to real-life situations. In other words, individuals often perceive things differently or come to different conclusions when they are exposed to “fast news,” such as short clips on social media, as this way of consuming information stands in direct contrast to diligently taking time to read articles and conduct informed research.

TikTok is an example of a social media app that can contribute to the dissemination of false narratives, half-truths, and distorted facts when used as an outlet for information. In some cases, outlets allow the spread of outright false notions, and this misinformation can go globally viral instantaneously. A recent example of this is the circulation of explicit AI-generated photos of Taylor Swift on X (formerly known as Twitter), which were seen by over 45 million people before being taken down. This recent instance demonstrates the lack of regulation that these platforms have. Unfortunately, fact-checking processes have become somewhat obsolete online due to the speed with which information is disseminated, allowing unverified information to implant itself into the public’s minds.

The spread of misinformation must be mitigated as it has immense implications. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, governments and other decision-makers rely on updated facts in order to make timely and accurate determinations about what their next steps will be. Oftentimes throughout history, those in power have made the wrong decision solely because they misunderstood others' intentions or actions, or because they were fed the wrong information. For example, one of the main factors behind the decision to invade Iraq was the passing of unchecked information about Iraq in 2003 acquiring Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs): an oversight that led to large scale tragedy. This instance alone provides a reason for assuring the accuracy of information that is given to governments and other decision-makers. 

Today, public opinion has become increasingly polarized on foreign policy issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. False information threatens to exacerbate this divide, as it causes people to struggle in discerning fact from fiction. Further, as the public uses this information to justify military actions or demonize the opposing side in a conflict, false information fuels political and social divisions between communities. 

Misinformation in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

It is imperative to allow open discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, the perpetrators of misinformation must be held accountable. It has been asserted that the content circulating social media has portrayed an inaccurate representation of what happened on October 7th. The dissemination of misinformation on this topic has caused increased antisemitism and islamophobia on social media platforms, college campuses, and the general public. Indeed, a primary problem with the quickness of information consumption on social media platforms is the fact that the content moderators on these apps cannot keep up with the volume of misinformation that is wreaking havoc. This lack of speed with which inappropriate content, such as the celebration of terrorism from Hamas and Al-Qaeda supporters, is flagged can contribute to the rise of hateful sentiments and hate crimes in real time. In fact, there have been 2,031 antisemitic incidents across the nation from October 7th to December 7th, an increase that has been “clearly linked” to the ongoing war.

We can see the magnitude of the implications of misinformation in United States’ President Joe Biden’s statements that the terrorist group Hamas has been beheading babies, which was originally unverified information. The fact that this piece of misinformation went viral is alarming because such emotion-filled claims are often used as rationale for violent responses. In another instance, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a photo of a burned child's body, stating that Hamas fighters were at fault. However, this photo was also debunked, with fact checkers proving that it had been modified by artificial intelligence (AI). The spreading of such misinformation is dangerous because it could lead to retaliation from rebel groups or state actors. 

There have been further reports of false governmental actions in this conflict, including claims that the U.S. evacuated its embassy in Lebanon and that the U.S. has given $8 billion to Israel’s defense. In today's digital-oriented world, news like this can spread across the international social media network in just hours, making it difficult to retract what is said and posted online. Whether for reasons of increasing followers and likes or poor fact-checking, many non-public figures are also creating and sharing fabricated content online throughout this conflict. For example, individuals on TikTok have been posting video game footage and framing it as war footage in the Middle Eastern Region. Fabricated content such as a “now-debunked video” showing an Iranian warplane on an Israeli aircraft carrier can wrongfully persuade officials to believe that their enemy is making certain moves or teaming up with other regional players in instances such as this. Thus, online misinformation can have tangible impacts on developing battles, changing the dynamics of the fight with frightening speed. 

As it pertains to this particular battle, this issue has been exacerbated by celebrities and influencers spreading misinformation, with many of their followers being too quick to believe these public figures and failing to contest this information. This was the case with singer Justin Bieber, who reposted a photo of Gaza in ruins from 2021 and stated his support for Israel a mere few days after the initial attack. Too many celebrities are failing to do research on their own, as can be seen with many celebrities deleting their posts about the conflict, having realized that some of them were inappropriate or outright untrue. This lack of awareness has implications for these celebrities’ followers who see them as idols while unknowingly being fed misinformation. 

When coupled with recent events, the portrayal of doctored, old, or unrelated photos as real, recent, or relevant leads to a misrepresentation of the current conflict. Those working in government who have the job of making decisions and policies that impact national security are at risk of making decisions that contradict national security interests due to unreliable information. If misinformation can cause governments to say or commit actions that are unjust, then it may be time to enforce more federal regulations on online platforms, thereby mitigating the power they hold. However, when the question of what qualifies as “protected free speech” comes into play, just regulations become difficult to discern. 

The Problems With Regulating the Spread of Misinformation on Social Media in the U.S.

The endless circulation of fabricated facts and photos has led to the belief that policymakers are powerless in their ability to impede the spread of misinformation. While social media platforms have been found guilty of facilitating the dissemination of misinformation, the reality is that decision-makers in the U.S. government have presently done little about this issue other than demand online platforms retract and scan for misinformation circulating around Israel and Hamas. As a point of comparison, it is worth noting that European governments have been delivering “threats with potentially expensive consequences” to social media platforms. Domestically, U.S. politicians have failed to do more than issue empty reprimands. So far, these politicians have been “calling upon” platforms to cede to Congress information about how they handle content moderation. However, they have no plan to make progress on this issue due to gridlock and polarization in the U.S. government. Meanwhile, European powers such as Brussels have the power to sanction platforms that are allowing misinformation and violent content to circulate with demands and warnings.

While the U.S. has decided to reach out to these social media platforms directly, the European Union has decided to draw upon federal lawmaking to author their new Digital Services Act. This act allows the EU to conduct investigations into apps such as X, outlining tangible consequences if these apps do not enforce their terms of service. In the U.S., the First Amendment right to free speech has allowed many tech firms to retain a “unique liability shield” when it comes to harmful content creation. Though Congress has begun to introduce legislation that will work to mitigate harmful content on these platforms, with a gridlocked legislature, it may take too long to approve these policies. 

The Future of Social Media 

Moving forward, we must begin to recognize our own role in exacerbating the flow of miscommunication. Fake news spreads faster when we are too quick to push a like or repost button without confirming the posts’s content or source. We must improve our Digital Literacy, which includes having the tools to recognize misinformation, as well as improve social media security measures that block fake news. Another tactic is to begin to read articles with “critical minds,” meaning we must all subconsciously debate the reliability of the information we are consuming online. We must attempt to scan for biases or any information that makes us question its validity. Going forward, we will need to address many nuanced questions. Namely, how can governments and regulatory bodies address the issue of misinformation without infringing on the First Amendment? Will Big Tech companies and governments work together to combat misinformation and promote transparency among users? What role will social media platforms and artificial intelligence play in combating the spread of misinformation and what manipulative strategies might evolve over time?

With social media apps continuing to be a primary source of information surrounding this conflict, it is unknown how these platforms will manage to find and report misinformation on a much larger scale. Due to the amount of content on these apps, officials often rely on automated imperfect systems to catch harmful or untrue content being posted. Hence, these systems do not flag every post that breaks the terms of service. Moving forward, big tech companies must improve their content moderation algorithms in a variety of ways, such as increasing the responsiveness of the algorithm to flag harmful content or improve language detection. Social media platforms were not ready to handle the influx of misinformed content about the Israel-Hamas conflict; thus, increases in regulatory policy, such as Europe’s Digital Services Act and Online Safety Bill, might better safeguard users from the perils of misinformation.



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