The Current

How misinformation sowed even more fear amid Israeli-Palestinian tensions

New York Times tech reporter Sheera Frenkel discusses the role and impact of misinformation in the already heightened tensions in Israel and Gaza.

False messages, videos shared during recent conflict had usual hallmarks of misinformation

Messages and images forwarded on apps with encryption software, such as WhatsApp, are not traceable by users back to their source. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

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Misinformation shared on apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram stoked fear and distrust amid already heightened tensions in Israel and Gaza, according to New York Times technology reporter Sheera Frenkel.

Frenkel monitored roughly 100 Israeli and Palestinian local message groups last week as part of a Times investigation

Messages were being shared warning that Israeli soldiers had crossed into Gaza, which never happened, said Frenkel in an interview with The Current's Matt Galloway.

"We were seeing lots of messages being shared saying, 'The Israelis are here. Keep your children home. Israeli soldiers have been spotted in Gaza City,'" she said.

In another group, she noticed warnings of Palestinian mobs preparing to descend on several suburban areas north of Tel Aviv, but Frenkel said she found no reports of violence in that area in the days that followed.

"There were tweets ... saying ... 'If someone knocks on your front door, be aware that it could be a Palestinian militant in disguise,'" she said. "Watching the responses to that in real time, there's just real fear, real terror, I would say, on both sides."

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A ceasefire went into effect early Friday, after 11 days of fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. At least 243 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, including 66 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 160.

Twelve people in Israel, including a five-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed. 

Frenkel said she found several pieces of misinformation being shared in the groups she analyzed. The messages included videos, photos and text, and were a mixture of false information — such images and text bearing unsubstantiated warnings from unnamed sources — and misinformation, such as genuine images misattributed to the wrong place or time. 

She said there were tens of thousands of users across the 100 groups, with the largest group on the messaging platform Telegram having around 4,000 members.

In times of conflict, she said, emotive content will often be shared without fact-checking "because people are so desperate to know what's going on."

"That's one of the things that's so powerful about misinformation. When it's shared in small groups, you tend to trust it more," she said.

"You might think to yourself, 'Oh, I'm helping my neighbours. I'm telling them that an attack might be coming.' But, in fact, what you're doing is inspiring more fear."

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip on May 15. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Misinformation spread is 'exponential'

Misinformation about the conflict is also being shared on more public platforms, Frenkel said.

Last week, Ofir Gendelman, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shared a video on Twitter that purported to show Palestinian militants launching rockets at Israel from a location near residential buildings. He wrote that the rockets were being fired "from populated areas in the Gaza strip."

Frenkel said the same clip appears in posts dating back to 2018, with different captions, some claiming the footage shows militants firing rockets in Libya, others in Syria.

Twitter labelled the video as "misleading content," and Gendelman later deleted the tweet, but Frenkel said it was already shared and liked several hundred times.

"Each share could mean hundreds of more shares, it's quite exponential," she said.

Earlier this month, a widely shared video showed a crowd of Israeli Jews dancing and singing at the Western Wall in Jersulem's Old City as the Al-Aqsa Mosque appeared to burn in the background.

Ayman Odeh, who leads a coalition of predominantly Arab parties in Israel's parliament, was one of a number of high-profile people who shared the video on Twitter.

He tweeted the clip with a one-word caption, "Shocking." 

It was retweeted more than 36,000 times, with many of those from pro-Palestinian accounts claiming the crowd was celebrating the destruction of the mosque, which is revered by Muslims.

A video, left, appeared to show Jewish Israelis celebrating as the Al-Aqsa Mosque burned in the background, but images taken from a different angle, right, showed a tree that had caught fire outside the mosque. No flames touched the building. (Twitter; Arieh Kovler/Twitter)

The Times of Israel and other local outlets reported that the crowd was celebrating Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel's reunification of the city as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Revellers were there because the site where the mosque is located, known to Jews as Temple Mount, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. 

A video taken from a different angle showed a tree that had caught fire outside the mosque. No flames touched the building, and the cause of the fire is disputed

Everything is shareable

Powerful and emotive images appeal to what sociologists call bias confirmation, said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a senior fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto and author of Trusting the News in a Digital Age.

"It's more comforting to have that kind of information that already confirms what we already believe," said Dvorkin, who is also a former managing editor and chief journalist for CBC Radio.

"That's the problem with the issue in the Middle East, because it is so powerful and so emotional, and now the imagery is also part of the discussion."

It is so powerful and so emotional, and now the imagery is also part of the discussion.- Jeffrey Dvorkin

Dvorkin said the media's role as fact-checkers and gatekeepers of information has eroded and that has allowed false information to spread more easily.

"Everything becomes available and shareable, and that's great for the idea of a media democracy, but it's not so great for media literacy," he said.

Audiences are left confused, or taking the information at face value, he said.

"Or they're actually saying, 'To hell with all of them. No one's making sense of this for me. So why should I continue to care?'" he said.

Dvorkin says more media literacy is needed, as well as greater emphasis from news agencies on explaining how the information they share has been verified and how false information is debunked.

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Having said that, some people are becoming more sophisticated about detecting misinformation, he said.

"Whenever an organisation or a government or an individual tries to put something on the internet, it can be easily caught out now. The problem is the damage can already be done."

Messaging apps pose challenges

The pandemic prompted social media companies to ramp up efforts against incorrect or harmful information posted to their sites, by attaching warnings or adding links to public health resources.

But with content not related to COVID-19, Frenkel said, the bar to remove posts remains high.

"Unless it's causing harm, unless it meets very, very certain criteria, the social media companies are not going to take it down," she said.

Encrypted messaging platforms such as Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram do offer people a sense of privacy and security, but also risk the spread of misinformation, says New York Times technology reporter Sheera Frenkel. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Information shared on messaging services such as WhatsApp is even harder to address, she said.

WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption, which means once someone hits send on a message, it is encrypted and unreadable by WhatsApp itself. The company can only see metadata, not the actual content. It is not decrypted until it reaches the recipient.

Various governments have pushed for companies that use this technology to introduce back doors, so law enforcement can access records related to criminal investigations and national security, but so far, companies have refused, pointing out that these back doors could also be accessed by hackers.

WhatsApp has attempted to slow the spread of harmful information by introducing what's been called friction to the sharing process. Last year, it put limits on how messages can be forwarded from one user to another.

Once it has been shared five times, a message can then only be forwarded to one new group at a time. (Up until 2018, users were able to forward messages to 250 groups simultaneously. The company has been reducing that number incrementally.)

It also arrives in the recipient's inbox with a "Forwarded many times" label. In a blog post, the company said the feature is designed to alert readers that the message "did not originate from a close contact."

Within weeks of changes being introduced, WhatsApp cited a 70 per cent reduction in frequently forwarded messages.

Frenkel said that some people did find workarounds: "Instead of forwarding something, they copy and paste it."


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from the Associated Press. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Ben Jamieson.

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