The Israel-Hamas War Is Drowning X in Disinformation

In the wake of Hamas’ deadly attacks on Israel this weekend—and the Israeli military’s response—journalists, researchers, open source intelligence (OSINT) experts, and fact-checkers rushed to verify the deluge of raw video footage and images being shared online by people on the ground. But users of X (formerly Twitter) seeking information on the conflict faced a flood of disinformation.

While all major world events are now accompanied almost instantly by a deluge of disinformation aimed at controlling the narrative, the scale and speed at which disinformation was being seeded about the Israel-Hamas conflict is unprecedented—particularly on X.

“For many reasons, this is the hardest time I’ve ever had covering a crisis on here,” Justin Peden, an OSINT researcher from Alabama known online as the Intel Crab, posted on X. “Credible links are now photos. On the ground news outlets struggle to reach audiences without an expensive blue check mark. Xenophobic goons are boosted by the platform’s CEO. End times, folks.”

When Peden covered the escalation in Gaza in 2021, the sources he was seeing in his feed were from people on the ground or credible news agencies. This weekend, he says, verified content or primary sources were virtually impossible to find on X.

“It’s getting incredibly hard to find people that actually live in Palestine or in southern Israel,” Peden tells WIRED. “It’s been incredibly hard to find their preliminary information and share their videos and photos. You have this perfect storm where on the ground, preliminary sources are not being amplified, especially those that maybe don’t speak English, which is a large majority of users in that area.”

Boosted by the algorithm that promotes users willing to pay X $8 a month for a premium subscription, posts from those with a blue checkmark shot to the top of news feeds for people seeking information about the conflict.

Rather than being shown verified and fact-checked information, X users were presented with video game footage passed off as footage of a Hamas attack and images of firework celebrations in Algeria presented as Israeli strikes on Hamas. There were faked pictures of soccer superstar Ronaldo holding the Palestinian flag, while a three-year-old video from the Syrian civil war repurposed to look like it was taken this weekend.

As a result, Peden says that he and his fellow OSINT researchers have to spend their time debunking years-old content rather than verifying and sharing real footage from the conflict.

Many of these videos and images racked up hundreds of thousands of views and engagements. While some later featured a note from X’s decimated community fact-checking system, many more remained untouched. And as Elon Musk has repeatedly done in recent incidents, the platform’s CEO made the situation much worse.

“For following the war in real-time, @WarMonitors & @sentdefender are good,” Musk wrote in a post to his 150 million followers on Sunday morning. Both the accounts Musk referenced are well-known spreaders of disinformation. For example, both accounts spread the lie that there had been an explosion near the White House in May, a story that made the US stock market briefly plummet before it was debunked.

Many users also pointed out that the @WarMonitors account had a history of posting antisemitic comments on X. Last year, the account replied to a post from Ye (formerly Kanye West) thanking the rapper and adding: “The overwhelming majority of people in the media and banks are zi0nists” while telling another X user in June to “go worship a jew lil bro.”

Musk deleted his recommendation soon after posting it, but not before it was viewed over 11 million times. Later on Sunday, Musk wrote: “As always, please try to stay as close to the truth as possible, even for stuff you don’t like.”

Experts believe that the proliferation of disinformation on X around the Israel-Hamas conflict this weekend is largely the result of changes Musk has made to the platform over the past year, including his decision to fire most of the people responsible for tackling disinformation.

“Elon Musk’s changes to the platform work entirely to the benefit of terrorists and war propagandists,” Emerson Brooking, a researcher at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensics Research Lab, tells WIRED. “Changes in profit and incentive structure mean that there’s a lot more tendency for people to share at high volume information which may not be true because they are trying to maximize view counts. Anyone can buy one of those little blue checks and change their profile picture to something that’s seemingly a media outlet. It takes quite a bit of work to vet who’s telling the truth and who’s not.”

X, which eliminated its entire PR team last year, responded to WIRED’s request for comment on the proliferation of disinformation on its platform with the automated message: “Busy now, please check back later.”

Peden says the Twitter algorithm has been designed to boost content that gets the most engagement, which incentivizes bad actors to share disinformation.

“The videos and images that you’re seeing of air strikes, they’re very prolific,” Peden says. “They’re very hard-hitting, and unfortunately that means engagement does incredibly, incredibly well. These images are horrible and dramatic, and they perform well. So there is an incentive by others, especially those trying to push a narrative to share an old video from years ago, just because people love looking at the stuff.”

In an echo of what happened when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, much of the primary footage emerging from the Israel-Hamas conflict over the weekend was posted first on the encrypted message platform Telegram. From there, it was taken and reshared on other platforms, but in most cases the footage was not fact-checked first or it was taken out of context to suit the narrative being pushed by the poster.

“There’s an immense amount of primary content that was first posted in Telegram groups in one form or another, but there’s essentially no way to vet that information. Then that primary information hits others platforms, notably Twitter, where there’s an immense battle of spin and narrative taking place,” Brooking says. “You have artisans on every side, as well as sympathizers from one group or another, who are also joining this [battle].”

The situation is so bad on X right now that even seasoned OSINT researchers are being duped by fake accounts, including one that shared a false claim about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu being hospitalized over the weekend.

“Any sort of ground truth, which was always hard to get on Twitter, is now entirely out of reach,” Brooking says.

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