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regular-article-logo Sunday, 23 June 2024

The other war

Some of the most egregious examples of disinformation about the Israel-Palestine conflict have come from Indian accounts, particularly those associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party

Carol Schaeffer Published 02.11.23, 06:44 AM
Grey truth.

Grey truth. Sourced by the Telegraph.

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ deadly incursion into Israel last month, misinformation began spreading through social media networks. The usual ‘fog of war’ became an unnavigable mire of false reports that reached the highest levels of international government. In one particularly gruesome example, rumours spread from a single source that Hamas had beheaded 40 babies in their attack. This even made it into a statement made by the president of the United States of America, Joe Biden, in which he appears to advance the story in a meeting with Jewish community leaders. “I have been doing this a long time,” he said. “I never really thought that I would see, have confirmed, pictures of terrorists beheading children.” The White House quickly walked back the statement after it was made clear that official sources, including the Israeli army, could not verify the claim.

Much of the blame for this disinformation has been laid squarely at the feet of social media giants — in particular, Elon Musk-owned X (formerly Twitter). Shortly after the attacks, the European Union Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, sent Musk a strongly-worded admonition and a 24-hour deadline to reform the network. The company has since responded by pushing ‘Community Notes’, a crowdsourced, fact-checking programme that appears to be making the problem worse. According to a report from Wired, the feature is not only not functioning as designed but it may also be “vulnerable to coordinated manipulation” and “lacks transparency about how notes are approved” with no real oversight from the company itself.

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Tech platforms like Meta and X have shrunk from waves of layoffs and have limited resources dedicated to policing falsehoods, disinformation and online hate speech. According to multiple reports, Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has laid off members of a global operations team dedicated to monitoring the platforms. Meanwhile, Musk has gutted entire teams dedicated to monitoring disinformation. This, coupled with an aggressive monetisation scheme that prioritises paid accounts and offers payouts for posts with large numbers of likes and views, has meant that Musk is rewarding the platform’s most inflammatory and misleading users with a perverse set of incentives to continue to post disinformation with little to no consequences.

Some of the most egregious examples of disinformation about the Israel-Palestine conflict have come from Indian accounts, particularly those associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Much of this has also been supported by the prime minister, Narendra Modi, who himself took to X soon after the Hamas attack to pledge support for Israel in a move that was an unusual breach of protocol and a reversal of New Delhi’s traditional neutrality on international conflicts (including the Ukraine-Russia conflict).

Modi’s position was quickly emulated by his followers on social media. A September report in The Washington Post revealed the extent of BJP supporters’ use of social media, detailing a network of more than 150,000 social media workers propagating content on WhatsApp alone and claiming that the party “quietly collaborates” with content creators who create posts intended to go viral on social media platforms that reach hundreds of millions of peo­ple. Informally dubbed Modi’s ‘Hindut­va army’, BJP and RSS activists have coordinated for years to spread disinformation.

Prominent pro-BJP commentators have posted on X about atrocities committed by Hamas. In one example, a post stated that a pregnant woman was dissected by Hamas; the post was then shared by the right-wing pundit, Ben Shapiro, to his following of 6.3 million people. In another example, according to the Indian fact-checking service, BOOM, a video of terrorists vandalising a church in the Philippines has been passed off as an incident in Gaza and was shared by several blue-check users (users who pay for the X verification service). Dozens of examples of fake news generated and peddled by Indian accounts have been identified by watchdogs and fact-checkers over the weeks since the conflict began.

Some have argued that the misinformation spread by pro-BJP accounts on the Israel-Palestine conflict is a way of boosting the BJP’s position ahead of the general election slated to take place next year. By superimposing India’s relationship with its own Muslim mino­rity onto Israel-Palestine, the BJP hopes to tap into a highly emotional and divisive geopolitical situation for its own, narcissistic advantage. The nuance and the complexity of the conflict are being ultimately reduced to a pitched battle between Islam and democracy, exemplified by such hashtags as ‘#IslamIsTheProblem’ trending on Indian social media.

The tragic effect of such simplistic messaging and misinformation is the very real damage it does to democracy and free speech. Around the world, protests in support of Palestine have been controlled. In India, reports have spread that pro-Israel marches have been unimpeded, while pro-Palestine rallies have been broken up by police across the country.

One of the most disorienting aspects of the Israel-Palestine war is how eager outsiders are to superimpose themselves onto either side of the conflict. Disinformation has a way of amplifying this tendency. The narrative that all Muslims are latent threats is one of the most undemocratic and disturbing ideas of the 21st century and is far more potent as a threat to international democratic ideals than any terrorist attack. It is thus essential that the specific nuances of the Israel-Palestine conflict not be manipulated for any purpose.

The legal protections that have been set up by international groups to hold big tech companies accountable for disinformation will be tested as this conflict and others carry on. Whichever side you fall on in this conflict, it should be a basic expectation of our leaders in government to make sure that the public is properly informed. For anyone who truly cares about free speech and democracy, this should be a non-negotiable priority.

Carol Schaeffer is a journalist based in New York and Berlin where she writes about Europe, politics and culture

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