In any war, onlookers from far outside the conflict zone have to decide what to believe about what is happening. This sounds difficult in theory, and it’s even more so in practice.
This week, after a deadly explosion at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, anybody checking social media for news would have immediately seen conflicting stories about what had happened. Initial news reports cited Gaza’s health ministry in asserting that the blast had come from an Israeli air strike. Almost instantly, counter-stories blaming the Palestinians went viral. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that data from the U.S. Defense Department had convinced him that the blast was caused by a malfunctioning Islamic Jihad rocket, and some open-source intelligence researchers cautiously agreed with that version of events. More detailed analyses are still pending, but a broader meaning of the hospital story has already been well established: It is “misformation” one way or another, circulated cynically to slander Israel or Palestine, depending on your worldview.
Some facts about the war are, of course, clear. In Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, terrorists killed some 1,400 people and took about 200 hostages. They then hijacked hostages’ social-media accounts to livestream their confinement and taunt their friends and family, producing images that shocked and horrified the world. Gaza health officials say that in the past two weeks, more than 3,500 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, have been killed by Israeli air strikes.
Further specifics and unconfirmed reports, though, are not just minor details. They’ve become powerful memes that influence the way people conceptualize the conflict. These are “memes” not in the sense of being funny or unserious, but in the sense that they are copied and pasted with abandon, and spread because of their emotional impact and narrative concision.
Sloppily sourced or bad information may be spread, in part, by malicious actors, but it gains added purchase because people are anxious and uncertain, and because they naturally gravitate toward stories that feel true in the context of their worldview. A report from the open-source intelligence group Bellingcat has debunked numerous widely shared stories about the violence in and around Gaza, noting that those incidents “did not require sophisticated image manipulation techniques” and “were simply miscontextualized and misrepresented, knowingly or unknowingly, by those who initially posted them.”
Take the claim that circulated just after Hamas’s attack: that the terrorist group had beheaded as many as 40 babies. This assertion was made on the front pages of tabloids and in Instagram posts from celebrities with millions of followers; it was even made reference to by Biden, before his staff walked it back in a later statement. The claim was reposted more than 100,000 times on Twitter, according to data collected by the disinformation researcher Marc Owen Jones, who is also an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in Qatar.
The story was a rumor treated as fact. The original report, from the journalist Nicole Zedeck of the Israel-based TV channel i24, was that soldiers had told her of the deaths of 40 babies and children. David Ben Zion, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, also claimed that Hamas had “cut heads of children, cut heads of women.” Numerous news outlets made efforts to investigate the claim about the babies and children, and were unable to substantiate it. The IDF could not confirm it either.
Two days after Zedeck’s report, the Israeli military released images of what appear to be a dead infant and the charred body of a child. This produced another cycle of debate, with some participants making the argument that fact-checking the specifics of how babies had been murdered by Hamas was beside the point, considering that they had been murdered, and also that, per U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Hamas beheaded some of its victims. Others put the new photos through artificial-intelligence detectors in an attempt to discredit them, while 4chan users added to the chaos by making fake versions of the photos in an effort to undermine the originals. Conspiracy theorists jumped on an opportunity to deny that the Hamas attack had happened at all, or falsely claimed that Zedeck had made up the whole “40 beheaded babies” story on her own, as a deliberate lie.
Through all of this, the unsubstantiated details of the original beheading allegations retained much of their effect. A story that is so extreme and objectionable, Jones told me, captures the attention of people who might not otherwise be following the conflict. American onlookers didn’t have to know much to know this: There is no defense for something so despicable as beheading babies. Israel itself has used the 40-baby meme to rally support on social media. In a bizarre video (now deleted) that was posted to the @israel TikTok account, cartoon unicorns bounded around in front of a pink sky for a few seconds, until they were replaced by the message 40 INFANTS WERE MURDERED IN ISRAEL BY THE HAMAS TERRORISTS (ISIS).
This jarring combination of imagery and argument is a perfect example of the tone and logic of the current debate about the facts on the ground. After a historic church in Gaza was hit by Israeli bombing on Thursday, it was quickly looped in as a point of evidence for other arguments happening online. (“If they’ll bomb a church, they definitely bombed the hospital,” for example.)
It’s easy to conclude that social media has been failing us. (As a friend of mine recently put it, the platforms have never felt “more evil and unhelpful.”) That’s not because, as some have argued, none of the information that gets posted can be trusted. Despite obvious and egregious failures in attempting (or not attempting) to moderate news reports about this conflict, these sites are not the root cause of war’s confusion. Videos and images shared to social media can still be useful firsthand reports. And although misinformation spreads quickly on social media, so do critiques of official stories with possible holes in them.
Social media does, however, allow the information chaos to expand and fold back in on itself more quickly than ever before. It also lends itself to familiar vices: sarcasm and self-satisfaction. Human lives get remixed as trolley-problem hypotheticals, or as memes to make a point, even as we move further and further away from an accounting of actual events as they’re happening.