Disinformation has flourished across a range of online platforms in the month since Hamas launched its bloody attack on Israel, fuelled by weak content regulation on X, formerly Twitter, and Telegram and at times propelled by state actors.
Widely shared faked news and false claims include efforts to downplay the horror of Hamas’s cross-border attack on 7 October through to distasteful allegations that Palestinians, already under heavy bombardment, are faking scenes of violence.
Jackson Hinkle, 22, an American far-right social media influencer with 2 million followers on X, formerly Twitter, who has styled himself as a “Maga communist”, claimed, without evidence, at the end of October that Hamas fighters shot fewer than 100 people, mostly armed settlers.
The death toll is estimated at more than 1,200 people, and they were killed inside Israel’s borders so could not have been settlers. But this was only one of Hinkle’s untruths: in the same 28 October posting he said that half of the Israelis killed during the Hamas assault were soldiers, many of whom died “during tank shelling”.
Hinkle, once a young supporter of the leftwing Democrat Bernie Sanders, has been banned from YouTube and Instagram for spreading disinformation, but thrives on X where his 7 October denial post has 5.1m views. The influencer cited the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as his source, although below the post sits a denial from the title.
The newspaper, in a message with 2.5m views, half of the original tweet, said: “The post seen in this photo contains blatant lies about the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7. It has absolutely no basis in Haaretz’s reporting, then or since.”
Hinkle’s recent tweets include a photograph of him with a poster saying “Putin is good” and accusing the BBC of espousing “Zionist propaganda”. His agenda is stridently anti-Israel.
Other postings are transparently false: a claim he made on Telegram that “Yemen has announced they are now at war with Israel” was clearly untrue (the Houthi rebels who have fired missiles at Israel are not the government of the country).
This has not prevented Hinkle from appearing on the Russian-owned RT television news network as a “political analyst”, giving an interview in which he accused Israel of trying to force out the entire Palestinian population from Gaza, and hinted that US marines might be about to participate in a “a very big war”.
Pippa Allen-Kinross, the news editor with the factchecking website Full Fact, said that after more than a month of continuous conflict in Israel and Gaza, disinformation narratives were evolving and highlighted the growing visibility of “Pallywood” postings, claims that Palestinians were faking videos of suffering and distress.
Early in the conflict, on 13 October, the Israeli state’s official account on X tweeted a video of a child being taken to hospital alongside another image of the lifeless infant wrapped in a cloth. “Hamas accidentally posted a video of a doll (yes a doll) suggesting that it was a part of casualties caused by an IDF attack,” the now-deleted post, which was viewed at least 1.2m times, said.
The post was prompted by similar claims made by Israeli activists online, and other official accounts. Israeli embassies in France and Austria quickly followed suit, with the latter describing it as “Pallywood fake news” and the posting was widely shared. But the story, when checked, turned out to be untrue: the original film and the still image were of a four-year-old boy, Omar Bilal al-Banna, killed in Gaza City.
Journalists contacted the photographer and film-maker Momen El Halabi, who reported that a child had been killed – and that the body was not a doll – a story also confirmed by family members. Other images from El Halabi and another photographer on the scene show two men, relatives of the dead boy, carefully holding the swaddled body in such a way it could not be a doll.
A video, now-deleted from Facebook but still available on X, shows a row of bodies covered in white shrouds, and mocks them for still twitching, meaning they are not dead. Arabic text on the Facebook video accuses Hamas of being “the masters of fake news”, but in truth, as Full Fact points out, the film “is actually from a 2013 student protest in Cairo, Egypt”.
Adam Hadley, the founder of Tech against Terrorism, argued the situation was exacerbated – and likely to endure – because of the intensity of the conflict. “This is as much an information war, as it is a war on the ground, but perhaps more pronounced than a conflict like Ukraine, because of the polarisation we are witnessing,” he said.
Others, such as Eliot Higgins, the founder of the investigative journalism website Bellingcat, blamed cutbacks in content moderation at X and the introduction of the paid-for blue-tick system, which allows posters to get preferential treatment from the social network’s algorithm. “I certainly think the changes Elon Musk [X’s owner] has made have made the environment ripe for the spread of disinformation,” Higgins said.
Hadley also focuses on Telegram, from where many graphic Hamas and pro-Hamas videos emerge, which is generally lightly self-regulated. Last month, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s CEO, said he would not ban Hamas’s own channel, but then partially retreated. From the beginning of this month, users who download Telegram via Apple or Google are no longer able to see Hamas or its military wing’s channel.
Higgins said he believed state actors were having only a limited impact, arguing instead that the online environment encouraged cynical behaviour. “The situation is being driven largely by individuals and grifters with their own agendas, partly because anybody on X can now have a verified account. So much of the time people are making no real attempt to find the truth; they just want to make points to bash other people over the head with.”