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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, February 25, 2024

Social media’s dangerous role in the Israel-Hamas conflict

As the Israel-Hamas conflict continues, a battle to stop disinformation emerges.

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If you’ve been on social media lately, there’s a good chance your feed has become flooded by posts surrounding the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. Whether it be a flashy infographic or images of gut-wrenching violence, social media platforms have once again become a stage for people to vocalize their rage and feelings. But among the posts, tweets and footage that have proliferated, misinformation has created murky waters, making it increasingly difficult for users to discern what is real and what is fake.

A video shared on the platform X (formerly known as Twitter) was purportedly footage of a Hamas airstrike against Israel and amassed at least 230,000 views and hundreds of retweets. But the footage wasn’t of a real airstrike — it was a clip from the video game “Arma 3” (2013). A false White House memo claiming to provide Israel with $8 billion in aid also began circulating on X, along with a slew of videos recycled from past news clips claiming to be footage of ongoing violence.

Conspiracies and falsehoods spreading on social media websites during periods of conflict aren’t anything new to 21st century geopolitics. Throughout the Russia-Ukraine war, propaganda and fake news were weaponized to undermine support for Ukraine. And in the ongoing civil war in Libya, distorted narratives have continued to overwhelm Libyan social media networks.

Yet big tech companies seem apathetic to curbing the spread of disinformation. Recent policy changes and layoffs to critical staff departments have made social media websites havens for falsehoods to thrive. Meta for example, now allows users to opt out of fact-checking on posts, opening the door for potential disinformation to flood users’ feeds. X CEO Elon Musk has perhaps become a role model for tech laxness. Since taking over the company, Musk has fired thousands of staffers, resulting in increased challenges to responding to falsehoods. He has also repeatedly advocated for cutting policies that restrict free speech.

While I too believe in protecting free speech, I find myself rooting for stricter policies around users’ posts on social media sites. Given that 48% of U.S. adults say they get their news from social media, fact-checking content is necessary to keep Americans well-informed. The disinformation being perpetuated on tech platforms has real life implications as well: in one instance, Israelis swarmed to stores and banks, preparing for another attack after a WhatsApp voice memo falsely claiming to have insider information began circulating the site. Upticks in Islamophobia and antisemitism have also been reported following the posting of fearmongering narratives.

Recently, the European Commission launched an investigation into X’s handling of misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war, drawing attention to the exigent issues regarding Musk’s tolerance of falsehoods. Similarly, U.S. lawmakers have called for tech platforms to pledge to root out illegal content.

Until tech platforms implement stricter guardrails, it’s up to users to try and spot fake news. Experts advise users to use fact-checking websites like Snopes and factcheck.org to assess the legitimacy of a claim. Google’s image search tool can also provide a record of an image posted and where it has previously appeared online. Inspecting the profile behind the post and their account’s history too can help weed out bot accounts. However, the bottom line is that social media websites are not reliable news sources. Rather, seeking information from factual, reputable news outlets is the best option to stay informed during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. While it can be easy to repost something during times of passion, assessing the legitimacy of the claim being made is becoming increasingly critical in preserving people’s safety.