Israel-Gaza conflict: Social media becomes the latest battleground in Middle East aggression – but beware of propaganda and misinformation

Some of the pictures of violence circulated on the #gazaunderattack thread have been found to be recycled images from as long ago as 2007

Media Editor

The Twitter hashtag #gazaunderattack, which emerged as Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against the Palestinian territory earlier this month, was founded on the presumption that news media are failing to report the story.

Graphic violent images of civilians under fire were posted in large numbers, suggesting that news organisations were turning a blind eye to the attacks. “The media are not reporting anything,” was the hashtag’s catch line.

But social media, especially in its treatment the Middle East, has become a minefield of propaganda and misinformation.

Analysis by Abdirahim Saeed of BBC Arabic found that some of the pictures of violence circulated on the #gazaunderattack thread were recycled images from as long ago as 2007. Some were not even from Gaza at all but showed events from the ongoing conflict in Syria. Many of the pictures have since been widely distributed as the subjects of thousands of retweets.

 

“I didn’t expect to get over 1800 retweets, I didn’t actually know that the picture was recycled,” one 16-year-old Twitter user told the BBC. “People don’t need to take it as a literal account. If you think of bombs going off, that’s pretty much what it looks like.”

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Chris Hamilton, social media editor at the BBC, said media organisations were having to use reverse image search facilities – which show if a photo has previously been published online - to determine the provenance of pictures.

“There are so many images and video of attacks and explosions and people stumbling from the wreckage of buildings,” he said. “When you talk about verification people think of fakes and hoaxes but actually what we are seeing a lot now is images or video that’s real but is not from the incident that it’s purported to be.”

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Social media has become one of the weapons of war. The Israeli Defence Force, which has been on Twitter since 2009, now has 286,000 followers. During violence in 2012, the Hamas military wing set up its own @AlqassamBrigade account to trade threats with the IDF. Twitter shut the account down earlier this year but the nature of social media means that the propaganda war is open to everybody and sources of information are increasingly difficult to determine.

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In the student union of a private university in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya, a “Hasbara war room” has been set up as a contribution to the military effort. Hasbara literally means “explanation” but has also come to signify propaganda. Up to 400 students sit at banks of computers getting Israel’s message out online. “The goal is to deliver a very clear message to people abroad – Israel has the right to defend itself,” Lidor Bar David told Israeli news website, Ynet.

“Although they haven’t been called up to the army yet, they’ve decided to enlist in a civilian mission that is no less important,” reported Ynet.

The students – speaking in 30 languages – target online forums while aiming to appear as ordinary social media users. They lobby Facebook to take down pages which incite violence against Israel and circulate drawings of Hamas rockets made by traumatised Israeli children living close to Gaza.

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