Viral hate and misinformation amid Israel-Hamas crisis renew fears of real-world violence

A six-year-old boy was fatally stabbed by a landlord fearing a ‘day of jihad.’ Watchdogs and civil rights groups are warning platforms and politicians against Islamophobic and racist rhetoric

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 17 October 2023 00:33 BST
Family of boy killed in anti-Muslim attack demand Biden apology for 'misinformation'

Last week, Republican officials and right-wing figures amplified warnings of a “global day of jihad” across social media platforms, joining the already-toxic flood of viral mis- and disinformation from the fog of the Israel-Hamas war.

After growing increasingly concerned for his safety after listening to right-wing media and fearing a “day of jihad” attack against him, a 71-year-old landlord attacked the Palestinian-American tenants in their home, according to prosecutors in Illinois.

Joseph Czuba fatally stabbed a six-year-old boy 26 times and severely injured his mother, who was stabbed at least a dozen times, according to law enforcement officials. Wadea Al-Fayoume was buried on 16 October.

False claims about a “global day of jihad” joined increasingly violent on- and offline rhetoric surrounding the crisis in Gaza, with members of Congress calling on Israel’s military to “level” the Palestinian territory and prominent far-right personalities calling on Americans to arm themselves.

The war between Israel and Hamas also has rapidly generated a flood of false, unverified and misleading information on social platforms, serving as “a new front in modern warfare: it amplifies vile rhetoric dehumanizing people [and] spreads disinformation,” according to watchdog organisation Center for Countering Digital Hate. “It’s both a weapon for propagandists [and] a business focused on profiting.”

And it’s one that analysts and civil rights organisations fear will continue to trigger real-world violence.

Alleged hate crime incidents and anti-Muslim threats were also reported in California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Philadelphia and Texas within the week after the Hamas attacks, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“The Islamophobic rhetoric and anti-Palestinian racism being spread by politicians, media outlets, and social media platforms must stop,” the group said.

The killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume “cannot help but further raise the fears of Muslim, Arab, and Palestinian communities in our country with regard to hate-fueled violence,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

A joint statement from Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden urged Americans to “come together and reject Islamophobia and all forms of bigotry and hatred.”

“This horrific act of hate has no place in America, and stands against our fundamental values: freedom from fear for how we pray, what we believe, and who we are,” they said.

Ahmed Rehab, left, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, embraces Odey Al-Fayoume, father of Wadea Al-Fayoume, on 15 October.

Violent rhetoric surrounding the so-called “global day of jihad” followed a statement from former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who called for protests to support Palestinians and said that “to all scholars who teach jihad ... to all who teach and learn, this is a moment for the application (of theories).”

Far-right social media influencers including Jack Posobeic and Laura Loomer as well as platforms like InfoWars and Babylon Bee began designating 13 October as a “day of jihad” based on those comments. Rogan O’Handley falsely claimed Hamas called for an “international day of terrorism”. Charlie Kirk, the founder of influential right-wing organisation Turning Point USA, told his followers on Instagram to “arm up”.

Members of Congress including US Reps Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andy Biggs also promoted the “global jihad” claim.

Those posts followed a week of statements from Republican officials in Washington DC supporting retaliatory strikes against Gaza after Hamas launched a surprise rampage that killed at least 1,300 Israelis.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health reported on 16 October that at least 2,808 people in the enclave have been killed and 10,850 wounded in the days that followed. Thousands of people in Gaza have been displaced by constant bombing, Israel’s blockade of food, water and fuel has accelerated a humanitarian crisis, and more than one million people in northern Gaza were warned to evacuate amid looming incursions.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told Fox News that Israel must “do whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourself” and “level the place”.

“Gaza is going to look like Tokyo and Berlin at the end of World War II when this is over,” he told Fox host Sean Hannity. “And if it doesn’t look that way, Israel made a mistake.”

Florida Senator Marco Rubio said Israel must “respond DISPROPORTIONATELY” to the Hamas attack and “to any future attacks from any enemy”.

House Republicans also have introduced legislation to block the US from accepting any new Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza.

During a campaign event in Iowa, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis refused to admit people from Gaza into the US as refugees, baselessly asserting that “they are all antisemitic” and “none of them believe in Israel’s right to exist.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza,” US Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton told Fox News Sunday on 15 October. “Anything that happens in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas. Hamas killed women and children in Israel last weekend.”

“This talk raises the threat environment in the US as people hear it as license that threatening children’s lives – Jewish or Palestinian – is acceptable,” Harvard Kennedy School professor and national security analyst Juliette Kayyem said. “It is possible to BOTH condemn Hamas terrorism in Israel and warn against a response that kills innocent Palestinians.”

US Rep Tim Burchett of Tennessee advocated for Israel to deliver “Old Testament judgment” in Gaza.

In another segment on Fox News, US Rep Max Miller of Ohio called Gaza “a territory that’s about to probably get eviscerated and go away here shortly”, adding that “we’re going to turn that into a parking lot.”

Speaking to reporters, he also pointed to what was already-debunked viral footage taken before the Hamas attack as he announced his support for “no rules of engagement” and to allow Israel to “do what it needs to do”.

Within hours, at least 15 false claims surrounding the attacks spread across X, formerly Twitter, as well as TikTok, Facebook and Instagram, according to online watchdog NewsGuard.

“We have been stunned at how quickly the misinformation machine has geared up since the Saturday attacks, although we probably should not have been given what we saw following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” NewsGuard co-CEO Steven Brill said in a statement shared with The Independent. “And now, with generative [artificial intelligence] having become a force multiplier, it seems clear that the news environment is only likely to get much worse, much faster.”

On X, which significantly loosened content moderation policies after Elon Musk purchased the platform, so-called “verified” users who pay for the service have boosted false and misleading claims, compromising a platform on which users previously relied for real-time updates in a crisis, according to watchdogs. Those “verified” users also can be eligible for payments from the platform, creating a financial incentive to post highly reactive content.

Political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote that disinformation on X surrounding the Israel-Hamas war is “being algorithmically promoted” on the platform “unlike anything I’ve ever been exposed to in my career”.

Musk himself shared and ultimately deleted a post about “real-time” updates to his 160 million followers by promoting two accounts that were known for spreading false claims.

The European Commission has warned Musk about the “alleged spreading of illegal content and disinformation, in particular, the spreading of terrorist and violent content and hate speech” on the platform.

7amleh-The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement documented thousands of posts on X related to the invasion and ensuing conflict that contained violent or hateful speech towards Palestinians within the week after the Hamas attacks.

“These tweets, classified as hate speech and incitement, can potentially translate into real-world attacks on Palestinians, as previously seen with incitement on the same platform, leading to organized attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian communities both in the West Bank and Israel,” 7amleh general director Nadim Nashif said in a statement.

Antisemitic influencers on far-right platforms have also exploited the crisis to amplify calls for violence against Jewish people and Israelis, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Violent far-right extremist groups and conspiracy theorists flocked to platforms like Telegram as well as X to support the attacks.

In a series of letters to social media platforms, New York Attorney General Letitia James requested detailed explanations for steps they are taking to combat the spread of hateful content against Jewish and Muslim people and organisations.

She also warned terrorist groups and others intend to exploit “growing antisemitism and Islamophobia” and “threats of violence”.

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