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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

How X, formerly Twitter, is platforming a deluge of misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war

Misinformation spread rapidly on the Elon Musk-owned site, including claims relating to Ireland’s stance on the conflict.

FIGHTING BETWEEN ISRAEL and Hamas around the Gaza border has been the subject of huge volumes of online misinformation, including some claims involving Ireland.

The most recent wave of violence began on Saturday when Palestinian militants launched a surprise attack on Israeli civilians, prompting Israel to declare war on Hamas, the Islamist military group that controls Gaza — a strip of land about one third the area of Longford with a population of more than two million, which has been under Israeli blockade for more than 15 years.

Experts investigating misinformation about the conflict have singled out X, formerly known as Twitter, as a major social media platform where misinformation on Israel-Gaza is being allowed to spread.

Part of the criticism focused on the company’s owner, Elon Musk, recommending that people follow an anti-Semitic account with a history of spreading false claims for updates on the conflict, days after the company had made claims about the progress it was “making in combating antisemitism on X”.

The EU this week warned Elon Musk that his platform is spreading “illegal content and disinformation”.

The Journal FactCheck was readily able to find posts spreading false claims on that platform, which had accumulated millions of views and which had remained on the platform long after their claims had been debunked.

Often, these involve using image and videos from other conflicts, often in different countries, and claiming they show current events. 

Elon Musk has claimed to have laid off most of Twitter’s staff since taking over the company, including cuts to those working on Trust and Safety efforts.

The social media platform instead appears to be relying on Community Notes, a scheme where contributors can submit comments on misleading tweets.

In theory, if enough users can rate these notes as “helpful”, they are shown alongside the original tweet. However, the application of this scheme is inconsistent, with different notes appearing alongside identical posts.

One post featured a video of children in cages, with the description: “SAVAGE ANIMALS Hamas Terrorists. They have kept Kidnapped Israeli children in cages. These BARBARIAN SCUM NEED TO BE ELIMINATED FROM FACE OF THE EARTH”. 

However, the video actually predates Hamas’s Saturday attack on Israel.

The post remained on the site more than 48 hours and, at the time of writing, had accumulated more than 2,100,000 views. No Comunity Note to indicate that it was inaccurate appeared alongside it.

Other versions of this video and claim had also accumulated huge views on the platform, however some of these were accompanied by various Community Notes.  

One post by Donald Trump Jr., the son of the former president, supposedly featuring a video of atrocities carried out by Palestinian militants, had been accompanied by a Community Note saying the video was old. 

Now, it comes accompanied with a Community Note saying that a previous Community Note was misinformation. 

The Journal has also found examples of posts on X that appear to be calling for genocide. “I want nothing less than disemboweled bodies in the Gaza strip and people driven into the sea never to return,” one such post read.

X could not be contacted for comment. 

In the days since fighting began, misinformation and disinformation has appeared on X purporting to be evidence of actions by both Hamas and the Israeli forces.

These include video game clips being passed off as combat footage, years-old videos of attacks, military demonstrations, or firework displays from other countries being shared with descriptions that they show combat in Gaza; fake accounts for media organisations and journalists being used to spread misinformation; a doctored memo from the White House appearing to promise $8 billion military aid to Israel; and videos of babies said to show kidnapping victims.

These claims were often spread by users with paid-for blue ticks next to their name, which had in the previous iteration of X signaled that an account was verified.

Many researchers and journalists have complained that this change has made it significantly harder to find trustworthy sources of information on the conflict.

Irish misinformation

In comparison, the misinformation featuring Ireland is less extreme.

One video, which has been viewed tens of thousands of times on Facebook and hundreds of thousands of times on X (these numbers are calculated differently on different platforms and may not be comparable), shows hundreds of fans waving the Palestinian flag at a football match.

“Football fans in Ireland raise the flag of Palestine in the stadium during a match to show solidarity with Palestine,” one of the posts that suggest it shows events in Ireland says.

Screenshot from social media video

However, the video was actually filmed in Morocco, between a local team and the Palestinian National football team (the same flags and display screen featured in the clip can be seen in this video).

Another, more serious claim that has been repeated is that Ireland had refused to condemn Hamas as terrorists.

“The EU wanted to issue a harsher statement but Luxembourg, Ireland and Denmark refused to call Hamas a terror organization,” i24NEWS reported on X, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said this claim was untrue, and a source told The Journal that, in reality, Ireland had called for a statement that asked for a de-escalation of hostilities on both sides.

The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has similarly dismissed the claim.

“[Denmark] firmly rejects the false information that Denmark should have objected to qualifying Hamas a terrorist organisation in negotiating an EU declaration. Denmark would never do that. Hamas is listed a terror organisation by the EU and Denmark has on several occasions referred to Hamas as such,” it said.

Luxembourg has also denied the claims.

The statement released this week said that the EU “condemns in the strongest possible terms the multiple and indiscriminate attacks across Israel by Hamas and deeply deplores the loss of lives.

“The EU calls for an immediate cessation of these senseless attacks and violence, which will only further increase tensions on the ground and seriously undermine Palestinian people’s aspirations for peace.

A similar claim that has been viewed more than a million times says that the EU had announced a plan to block aid to Palestine, which Ireland then forced them to reverse.

“The EU’s plan to suspend all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority has been blocked by 4 EU states: Ireland, Spain, Denmark and Luxembourg,” one tweet that was viewed more than 833,800 times read.

This narrative mirrors real events. However, official statements suggest this telling gives Ireland a more dramatic role than it may have actually played.

The plan to suspend aid to Palestine was announced by commissioner for Neighbourhood and Engagement, Oliver Varhelyi, a controversial appointee of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán.

The move was criticised by the Irish government, which said “there is no legal basis for a unilateral decision of this kind by an individual Commissioner”.

However, this decision was quickly contradicted by the European Commision, which said, “as there were no payments foreseen, there will be no suspension of payments,” and it was not clear that Varhelyi’s statement had ever reflected an official EU action.

However, the Commission also said that they did intend to review future EU assistance to Palestine.

“The thing that happened was that one commissioner, Commissioner Várhelyi, made a decision on his own without any talks with any other commissioner or with the Commission in general,” Micheál Martin said yesterday. 

“Our opinion in the majority – and my own opinion – is that it makes no sense to stop the money.”

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.