Misinformation claims are being used by both sides in the Middle East conflict. Image by AP PHOTO
  • war

‘Fake news’ claims open up new front in Middle East war

William Summers December 10, 2023

On October 30, Lebanese actor Rami Jardali posted an Instagram video that went viral for all the wrong reasons.

It was behind-the-scenes footage from the set of a short film about the war in Gaza, taken in the Southern Lebanon city of Saida.

In one shot, a young actor is covered in theatrical blood while sitting on a stretcher. A later frame shows the girl without blood, smiling.

Mr Jardali labelled the video “backstage” footage and gave no indication it was anything beyond. The final cut – an artistic 45-second take on war and the media – had already been published online.

Yet thousands of social media users re-posted the clip as supposed proof Hamas is using ‘crisis actors’ to exaggerate the scale of casualties in Gaza.

“See for yourself how they fake injuries and evacuate ‘wounded’ citizens, all in front of the cameras,” one Facebook user commented.

Often such posts use the hashtag #Pallywood, a portmanteau of Palestine and Hollywood, to suggest Palestinians are creating fake war footage on an industrial scale.

Fake Gaza content
 The hashtag #Pallywood appears on many of the posts appearing on social media. Image by Facebook 

On the other side of the war, pro-Palestinian social media users have baselessly claimed young children killed by Hamas were actually child actors.

There have also been accusations the media is complicit in the supposed deception. One alleged CNN staged a rocket attack on Israel in the early days of the conflict.

Audio was dubbed onto a genuine news report to make it sound as if the reporter was taking directions on how best to stage the video.

“Try and look nice and scared … can you boost the volume on those explosions, please?”

They are but three examples of claims of misinformation being used to try and deceive and shape the narrative – and Australian social media users are on the receiving end.

Experts are warning of the devastatingly effective tactic and liken it to Donald Trump’s use of labelling negative media coverage as “fake news”.

“I think our baseline working assumption should be that pretty much all the allegations of crisis actors are bunk in pretty much every situation,” says Dr Daniel Silverman, a war propaganda expert at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.

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 One claim suggests CNN is in on the deception. Image by Facebook 

“It’s not super realistic to me that people would be filming these shoots right now in the middle of a warzone where hellfire is being rained on them.”

Dr Silverman also questions why anybody would spend so much time and money shooting fake war videos when there are quicker and cheaper ways to spread misinformation, including generating AI content in a few seconds and for zero cost.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, an Australian misinformation expert based at the UK’s University of Bristol, says there are certain echoes of Trump’s “fake news” accusations.

“Not just in warfare but generally, the accusation of fake news has been weaponised to include any information someone doesn’t like,” he tells AAP.

“It is a powerful means of escaping scrutiny and creating an information ecosystem in which the public gives up any hope of ever discerning the truth.”

Dr Silverman splits war propaganda into two broad categories: exaggeration of military strength and highlighting unfair treatment.

Exaggerating military prowess helped Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan maintain a myth of invincibility even as they were losing the Second World War, he says.

But he says it is striking that the type of propaganda coming out of the Israel-Hamas war is “literally all in the second bucket”.

“Nobody wants to pretend that they’re the big, strong, invincible side … It’s entirely about the portrayal of victimhood and being brutalised by the opponent.”

 Misinformation experts have compared the tactics to those employed by Donald Trump. Image by Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS 

Accusing the other side of faking casualties may also be easier than accepting uncomfortable truths, Dr Silverman says.

“(Israel and Hamas) both have very ugly truths to hide from their most ardent supporters. For Hamas, everything that happened in the (October 7) attack and for Israel, a lot of what’s happened since.

“And so that may be why we’re seeing it coming so loudly from both sides … why we see that sort of accusation of falsehood going both directions.”

AAP FactCheck, AAP’s fact-checking arm, has debunked several false claims related to the Israel-Hamas war, including baseless accusations about crisis actors.

The dangers are stark.

Misinformation on social media reaches people six times faster than the truth, according to a 2018 study.

According to Professor Jo Fox, a British historian who specialises in rumours and propaganda, humans willingly consume misinformation because it tells them “not what is necessarily true but what we want to believe”.

“We want it and, in some cases, we seek it out,” she said in a 2019 lecture.

Dr Silverman says people who want to get to the truth about the war should seek out “established, credible journalists” with experience in war reporting.

“That doesn’t mean all journalists and scholars are immune from this,” he says.

“But that’s a better starting pool of people than just anybody with a huge follower count.”