Social media is drowning in misinformation on the Israel-Hamas conflict

Nobody is unbiased, all sides participate in some sort of propaganda, and social media is filled with misinformation, Dr. Roberto Mazza warns. No slickly edited five-minute video can explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with adequate context. And while both sides could benefit from removing the terrorist organization Hamas, there are also no recipes for peace.

Many are quick to jump to conclusions based on fake news spreading both on social media and news organizations, a worrying trend noticed by Dr. Roberto Mazza.

He is a Global Affairs and History Professor and executive editor of the Jerusalem Unplugged Podcast on New Books Network. A vocal supporter of Palestine, he is also the executive editor of The Jerusalem Quarterly, published by the Institute for Palestine Studies.

“My wife, on the other hand, is Israeli and the associate director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israeli Studies at Northwestern University. So, you know, you can see that even our background in the family is really mixed, and we bring a variety of ideas, thoughts, and views about what's going on,” he said in an interview with Cybernews.

Misinformation spreading on social media

Mazza believes that it’s almost impossible for outsiders to understand the conflict through short videos or tweets, given its long history and complexity involving religious, political, and military aspects over decades.

“There's a lot of people who gather information just through tweets, posts on Facebook, or messages on WhatsApp,” he noticed. “And it's very problematic.”

He highlighted that many false narratives have been spreading online since the conflict between Hamas and Israel began.

Roberto Mazza

“One, probably the most common, is about the victims, the numbers. And that's always been the case when we have wars or conflicts. How many, who are they, did they die, who killed them, and how have they been killed? We see that. A number of stories, we can now go back, circulated for quite a while about the 40 children that had been allegedly beheaded. Now we know it was fake news. There's also a lot of narratives about the history of Hamas itself, of the conflict,” Mazza said.

He argues that political agendas make up facts that simply never happen. Another aspect of misinformation is blame or culpability.

“Who’s responsible for what happened? And again, it often follows the political agenda,” he believes.

Some false narratives are connected to the nature of the conflict.

“Senator Lindsey Graham, here in the US, made claims about the religious nature of the war and essentially claimed that this is an attack perpetrated by Islam against Judaism and by proxy against Christianity. The problem is that it resonates,” Mazza argued.

He also noticed the challenge of differentiating the terrorist organization Hamas from Palestinians overall. While Hamas governs Gaza, most Palestinians do not support its ideology, and demonstrations support Palestinian rights, not Hamas. The conflict experiences of Gazans and West Bank Palestinians differ greatly as well.

How can anyone differentiate between credible and unreliable information?

“It's impossible,” Mazza assured.

“For the average user on Twitter or Facebook, it’s impossible. And it’s even impossible to forget that initial, emotion-provoking story. Many just keep that in the background even after reading that the news was not real,” he continued.

He believes that Western media provides less biased information and more balanced views than the parties directly involved in the conflict. Mazza also suggested following people on social media who rigorously fact-check their claims.

However, misinformation can now be spread by both media outlets and individuals at large, influencing millions of people with unverified pictures and videos.

Tech companies face a challenge in policing the spread

The tech companies behind social media platforms also struggle when policing misinformation within free speech constraints.

“It’s very hard for companies running platforms like X (Twitter), Facebook, or others to set the limits of what can or cannot be said because this is a fine balance. And I don't think there's any feasible solution, to be honest,” Mazza said.

“You can have as many rules as you want, but then who's policing them, and who's going to tell us that those rules are actually beneficial to the larger debate? How can we stop anti-Semites and Islamophobic individuals from posting or sharing their ideas and, at the same time, avoid censoring people with critical thinking, legitimate opinions, or questions? It's like walking a jungle without being equipped or knowing the dangers ahead.”

And there are many more angles in the conflict. Iran is supporting Hamas militarily, financially, and strategically, although it is not controlling Hamas directly. Many countries, including Iran, Russia, India, and others, participate in cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns with their political agendas.

Mazza still believes that some form of regulation should limit the spread of misinformation.

He advises information seekers to follow the source and find out where the information originated.

“It's a very hard job, a very difficult one. But it's important,” Mazza said. “A lot of misinformation will survive, but at least you had people taking the time to break it down and say: this is wrong, this never happened, this picture is a lie, this information is not proven. You know, it's a very important job. It's important to find these voices on X and Facebook saying this is wrong. It's a small puzzle, but it's an important one.”

There are no simple solutions for peace

Mazza himself doesn’t have a recipe for peace in this most complex and intractable of conflicts. Many have tried to bring the sides closer to a just resolution, yet peace seems further away than ever.

“The largest majority (of Palestinians) do not support Hamas. You know, they're not interested in an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip. And so that's one element to take into account when it comes to peace. It's even more complicated because you have to think about that for the majority of Gaza. And then remember, 51% of Gazans are 15 years old or below. So, the largest majority of Gazans are essentially young kids. They don't know Israelis. They only know Israelis through what they see, either on news outlets, and they know Israelis through the military presence around the border,” Mazza said.

According to him, the same applies to many Israelis who also don’t know Gazans and imagine that they’re all Hamas terrorists.

“I feel safe to say that for the Gazans, what’s really important is to stop the war and, you know, find a safe place. Because essentially, they live in an area which is always unsafe because the Israeli military can reach anybody, at any time, wherever they are. The same is true for Hamas. If you start making it clear that you don’t support them, you know, if it's not the Israelis, then Hamas can be looking for you. And we saw that Hamas many times carried out killings of individuals in Gaza simply because of their opposition to the regime,” he argued.

“Obviously, getting rid of Hamas would be part of the solution. But it's not necessarily the solution because Hamas is so rooted, at least as a governing body. You can't just simply get rid of them unless you have a plan,” he continued. “More and more people start asking questions like, okay, we go in, we take out Hamas. And then what? And that's the big question because there are no plans.”

There are no instructions for peace. He asked rhetorically: Should Israel occupy Gaza? At what cost? Is it going to be beneficial to a future peace process? Is it going to become a second West Bank, occupied, like it used to be? What’s going to change for Gazans?

“Practically nothing other than maybe a little bit of a rebuild, water, food, and medical supplies available. So there are really no plans, to be honest,” Mazza concluded.

”Right now t's almost impossible to find a solution other than, okay, let's stop the fighting. Let's get to a truce. Let's get to a point where, you know, water, food, and medical supplies are once again provided.”

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