Israel Palestine Conflict

Exclusive: Inside Israel’s war room cracking down on fake news

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In a war room in Israel, thousands of volunteers trawl online accounts and social media for fake news and misinformation surrounding the country’s war with Hamas.

After the militant group poured across the border from Gaza on October 7, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians and taking around 240 people hostage, according to Israel, the country has vowed to wipe out Hamas. The retaliatory aerial bombing and ground offensive has killed more than 10,800 people in Gaza, mostly civilians and many of them children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

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But away from the frontline, volunteers are fighting a different battle: disinformation.

Since the conflict escalated a month ago, lies, mistruths, and disinformation has fueled a fire across the globe, with misinformation and fake, AI-generated photorealistic images of the war being circulated and re-shared on social media, stoking strong emotions and anger from both sides of the cause.

To combat disinformation, FakeReporter – a disinformation monitoring organization based in Israel, founded by a team of researchers, activists, and OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) experts - is running a war room staffed with 2,500 volunteers across Israel.

The volunteers flag and report suspicious, malicious and graphic content to the platforms themselves, and FakeReporter also debunks misleading narratives on social media.

Yotam Frost, head of communications, FakeReporter, told Al Arabiya English that the war between Israel and Hamas extends beyond the battleground; it unfolds daily on social media.

“FakeReporter has observed a concerning surge in disinformation, particularly on X (formerly known as Twitter). In these times, exercising critical thinking is crucial to differentiate between facts and opinions.”

The consequences of disinformation and misinformation are profound, he said.

“They pose a serious threat to democracy, weakening social resilience and fostering stress, anxiety, hatred, and extremism. They can easily impact military, political, and diplomatic processes and actual decision-making. This threat goes beyond mere disinformation; it attacks the very foundations of democratic society and our ability to conduct a rational, fact-based debate.”

FakeReporter was founded about three years ago and run by Achiya Schatz. Prior to the war, it was focused on assisting people targeted with online harassment for speaking out against government corruption.

Before FakeReporter, Schatz, 38, was the spokesman for an organization called Breaking the Silence, which published anonymous testimonies of Israeli soldiers who claimed they witnessed ethical misconduct during their service in West Bank and Gaza.

Mistruths on the web

Today, they work to sift through the mass amounts of mistruths on the web.

Frost said to date they have accumulated more than 20,000 reports of fake news on social media.

“It’s crucial to recognize that social media platforms have the capabilities - whether in technology, human resources, or financial resources - to minimize the spread of disinformation,” he said. “Regrettably, they choose not to implement these measures, and their policies fall short in effectively minimizing misinformation and disinformation.”

“Notably, platforms like X have reduced their already severely understaffed trust and safety team. Currently, we are witnessing numerous examples where entirely false and violent posts on X, including anti-Semitic and other racist and hateful tweets, remain in place. In many cases, the community provides the right context through community notes.”

“However, even when it is utterly clear that a post is fake, it is not taken down. This decision reflects a strategic choice of X and other social platforms.”

For this reason, said Frost. FakeReporter and senior officials in the Israeli high-tech community created “Digital Dome”- a digital platform to protect the public from harmful content.

‘The innovation relies on a combination of Artificial Intelligence technology and reports by users across all platforms, which act as our ‘eyes on the ground’.”

“We have accumulated over 20,000 reports to date. Initial screening is conducted by dedicated volunteers, who identify and forward content that clearly violates the community guidelines of social media platforms. The reports are then further refined by a separate team before being submitted directly to the platforms.”

Frost said the rapid dissemination of information today contradicts the essential process of thorough investigation, verification, and the subsequent delivery of reliable information to the public.

This, he said, was evident in the recent bombing of the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City. While the finger initially was pointed at Israel, this was later discredited.

“It took several hours to probe the bombing’s source before providing accurate information to the public,” said Frosts. “However, during this investigation, disinformation had already gained traction.”

“Fragments of information were widely used in the first few hours to promote allegations against Israel.”

“For example, we’ve witnessed how several high-profile accounts of X were basing their claim that Israel was behind the explosion on a tweet made by a social media advisor to the prime minister’s office, believing it was an official response.”

“In reality, he couldn’t have had any evidence at that point and was only speculating. In another example, an Israeli journalist shared an old video of a rocket malfunctioning in the sky, raising accusations that Israel is trying to cover up its actions. On that same day, a Facebook page claiming to be an official IDF page gloated and took responsibility for the explosion, misleading many. It was a complete fake.”

“This highlights the challenge of correcting disinformation once it takes hold, as many tend to cling to their initial beliefs even when confronted with subsequent evidence.”

In the context of the Israel-Hamas war, AI is being employed to spread disinformation, said Frost.

“Both sides use AI to create images that shape the narrative of the ongoing crisis. However, it is fairly easy to identify at this moment. Currently, the authentic dissemination of disinformation is a key battleground in the information war, but this may change rapidly with AI becoming more prevalent.

Frost said their “strong recommendation” is to be extra cautious about trusting information circulating on social media.

“When you come across online information, verify the distributor’s credibility and official status. Check for evidence from reliable channels, like official media outlets. If information is attributed to a source, look it up to confirm if they indeed published it. Follow disinformation watchdogs like FakeReporter that keep the public informed about false information.”

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