– A lot of fake news and widely shared tweets about the ongoing crisis are from Indian journalists, disinformation expert Marc Owen Jones tells Anadolu
– Indian right wing using Israel-Hamas conflict to ‘stoke fear of Muslims among Hindus,’ says Bharat Nayak, Indian journalist and fact-checker
– Indian media’s coverage of Gaza ‘relied heavily on Israeli talking points, tropes and disinformation,’ says journalist and author Azad Essa
– Social media firms have long struggled to contain misinformation and are struggling again, says Irina Raicu, digital ethics expert in US
Social media has been as a key battleground in the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict as both sides are “trying to shape narratives and sway public opinion,” according to Marc Owen Jones, a leading expert on digital media and disinformation.
“The amount of disinformation is staggering, and is often made worse by the fact some outlets are more inclined to write stories that are not substantially fact-checked, especially in a chaotic info environment,” Jones, associate professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, told Anadolu.
For the Israeli side, the main objective has been to share information on attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas and justify its own military actions, while Palestinians use it to highlight civilian suffering and deaths, he said.
“Both sides spread messages portraying the other as aggressors,” he added.
Jones also pointed out what he called “a peculiar aspect” of the ongoing information war, specifically the “synergies between Indian right-wing accounts and pro-Israel accounts, who are magnifying information.”
This, in his view, is a reflection of the “Islamophobic policies” and “anti-Muslim rhetoric” in India.
“A lot of fake news and widely shared tweets are from Indian journalists, and there are also a lot of Indian journalists now in Israel,” said Jones.
In the current crisis, Jones said Israel “seems unashamed in spreading disinformation, something they have done before but never on this scale.”
His assessment was backed by Bharat Nayak, an Indian journalist and fact-checker, who said there has been a clear surge in pro-Israel messaging from Indian accounts on all major platforms, including X, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Citing examples, he said the content of these messages covers claims such as Israel saving India during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, similarities between Hinduism and Judaism, and that “no Muslims in India and opposition parties condemn the actions of Hamas.”
“The current link between the Indian right wing and Israel is that for the last one decade, Muslims have been a target of the Indian right wing, and here most of the Palestinians dying are Muslims,” said Nayak.
“Most of the narratives that are being circulated in India relate to how Muslims in India support Hamas, and they are capable of doing the same thing to Hindus that Hamas did to Israeli citizens.”
The disinformation being spread on WhatsApp groups “is being used to stoke fear of Muslims among Hindus,” particularly in India’s “Hindi-speaking belt,” he added.
“While the narratives viral on Twitter can be considered as ‘hate speech,’ the content viral on WhatsApp falls under ‘fear speech’ – messages aimed at instilling existential fear of a target, ethnic or religious, group,” he explained.
Love for Israel and being anti-Muslims has become synonymous
Azad Essa, a South African journalist and author, said the current Israel-Hamas conflict has come “at a time in which India-Israel ties are the most developed they have ever been.”
“Over the past decade, India has emerged as the biggest purchaser of Israeli weapons, accounting for almost 50% of all weapons Israel exports,” he said.
“India now co-produces Israeli weapons, and since 2017, the two countries have been in a strategic alliance, in which they have cooperated on tech, start-ups, water management, agriculture … in almost every field at this point.”
He said it took Prime Minister Narendra Modi just a few hours to condemn the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, which paved the way for Indian mainstream media to “both cover this story closely, as well as report on it as a matter of national concern.”
“The mainstream media’s coverage has relied heavily on Israeli talking points, on tropes, and disinformation from Israeli sources. And in some cases, they have produced the disinformation themselves,” said Essa.
On social media, he said “thousands of Hindu nationalist trolls have dehumanized Palestinians,” stressing that they jumped on what they saw as an “opportunity to demonize Muslims in India and link the entire community to terrorism.”
“They see themselves as fighting the same war, be it against Muslims in India, in Kashmir or in Pakistan. Love for Israel and being anti-Muslim has therefore become synonymous,” said Essa.
Content moderation or censorship?
According to Jones, the challenge for social media companies right now is “to curb hate speech and misinformation, while balancing free expression.”
When sources providing disinformation about events that are mischaracterized go viral before being debunked, that means “people’s opinions are often shaped by fake news,” he said.
Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in the US, explained why social media is often described by critics as “an ‘outrage machine’ that amplifies our fears and harms the efforts to push back against extremism.”
“Social media policies, reflected in the algorithms that shape which posts users actually see, also shape opinion, by often pushing to prominence the posts that get a lot of ‘engagement’ from others – whether or not those posts are accurate or constructive,” she told Anadolu.
Raicu also explained the methods through which social media is used to influence narratives.
“Two of those ways are the presenting or resharing of information about the suffering of only one side, or the creation of disinformation by presenting unrelated text, photos, and videos while claiming that they come from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” she said.
On the role of social media companies, Raicu said they have “long struggled to contain misinformation and other harmful content on their platforms, and they are struggling again.”
“The scale of communications that the platforms enable is not matched by a scale in the resources they’ve put in place to mitigate harms,” she said.
“There is no easy way to understand what social media companies do in terms of content moderation; even when they disclose their efforts, many people have grown to distrust their disclosures. But often, on contentious issues like this war, there are claims of censorship from opposing sides, each convinced that their own voices are being suppressed.”
On the censorship aspect, Jones pointed to a recent report by the Wall Street Journal that “suggested posts coming out of Palestine were much more likely to be censored for hateful comments than those coming out of Israel.”
“Meta has tried removing violent posts from both sides. But some accuse it of disproportionately limiting Palestinian voices. In fact, there is plenty evidence historically and currently that this is the case,” he said.
He cited the case of this year’s Web Summit, one of the world’s largest tech conferences due to be held in Lisbon this month, which has been boycotted by top firms because its former CEO made remarks “criticizing Israel and opposing mass killing of Palestinians.”
“This includes Meta and Google. There is certainly ample evidence, both technically and politically, that such companies are pro-Israel,” said Jones.
“Google even takes money from the Israel MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to spread propaganda, despite this being against their terms and conditions,” he added.
Source : AA