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Detangling the online disinformation about the war between Israel and Hamas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hamas' surprise attack on Israel and the escalation into war over the weekend has people in Israel, Gaza, around the world seeking information, seeking facts about what is happening. But social media and messaging apps are awash in viral rumors, also false, misleading images and videos. NPR's Shannon Bond joins us to disentangle some of these narratives. Hey, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me what people are encountering. They go online. They're trying to find the latest news. And...

BOND: Well, they are seeing a flood of posts claiming to show what is happening in Israel and Gaza. But not all of them are what they seem. So, for example, one video that's been making the rounds shows what looks to be a helicopter being shot down with a shoulder-mounted weapon. But that is actually not a video at all. It's a clip from a video game. There are other videos circulating that are from real videos from actual conflicts, but they may be months or even years old. In some cases, they're not from Israel or Gaza at all. I spoke with Achiya Schatz. He's executive director of FakeReporter, a watchdog group in Israel that tracks misinformation. And he says this is all the result of a lack of verified information from credible sources at a time of high interest. And then all of this is then getting amplified by, in some cases, people with political agendas. And it's particularly bad on Twitter, now known as X, where Elon Musk as owner has removed many of the guardrails against the spread of these kinds of false and misleading narratives.

KELLY: Yeah, I was going to ask how Twitter is holding up so far in this war because it's been a really important channel in breaking news situations like this in past.

BOND: Right. And it still is. I mean, it's where people are going to find information. But these kinds of misleading and false posts are especially rampant there. Since Musk bought the platform, he dramatically cut staff. Take one video that was posted by the co-chair of a group that calls itself Republicans Overseas Israel. The video shows a man playing with a baby. And the caption claims it is, quote, "a Hamas terrorist with kidnapped Jewish baby girl in Gaza." But this video was originally posted back in August on TikTok. There is no indication that it depicts a kidnapped child or a terrorist. It has been labeled with a user-generated fact check on X pointing this out. But, you know, the post remains up. It's been seen more than 900,000 times.

And we also have Musk himself adding to the confusion. He's recommended people follow accounts that have posted false claims in the past. And remember, Mary Louise; the incentives on X have changed. Users who pay for a blue check - they get their posts boosted. They can earn advertising money regardless of whether they're credible or not.

KELLY: So what should people be looking for when they are trying to evaluate what's real and what's not when they go online?

BOND: I think you should bring a healthy skepticism to everything you see. Does the video you're seeing have context? How do you know it's showing what it claims to show? Are there multiple sources for what you're reading or seeing? And especially on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram - you know, those are both very popular in Israel. There are viral rumors and unverified messages spreading there. So people should be wary of messages or posts that have been forwarded many times where you sort of can't see the chain of where it came from.

KELLY: Shannon, some of these things you're telling us about are clearly individuals exploiting chaos for whatever reason. Are we seeing states, state actors, organized groups behind any of these online narratives?

BOND: We haven't seen evidence of that yet, but it's certainly something we're going to be looking out for. Chaos is a welcome environment for all kinds of malicious actors. You know, they're seeking opportunities to spread propaganda, to attack their enemies, to simply amplify this confusion. And so certainly the platforms, you know, national security experts and we will be watching out for all of this in the coming days and weeks.

KELLY: NPR's Shannon Bond spreading truth and facts here on NPR. Thank you very much for your reporting.

BOND: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.