December 7, 2023

One of the most common false narratives of the Israel-Hamas war is that victims are faking their injuries and don’t deserve public sympathy. Fact-checkers have found the false claims pegged to images and video taken from other countries before the war even started.

In one example, a video showing living people wrapped in shrouds falsely suggested that victims in Gaza were acting and hadn’t actually been harmed. In reality, the video was from a 2013 political protest in Egypt, where activists donned the shrouds to bring attention to victims of violence. Myth Detector of Georgia debunked the claim by showing the original footage in context.

“Notably, the video has been circulating for years with a disinformation description and is often used to accuse one of the parties of falsifying information about the victims of various conflicts,” said Myth Detector. The same video was debunked by fact-checkers in the United Kingdom, Spain, and India, among others.

Myth Detector and other fact-checkers named in this report are affiliated with the International Fact-Checking Network as signatories to the IFCN Code of Principles; signatories agree to uphold high standards in accuracy, independence and transparency.

Claims that Palestinians are faking injuries and deaths is just one of several misinformation trends to emerge from the war — and the misattributed video from Egypt is certainly not the only one. Other patterns detected by fact-checkers in the first months of the war include atrocities that lacked evidence; AI-generated images; out-of-context photos and video; video game footage passed off as real; and a wide variety of foreign policy claims about countries like Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Iran.

But worldwide claims that  Palestinians are staging corpses or injuries are among the most fact-checked in part because they have been so provably false. Agence France-Presse of France, for example, published fact checks of misformation found in French, Spanish, Arabic, Thai, Dutch, Greek, Swedish, Slovak and German.

Though not as frequent, claims of fraudulence have been made against Israeli victims as well. PolitiFact of the United States examined a claim on TikTok that said Israeli children had faked the death of their parents. PolitiFact rated it False.

Another post claimed to show before-and-after photos of an injured teenager in Gaza who had faked an injury. But Reuters news service showed the two photos were actually of different young men and not the same person.

Similar posts claiming the teen had faked his injuries rocketed around the internet, to the extent that the young man, who actually lost his leg, became the target of online harassment.

Agence France-Presse identified the boy and interviewed his father. “I fear for my son’s life,” the father told AFP. “He could get killed because of this lie.”

Mike Caulfield, who researches online falsehoods at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, told AFP that falsely accusing people of faking suffering has become “one of the most predictable” disinformation tactics in a crisis scenario.

“It’s a set of recipes — find a couple pictures of people that look similar or sift through behind-the-scenes video of films and find something you can pretend is faking a war,” Caulfield said.

“Crisis actor narratives often take the worst moment of a parent or partner’s life — the loss of a loved one — and make a circus of it. It’s cruel and exploitative.”

TjekDet of Denmark examined repeated claims that Palestinians have exaggerated the effects of Israeli attacks; such claims have been hashtagged #Pallywood, a mash-up of Palestine and Hollywood. (The term comes from a 2005 documentary.)

Fact-checkers in India including BOOM, YouTurn, Newsmobile and India Today have repeatedly fact-checked “Pallywood” claims. BOOM interviewed Arabic-language fact-checkers who said that India was one of the top three markets sharing misinformation. (Digital anti-Muslim messaging in India is widely attributed to the Hindu nationalist movement.)

The UK-based Logically Facts, in a report on the “Pallywood” claims, documented that the use of the term itself has grown rapidly since October. Logically Facts noted that similar claims have been used in other countries: “Many of the ‘Pallywood’ claims that have emerged in recent weeks bear a striking resemblance to historical crisis actor claims from elsewhere, in which victims of tragedies are baselessly framed as actors and evidence of harm is written off as fraudulent.”

TjekDet’s examination of the “Pallywood” phenomenon found other persistent information dynamics in the conflict. “In the first month of the war, both Israel and Hamas have used a variety of tactics to gain and maintain legitimacy among their supporters and instill fear among their enemies,” the report said.

The report examined the way Hamas has used social media despite being banned by tech platforms, and how it has imitated some of the information tactics of groups like ISIS. Israel, meanwhile, has made video of attacks available to independent journalists and has placed ads seeking to influence international opinion, the report noted.

Atrocities that are unverified

Fact-checkers have found instances where real atrocities may have been exaggerated to make points about the inhumanity of attackers. One story that gained attention for its horrific detail was that Hamas murdered and beheaded 40 babies in Israel, a claim that confounded fact-checkers with its changing details and lack of evidence.

Fact-checkers at Snopes concluded, “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists and Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”

Fact-checking of the claim itself received some criticism. “It’s a dead baby,” an IDF spokesperson said to CNN. “Does it matter if it’s burning or decapitation?”

After President Joe Biden suggested it was true, The Washington Post Fact Checker concluded, “There is little dispute that many of the civilians killed by militants on Oct. 7 died in especially brutal ways. But caution is still warranted, especially at the presidential level, about statements that babies were beheaded. The available evidence does not need exaggeration.”

The Post also noted that in previous wars, exaggerated details of war crimes have been used to inflame public opinion to justify continued military action.

On the Gaza side, some posts claimed to document the deaths of children in Gaza but included photos of victims from Syria from 2013. Fact-checkers at VERA Files fact-checked such posts that spread online in the Philippines.

AI-generated or manipulated posts

False claims made with generative artificial intelligence have been used to make widely divergent points with few unifying narratives.

A photo of women who looked like professional models supposedly showed members of the Israel Defense Forces. But the photo had tell-tale signs of being generated by artificial intelligence, as determined by HKBU Fact Check of Hong Kong.

A photo of a displacement camp for Israelis with tents and blue and white flags was fact-checked as AI by Tech4Peace of Iraq; the same photo was debunked by the Taiwan FactCheck Center.

Reuters examined a video that claimed to show Biden instituting a military draft of Americans in response to the war in the Middle East. It was based on a video clearly labeled as AI that “imagined” what a draft announcement might look like; subsequent posts stripped off the AI-generated label and passed it off as real.

In an unusual debunk of a debunk, fact-checkers with Provereno looked into two images that were widely shared: first, a disturbing image of the charred remains of an Israeli infant, followed by the same image showing a living puppy. The puppy image supposedly “proved” that the earlier photo was faked. After an extensive analysis, Provereno concluded that the fake image was in fact the puppy, and the earlier image was genuine.

Some fact-checkers debunked audio and video that was AI or could have been made with more common forms of manipulation, such as cutting and splicing. Full Fact of the United Kingdom debunked fake audio that claimed the mayor of London canceled traditional memorial events in favor of pro-Palestinian protests; they also debunked fake video of supermodel Bella Hadid commenting on the conflict.

Out-of-context photos and video

Photos from other conflicts have been falsely attributed to recent events to make a variety of political points. Tech4Peace fact-checked a series of photos that purported to show the current conflict but were from conflicts in Mexico, Ukraine and Syria. Other videos were from the region but captured events that took place months or even years before the current conflict.

In another case, a photo of a paragliding accident in South Korea in June was wrongly shared as being from Gaza. HKBU fact-checked the photo.

An out-of-context video falsely claimed to show Israeli children caged somewhere in Palestine. The video and still photos from it were widely debunked, because the footage originally appeared before the start of the war. Fact checks were published by Maldita of Spain, Check Your Fact of the United States, Lupa of Brazil, and Nieuwscheckers of the Netherlands, among many others

Open, a fact-checking group based in Italy, debunked a claim that an explosion in Gaza was fake by showing the footage was from Iraq in 2016.

Video game footage passed off as actual conflict footage has been debunked by multiple fact-checkers. Tech4Peace found repeated examples of footage taken from the military video game “Arma 3” and passed off as actual conflict footage, as did VERA Files, Full Fact, Maldita and PolitiFact, among others.

Linking the conflict to Russia, Ukraine and the United States

Some of the misinformation has tried to tie events in Israel and Gaza to other countries and conflicts, most notably the war in Ukraine.

FactCheck Georgia noted that Russian messages have tried to discredit Ukraine by propagating a narrative that Hamas acquired Western weapons from Ukraine and that Ukrainian leaders corruptly sold Western military aid to Hamas; or suggested that the Western support would be shifted exclusively to Israel, leaving Ukraine abandoned. Stop Fake in Ukraine also debunked multiple claims that Hamas is arming itself with weapons diverted from Ukraine.

Gwara Media in Ukraine debunked false claims that Ukrainians have tried to harm Israelis by targeting them with bank scams or selling their addresses. Gwara noted that Russian propaganda has long attempted to portray Ukrainians as Nazis, and these messages fit that pattern.

Myth Detector of Georgia and Fatabyyano of Jordan teamed up to debunk a video that suggested Russians were directing Hamas fighters in the attacks on Israel. The video claimed the men were speaking Russian, but the fact-checkers confirmed that only Arabic was spoken in the video.

Conversely, other claims have suggested wrongly that Ukrainians are joining the Israel Defense Forces. Stop Fake noted that these messages seem to be aimed at Russians who sympathize with Palestinian victims.

VERA Files debunked videos that spread in the Philippines claiming falsely that Iran had attacked Israel (the video was actually of an airshow) and that the United States had declared war on Palestine (video of Biden was wrongly labeled).

Another false claim was that U.S. special forces died in a failed attempt to rescue hostages in Israel; that was debunked by Taiwan FactCheck Center. That was part of a trend of misinformation in Taiwan that attempted to use the conflict to incite skepticism toward the United States and its military readiness, the center said.

Media literacy efforts

Fact-checkers summed up their work by warning the public to exercise caution in engaging with social media conflict about the war. Agence Science-Presse of Canada advised patience and looking for multiple sources. Mediawise of the United States said people should use lateral reading, click restraint and reverse image searches to fact-check for themselves.

Because conflict in the Middle East has been going on for decades, people’s views have become entrenched, and it’s very difficult for people to assess information for its intrinsic accuracy, warned Faktisk of Norway. It’s important to be aware that people sharing online have specific agendas, and people seeking accurate information should choose multiple news sources with extreme care.

Even content from supposed “fact checks” can be suspect if the sources aren’t fully listed, noted FullFact. It advised readers to keep a heightened awareness of the ways posts can be manipulated and to ask themselves whether the claims are plausible.

“Emotive footage that shocks us, backs up our worldview or generates other strong feelings can be particularly difficult to look at critically,” Full Fact noted. But in times like this it’s extra important to make sure we’re not sharing misinformation.”

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Angie Drobnic Holan is the director of the International Fact-Checking Network, which supports and promotes fact-checking worldwide. Before assuming that role in June 2023, Holan…
Angie Drobnic Holan

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