Shayan Sardarizadeh: There's also an information war going on, and both sides want to win it by sharing whatever is confirming their own narrative.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week a guide to sifting fact from fiction about the Israel-Hamas conflict like how to spot fake posts.
Mike Caulfield: Very often it's just typed out with no link, no article name. Just below it, it might say, BBC World, or something like that, but not a link to the source.
Brooke Gladstone: Also, on the show a month ago, Israel and Saudi Arabia were in talks to "normalize their relations." Then the war began
Justin Scheck: The idea of Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel has gone from unimaginable to about to happen to unimaginable again.
Brooke Gladstone: Kingdom's role in the current Middle East crisis and more. It's all coming up after this.
Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Many researchers have noted, I'll just summarize, that the maelstrom of mis and disinformation circling the sliver of land comprising Israel and Gaza is the most started case of garbage-in, garbage-out since the invention of social media. Why wouldn't it be? Those platforms grow ever larger and faster. Technological tools ever more capable of convincingly faking evidence. What's more, the major political players in the conflict are not just lied about, they lie too.
Micah Loewinger: Of course, it's not just social media. Plenty of legacy news outlets also rush to judgment on too little information. That said, this week we respond to listeners who've told us they're waiting for another OTM Breaking News Consumers Handbook. Actually, we've made a couple dozen of them. They're really just a single printable page of red flags and warning signs, guides to what to expect and what to watch out for in the coverage of a particular breaking story. For instance, we have one for mass shootings, one for pandemics, for plane crashes, and coups, just to name a few. We make them whenever the longing for information outpaces the availability of actual facts, and they all live on our website, onthemedia.org.
Brooke Gladstone: Now our Breaking News Consumers Handbook: Israel and Gaza Edition. We begin with number one, the hardy perennial of breaking news advice. When perusing headlines about a war, don't swallow without chewing.
Joe Kahn: The early versions of our coverage, the headline, and the news alert ended up attributing our description of what happened at the hospital to a Hamas government official. The information that that government official passed along turned out to be inaccurate.
Brooke Gladstone: That's New York Times Executive Editor Joe Kahn, representing one of many major news outlets who failed to contextualize an unreliable source offering comment within minutes of an explosion at Gaza's Al-Ahli Hospital.
Joe Kahn: That early version with the benefit of hindsight was not as good or as accurate or verified as it could have been.
Brooke Gladstone: Conflicting video evidence is still being parsed. The prime evidence, fragments of the munitions responsible cannot be examined because says, a senior Hamas official, "The missile has dissolved like salt in the water." Something that bomb and shell fragments definitely are not known to do. On to point number two, be aware of the biggest spreaders of bad information about this conflict. That's not so hard. We know who they are.
Mike Caulfield: Seven accounts. For those top seven accounts, we saw over that three-day period, they accumulated 1.6 billion views across a total of 1,834 tweets.
Brooke Gladstone: Mike Caulfield is a research scientist leading the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public. His team analyzed the accounts on X that were getting the most views in the first three days after October 7th. Then they looked at popular news sources like BBC World, CNN Breaking News and found that--
Mike Caulfield: Over the first three days of this crisis, we found that the seven accounts had 1.6 billion views. The highly-subscribed traditional news accounts had 112 million views.
Brooke Gladstone: Note that these non-traditional accounts usually don't link to the source of their information. If they do have a citation--
Mike Caulfield: Very often, it's just typed out with no link, no article name. Just below it, it might say, BBC World, or something like that, but not a link to the source.
Brooke Gladstone: Another common characteristic, most of these sites post a lot.
Mike Caulfield: Hundreds of times a day. Very quick granular posts. Text posts very often with a image or with a video is decontextualized media, decontextualized rumor, and just coming to people in the stream.
Brooke Gladstone: Most of these sites are very emotionally charged.
Mike Caulfield: It's high intensity one way or another, either the newness or the nature of what you're watching, which might be about violence. It might have a culture war angle. The thing that we found was the experience of going through it is very disorienting because you're just seeing intense video and hearing intense rumor one after another, and you're never getting to any deeper treatment of that.
Brooke Gladstone: They use the language of journalists posting breaking news.
Mike Caulfield: You might get a police siren or all-caps BREAKING, that sort of thing.
Brooke Gladstone: These accounts are not affiliated with any news outlets, which is partly what endears them to X's owner Elon Musk, who has actively promoted some of them.
Mike Caulfield: One of the top accounts has been repeatedly promoted by Musk as an example of what he calls citizen journalism he wants to see.
Brooke Gladstone: One of those seven accounts is @WarMonitors known for misinformation and antisemitism, including using the word Jew as a slur as in, "Mind your own business, Jew." The other, @sentdefender, is notorious for fake news and has been called by a researcher at the Atlantic Defense Digital Forensics Research Lab, "Absolutely poisonous account." That's two of the big seven massively trafficking NBS.
You can find them all at U. Washington's Center for an Informed Public. Meanwhile, many of the worst sites love to pass themselves off as real open-source researchers, when in fact they're merely grabbing stuff from platforms like Telegram. More on that later. Real open-source intelligence or OSINT researchers stay up nights tracking images back to the source, scrutinizing landmarks and the angle of the light. Aric Toler is one of those, a reporter at the Visual Investigations team at The New York Times. He says that in this conflict, he's seeing a lot of the bad stuff he's seen before.
Aric Toler: The classic things you see in every conflict. You find old misattributed videos, something from Syria or Afghanistan, or Yemen, they repackage. Or from Palestine that is just old that they repackage and reshare. That's par for the course. This happens in every conflict.
Brooke Gladstone: But he's noticed one change in recent conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war, Twitter is no longer a driver of new information. It's just another aggregator.
Aric Toler: Similar to what Facebook and Reddit and some other platforms became from other conflicts.
Brooke Gladstone: Which brings us to our third point, know your platforms. You want to be where the action is? In this conflict, it's not Twitter or X. It's Instagram.
Aric Toler: Instagram is used more heavily in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and so on than some other platforms, but Telegram has been really important.
Brooke Gladstone: Telegram is a messaging app that also has channels. Anyone can create a channel and broadcast messages to whoever subscribes. It has other advantages in a war zone.
Aric Toler: It doesn't take a lot of bandwidth. It doesn't take nearly as much battery as some other platforms, especially where the power situation is so precarious in the Gaza Strip. It's lightweight. It's easy to use. You don't have to have the newest iPhone 15 or whatever to use it.
Brooke Gladstone: At least in the first couple of weeks of this particular conflict, Telegram was almost entirely unregulated. That's where Hamas was posting because it was banned from the major platforms.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Telegrams may not be that popular in some parts of the West, but in some other parts of Europe and some parts of Asia, it's really, really popular. It has like half a billion users.
Brooke Gladstone: Shayan Sardarizadeh is a journalist at BBC Monitoring and BBC Verify.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hamas usually shares their content on Telegram. Then those videos, those images then are reposted onto other major platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Facebook.
Brooke Gladstone: Earlier this week, the app started restricting access to several Hamas-run channels, but by then some of the accounts had grown to hundreds of thousands of followers. Hamas' social media, like the other parties involved in this conflict right now, is currently in very high gear. Sardarizadeh works day in, day out to verify or debunk the information shared on all these platforms. He says he sorts mis and disinformation into three big buckets.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One is the obvious one, which is everyone knows in the 21st Century, wars are for both online and offline. It's not just the artillery shells and airstrikes. There's also an information war going on and both sides want to win it by sharing whatever is confirming their own narratives.
Brooke Gladstone: The first bucket has the stuff generated by those actively engaged in the information war. The second bucket of bad info is filled by what he calls engagement farmers.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hundreds of millions of people are going online to find out what is happening on a daily basis. This is a great opportunity for you to just share anything that is shocking, enraging, outrageous, regardless of whether it's true or not, as long as it gets you engagement, not only do you raise your profile, but also in some cases you can make money.
Brooke Gladstone: What is the third bucket?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: The third pocket is what I would call proper disinformation. People who are exploiting this conflict in order to share their political narratives. I'll give you an example. In the first week of the conflict, we had a video go viral online, which appeared to be a BBC news video. It was a completely fake video, and it claimed that the BBC was reporting that the weapons that Hamas used in order to attack Israel on the 7th of October had come from Ukraine. There's no evidence for it, but then you have to wonder why someone would go through that much effort to try and tie the Ukrainian government or the conflict in Ukraine to what's going in the Middle East right now.
Brooke Gladstone: Then what do you come up with? Russia?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: I don't have evidence for who might have produced it. All I can say is the day after that video went viral, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made the exact same claim on one of his social media accounts. Again, somebody clearly is benefiting politically from spreading the idea that Hamas is using weapons given to Ukraine by Western governments.
Brooke Gladstone: We've spoken with a researcher from the University of Washington about a few key Twitter X accounts that have been very influential, also very unreliable in spreading information about the conflict, which points to the degradation of X as a source for breaking news.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: That's a good point because X is the platform where most journalists talk, but people forget that the size of users that X has is not in any way comparable to say Facebook, or Instagram, or TikTok, or YouTube. Now in the case of TikTok, the number of false or misleading videos that I've seen go viral is mind-boggling. I'm not talking about videos that have 2,000 views, 3,000 views. I don't care about that. I'm talking about videos that have 5 million views, 10 million views, 20 million views, and you look at the video and you find out it's not even from the Syrian war or the Israel-Hamas war in 2021, at least it's video game footage.
One really egregious example of it that I saw was a few days ago, somebody was pretending to be a live streamer who was a freelance reporter on the ground in Israel reporting the latest incidents that are happening live streaming it. 3 million people were watching it. I checked the video that was being live-streamed, allegedly from the ground in Israel. It was a military exercise that you could find on YouTube from 2017.
Brooke Gladstone: Sardarizadeh scales mountains of deception, but he says that one kind of story frequently called a lie isn't a lie. His research has found that when someone claims that images of victims or casualties of war are faked or staged by crisis actors, that's almost always a lie. Mark that as point four in our breaking news consumers handbook.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One example is there was in the first week of the conflict, there was a video of a child in a hospital wrapped in a shroud. The child was dead and somebody who seemed to be a relative was hugging that child in distress and that video went viral and it was shared by official accounts linked to the Israeli government claiming that child was a doll. We went and checked it. It turned out that was a real child that had died and had gone through rigor mortis. They had been in the hospital morgue for hours and hours and hours.
Another example that I saw two days ago, viral on Instagram was heavily edited footage of two or three separate videos. They were Israeli teenagers crying recounting the story of how their parents were killed during the Hamas attack in one of the kibbutz in Israel. This got millions of views both on Instagram and on X. It claimed that these teenagers were crisis actors, they had been hired. It claimed that you could clearly see in one of the videos that one of the teenagers starts laughing because the director gives them something or they're embarrassed by their acting. I went back and checked that the videos that have been put together and deceptively edited were from genuine interviews by CNN and ABC News with these three teenagers. There are Israeli-Americans, by the way, and they genuinely reside in the kibbutz in Southern Israel, and their parents were actually both killed, shot dead on that day.
Brooke Gladstone: You've been posting social media threads with tips and tricks for verifying information about the conflict. You created a fake BBC tweet. You showed how it was done. You showed how you could identify a fake tweet.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: One of the textbook ways people mislead on the internet is they claim to have taken a screenshot of a genuine post and then they share it on another platform without linking to the actual post.
Brooke Gladstone: So you can't go to the actual thing, you're only looking at a picture.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: One rule for a listener might be very suspicious if you can't link to the original tweet
Shayan Sardarizadeh: 100%.
Brooke Gladstone: That's point five. Check the attribution and be careful of the source you're pulling from and learn about some of the basic verification tools at your disposal. Apparently, it's easier than you may think. I ask Sardarizadeh, can you give me an example that people can go to of how you used readily available tools to verify a picture?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Yes, of course. It was a picture of two children and a convoy of tanks with Ukrainian flags on them, and this was shared two days after the outset of the war in Ukraine, February 2022. This image went really viral. I remember European politicians, US politicians, influencers shared it because it was a touching moment. The way I checked that one was I use a tool which is called Google Lens, and it allows you to crop a social media post in this case the image that I want in that post, and then go through the archive of pages that Google has and see the first use of that particular image on Google.
After searching for a while, I was able to find one example from Flickr from 2016 with that image shared by the official account of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in 2016. Although that was a picture of two children seeing off a convoy of tanks of Ukrainian troops, it had nothing to do with that particular moment in time.
Brooke Gladstone: Now is Google Lens easily accessible?
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Anybody can go to it. Just type in images.google.com in your web browser, whatever browser you're using, and you will see in the search box what appears to be a camera logo. You click on that camera logo and all you have to do, if it's a link with a social media post with an image, you just copy-paste that link into the search box and then it will do the job for you.
All you have to do is just go through the results that it brings up for you. The most important thing is try to find examples from authoritative sources, news organizations, people who you can trust at least to some extent, and then you want to find the earliest example of its use. Say with the image that we just spoke about, if you find the image shared on the internet in 2020, you already know something is wrong there. That image cannot have appeared on 2020 and also 2022 at the same time.
Brooke Gladstone: Right.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: If like me, you want to find a full context about it, you have to spend a bit more time go through the results, and I found the actual original use from 2016.
Brooke Gladstone: He's very keen on a plugin called InVID because it enables you to make simultaneous use of a bunch of different verification tools like Yandex or TinEye, each of which has particular strengths, but that's for the next class. I'm sticking to Verification 101 today. Still, it's all there ready for you. All you have to do is be on the Chrome browser and install the InVID Chrome extension.
Shayan Sardarizadeh: You will find how much easier verifying images on the internet will become.
Brooke Gladstone: It's not just for experts anymore. [chuckles]
Shayan Sardarizadeh: Hopefully not, and it shouldn't be. This is something that in this day and age, in the 21st century, this is necessary knowledge for everybody.
Brooke Gladstone: Shayan Sardarizadeh is a journalist at BBC Verify. You can find his X feed @Shayan, S-H-A-Y-A-N, 86 for tips and tricks on how to interpret what you see online. You need some level of media literacy to navigate these muddy waters, but it also takes time. It takes commitment, and that's point six. Aric Toler of The New York Times described what it took his team to put out an investigation earlier this week that showed that a piece of video evidence US and Israeli officials were using related to the hospital explosion was not what they believed it to be.
Aric Toler: These videos don't have timestamps on them. You have to watch hours and hours to find the right sequence of a flash here, a flash there, a missile goes up here, and like, "Oh, wait, those are the same," or, "Oh, the clouds match up." It's very labor-intensive work.
Brooke Gladstone: Of course, they're doing granular OSINT work, not just basic image verification.
Aric Toler: We looked at this data, we looked at these videos, you can look at them here, and this is how things line up on the satellite map, which you can look at the same as us, and if you don't trust us and you don't believe us, then that's fine. We've given you what we got. We've shown our work.
Brooke Gladstone: Even so, sometimes the experts get it wrong.
Aric Toler: Even if you go through all the same tools and you kind of do the labor and you get on the satellite maps and match up imagery and all that stuff, even then sometimes you don't get to the answer. It's not easy, I mean, you see the seasoned accounts, who've been doing this stuff for years and years and years who get fooled by some photos and videos that come out.
Brooke Gladstone: Point seven, is less a directive than a suggestion, that goes back to our very first handbook, think before you repost. Some of this is on you. What you do matters. It's so easy to further pollute the toxic stew that is our media ecosystem with a casual retweet of bad but affirming information. Take a moment, look for the source, check and see if it's an easy-to-fake screenshot. Any of the stuff we talked about or if that's too time-consuming and it may well be, maybe just don't click. This is On the Media.