Musk’s X and Hamas’ Digital Offensive: Gaza Is a Perfect Storm of Disinformation

Unverified reports of cyber-attacks and claims the IDF betrayed Israel were pushed out as part of Iranian influence network – with a little help from Hamas and anti-vaxxers

As Hamas terrorists entered Israel to begin the ruthless slaughter of innocent Israelis, the terror group also began a digital onslaught online, with numerous fake accounts linked to the group pushing out propaganda videos and glorifying posts. The Israel-Hamas war is a perfect storm of disinformation, experts say, unprecedented in scale. This, they explain, is thanks to a convergence of factors, including influence campaigns by Iran and Hamas, buoyed by an ecosystem of right-wing conspiracy theories, and Elon Musk’s changes to X (formerly Twitter).

Israelis will remember this war as one of the most devastating events in the country’s history. The incompetence that led to the horrific massacres in the Gaza border communities was exacerbated by a lack of response to the digital offensive launched by the terror group and its supporters. This included disinformation, misinformation and massive amounts of propaganda that helped create chaos on the Israeli home front. For example, during the first hours of the attacks and in recent days again, fake accounts linked to Iran claimed they useful launched a cyber attack against Israel.

Hackers may have failed to hurt Israeli civilian infrastructure, it remains unknown – but a known Iranian influence network managed to spread the rumor to sow panic. For the past two days, this unverified messages about an imagined cyber-attack reached every corner of Israel and beyond.

“This is a well-known Iranian network that operates over 1,000 accounts and, until recently, interfered mainly with internal Israeli matters,” says Achiya Schatz, CEO of Fake Reporter, which uncovered the activities.

“This is a sophisticated network that has thus far promoted political content designed to divide the Israeli public. Upon the war’s outbreak, it started promoting content such as a [false] cyber-attack, and later fake videos related to [Israeli far-right nationalist group] La Familia.”

Many analysts suspect Russia-aligned groups have also joined the fake news game. They note as one example a video spread on a Telegram page previously linked to the Doppelganger campaign, a worldwide Russian influence campaign exposed by Haaretz and other outlets earlier this year.

In another case, a video was released claiming Ukraine was helping Hamas; this week a fake document was released alleged to be an official document showing the U.S. would provide Israel with $8 billion in aid.

Nearly half a million accounts on Facebook, Instagram, X, and TikTok posted about the war during the first 48 hours, according to data from Cyabra, which tracks false information online – and a quarter were fake accounts. Content from them reached hundreds of thousands of people in Israel and abroad, says Dan Brahmy, the company’s CEO. Alongside the false information, the accounts also posted Hamas propaganda about the attacks, sharing snuff videos and photos of the organization’s drones dropping grenades on Israeli tanks.

Hamas’ disinformation efforts, and those influence operations organized by foreign states, have received an unexpected boost from recent changes at X. Under Elon Musk, X has taken a series of steps that have undone years of anti-disinformation efforts, taking apart different mechanisms put in place to quell false information on the popular social network. By charging money for verified account status (the “blue check”), the platform has made it extremely simple for anonymous entities to impersonate well-trusted accounts, and virtually eliminated mechanisms to protect against malicious activity.

Musk recently terminated his contract with the Israeli company ActiveFence, which provided X with content monitoring services, further damaging the platform’s ability to filter out fake and offensive content. ActiveFence is now also focusing on monitoring false information about the Gaza war.

“There is no more monitoring of offensive content, which explains the amount of snuff videos that accounts associated with Hamas and Iran have published unhindered – and there is no more automatic monitoring of coordinated inauthentic activity, i.e., locating and removing bot networks or automated avatars that work together in an organized manner,” says a senior researcher from Intercept 9500, a business intelligence firm that detects foreign malicious activity online.

Several researchers told Haaretz that X’s policy changes opened the door for fake accounts that would have once been removed within hours remaining on the air for two or three days.

Volunteer civilians, cyber firms, and civil society organizations are partially filling the space left by the state and X. But It’s not only organized influence operations that are benefitting from this – it has also led to misinformation shared in good faith by innocent people go viral. Pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons slaughter of civilians, for example, were presented as if they were from the aftermath of an Israeli attack on Gaza. Such examples abound from both sides of the war.

“The extent of misinformation on Twitter in this war is the greatest I have seen in my life,” says Shayan Sardarizadeh, a BBC journalist specializing in disinformation, conspiracy theory, and data validation. Over the past week, he has been closely following false information circulating online and deftly refuting it.

But despite his and the best efforts by the different volunteer groups, they, too, can’t stanch the flow. “In the first few hours on Saturday, there was a terrible information vacuum – the government wasn’t talking. This vacuum allowed elements from abroad, but unfortunately also from within Israel, to operate,” says Schatz.

Together with the Israel Internet Association, FakeReporter established an “anti-fake news war room” for center for mapping and debunking disinformation. They dubbed it the Fakes Command Center. It works around the clock to find false information on a range of platforms, including semi-closed networks like WhatsApp and Telegram.

FakeReporter researchers found that fake accounts operating in Hebrew had taken over the hashtags “Re’im massacre” and “Re’im party,” which reached Twitter’s trending topics and Facebook’s recommended list. The accounts promoted false propaganda such as innumerable videos depicting Hamas attacks as Israeli aggression, and old videos re-used for new deceptions.

Accounts linked to Hamas and Iran boosted posts falsely alleging that Israeli forces were attacking the Al-Aqsa Mosque, attempting to justify Hamas’ attacks. Later, videos were released in which Hamas members depicted treating hostages humanely in a bid to cover up their atrocities. Other accounts linked to the same networks distributed snuff videos.

Conspiratorial

The unprecedented terrorist attack of October 7 left one resounding question: how could this happen? One of the popular answers is a conspiracy theory blaming the IDF, the Shin Bet, and the rest of the security leadership that warned of defense consequences of the government’s judicial overhaul.

According to this conspiracy theory, spread by Iranian accounts but also by supporters of the current government, Israel’s military elite betrayed the people of Israel and purposefully allowed Hamas’ attacks to take place. The narrative is reminiscent of the stab-in-the-back myth that preceded the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

The researchers can’t say for sure where the betrayal narrative began. According to an Intercept 9500 review, it has been echoed by fake accounts that have long been known to be linked to Iran.

But it has also been reinforced by a multitude of accounts that are part of what field researchers call the propagandistic “venom machine” operated by supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Thus, around noon on Monday, the researchers found that many accounts previously focused on attacking the protest movement and left-wing activists suddenly began mass-sharing posts and videos accusing the IDF and the Shin Bet of treason.

The conspiracy theory was also pushed by a less-expected source: The anti-vaccine community. Their concern appears to be an extreme expression of “conspiritualism” – a combination of conspiratorial political tendencies and anti-scientific mysticism.

One well-known anti-vaccine influencer released a conspiracy video blaming the war in Gaza on full collaboration between the “globalist elite,” the Biden administration, and the Israeli government, to create World War III. So far, it has received over 1 million views on X

“The vaccine and COVID conspiracy theorists already believe that the system is against them, and when an event such as this occurs, this worldview comes into play – even when there is no ideological logic,” Schatz says.

One well-known anti-vaccine influencer released a conspiracy video blaming the war in Gaza on full collaboration between the “globalist elite,” the Biden administration, and the Israeli government, to create World War III. So far, it has received over 1 million views on X

“The vaccine and COVID conspiracy theorists already believe that the system is against them, and when an event such as this occurs, this worldview comes into play – even when there is no ideological logic,” Schatz says.

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