As Gaza hospital rocket strike showed, we must all beware disinformation on social media – Stewart McDonald
If you opened your phone earlier this week, you might have seen footage of an apocalyptic explosion in Gaza, with pillars of flame wrapping around what the accompanying caption told us was a hospital. “Israel just bombed the Baptist Hospital,” tweeted a sitting US Congresswoman. “Israel just bombed the Baptist Hospital killing 500 Palestinians (doctors, children, patients) just like that.”
In the explosion’s aftermath, viewed through mobile phone footage taken halfway across the world and pushed onto their social media feeds, citizens and politicians across the West rushed to repeat the first explanation they saw and believed – the one given by Hamas, who control Gaza’s Health Ministry. The BBC’s own reporter in Gaza even told viewers at home that “it’s hard to see what else this could be really given the size of the explosion other than an Israeli air strike or several air strikes”.
As riots and protests broke out around the world, Israel posted a video allegedly demonstrating that the rocket which hit the hospital was fired from Gaza. The problem with this “proof”, as a New York Times investigative journalist quickly pointed out, was that the time stamps on the video showed that it was recorded at least 40 minutes after the explosion took place. The video was swiftly deleted.
In its place, Israeli authorities uploaded a smoking gun: a recording of an alleged conversation between two Hamas operatives in which they discussed how a rocket fired at Israel had misfired and hit the hospital. Covered by UK press including the Daily Mail, that recording also turned out to be falsified: experts speaking to Channel 4 described it as an “absurd” fake, with stilted accents, syntax and tone in the alleged Hamas operatives’ speech.
By the time day broke in the Middle East, a consensus was beginning to emerge. The attack was not the result of Israeli air strikes, but a misfired rocket by Islamic Jihad. The initial consensus of the crowd was badly wrong. Referencing this in his tweets about the attack, Defence Minister James Heappey praised the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) accounts on Twitter which had correctly argued that the rocket was fired from Gaza. “Those OSINT accounts,” he wrote, “are well worth following for independent analysis of what’s claimed in the media.”
That may once have been the case. Indeed, there are many of these accounts that have been valuable since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. But now – and this is partly why the public reaction to this attack was so badly wrong – anyone can call themselves an OSINT account, buy a verification badge from Elon Musk that boosts their messages, and post whatever mince they like online. Twitter/X, once the best place on the internet to follow breaking news stories, has now become a cesspit of misinformation and disinformation, deliberately spread by hostile actors and happily shared by a polarised public. No politician – let alone a government minister – should be advising members of the public to get their information on Elon Musk’s platform. Social media is a place where facts are often overtaken by discourse and reaction, and responsible politicians should be pushing back against that. Information, as we see daily in Ukraine, is a weapon of war in its own right – and both parties in Israel and Palestine have clearly internalised this lesson.
Western governments, however, have been slower on the uptake. Neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer – a former human rights lawyer, no less – initially seemed willing to say that Israel must not violate international humanitarian law, prompting mass protests across the United Kingdom, the threatened resignation of dozens of Labour councillors, and Conservative MP Crispin Blunt threatening both Sunak and Starmer with a private prosecution for aiding and abetting war crimes.
It doesn’t take a strategic genius to understand why they did it. Much as I dislike analogies between states and human beings, imagine that your house has been broken into and your family murdered: the same collective feelings of anger, trauma, shock and grief are resonating through the Israeli people and government right now and fuelling demands for the government to act. Any external actor that does not recognise that pain and strength of feeling and empathise with it will be shut out – increasing the likelihood of an echo chamber forming within the Israeli government and of a grossly disproportionate response.
But neither does it take a mind reader to recognise that people across the world abhor the thought of more innocent lives being needlessly lost and want to see their politicians calling for a proportionate response that protects children and civilians. Indeed, just hours after their initial remarks, politicians in London and Brussels found themselves walking their words back and issuing statements to that effect.
We saw this same apparent lack of foresight and perspective last week at the United Nations. How does it look to citizens and governments across the Global South when the only three states not to vote in favour of a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting in Gaza were the United States, the United Kingdom and the Russian Federation? (two other members of the G7 on the UN Security Council, Japan and France, backed the motion).
China described the vote as “nothing short of unbelievable” while Russia said it was an example of US double standards. I fear governments across the Global South will be inclined to agree and that the US and UK have just handed our strategic adversaries their easiest propaganda win in years.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is perhaps the most protracted and bitter fight of our age. Now, more than ever, these battles are also being played out online. UK politicians must be as resolute now in their respect for facts, reliable information and international law as they were at the start of the Ukraine war. A world without these standards is unimaginable.
Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South
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