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“It’s been about four days since this incredible and tragic escalation of violence and the level of misinformation — even disinformation — seems near unprecedented.”

Israeli forces remove bodies of civilian residents killed by Hamas militants in Kfar Aza, Israel, on Oct. 10, 2023. [Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images]

This article includes graphic images and depictions of death.

THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES could not confirm a horrific claim that Hamas beheaded babies during a weekend assault, a spokesperson for the military told The Intercept on Tuesday. The claim went viral, becoming a headline-grabbing aspect of a massacre that left more than 1,000 Israelis dead.

“Women, children, toddlers, and elderly were brutally butchered in an ISIS way of action and we are we are [sic] aware of the heinous acts Hamas is capable of,” the spokesperson wrote in response to questions from The Intercept about the viral reports. “We cannot confirm it officially, but you can assume it happened and believe the report,” she reiterated in a follow-up phone call.

Despite the IDF’s inability to confirm the report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson Tal Heinrich repeated it on Wednesday — a window into how unverified reports become part of the historical record.

The claim about beheaded babies is the latest in a series of harrowing reports that have emerged over the last few days while Israeli forces regained control of communities attacked by Hamas militants. As Israeli officials responded by pledging vengeance and launching a mass bombing campaign over 2 million Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip, reports of Hamas crimes against civilians fueled rage among the public, elected officials, and policymakers.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said, “I never really thought that I would see…have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children,” only for the White House to later clarify that the president had not seen such photos and was basing his remarks on Heinrich’s comments and media reports.

Claims that Hamas militants raped several Israeli women have also gone viral, though the allegation has not been thoroughly substantiated, and at least one news outlet has retracted a reference to it. In his remarks on Tuesday, Biden said that women had been “raped, assaulted, paraded as trophies.”

The viral spread of dubious information at the same pace as credible reports has become a staple of modern warfare, exacerbated over the last year by the transformation of Twitter under the ownership of Elon Musk. Once an important source for breaking news, Musk’s changes to the platform’s verification requirements have made it difficult to separate fact from fiction — making it all the more important for journalists and public officials to vet the information before repeating it.

Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which tracks and studies how nonfactual narratives propagate online, said that viral lies and misconceptions tend to balloon during or in the wake of a war or other emergencies, reflecting a spike in concern and greater appetite for information. “People share content that they find compelling,” she said. “In crisis situations, often the viral content includes a lot of rumors — it’s unverified material right now, and it may turn out to be true.”

As uncorroborated reports are broadcast alongside legitimate, equally horrific ones, the consequences of the rapidly escalating rhetoric are all too real and dangerous.

“It’s been about four days since this incredible and tragic escalation of violence and the level of misinformation — even disinformation — seems near unprecedented,” media critic Sana Saeed told The Intercept. “We have seen journalists, in particular, spread unverified information that is being used to justify Israeli and even American calls and actions to annihilate an entire population.”

“From unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters raping Israeli women to unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters beheading babies: These claims have spread like wildfire especially thanks to many journalists who are repeating things without any semblance of critical thinking or journalistic caution.”

“What’s at stake here is literal human life,” Saeed added. “But Palestinian life matters so little, that spreading incendiary information that justifies Israeli war crimes isn’t a concern for those tasked to punch up to power by virtue of being journalists.”

Unverified Reports

The claim about beheaded babies, which spread quickly online and was repeated by prominent journalists and politicians, originated with reporters who visited the community of Kfar Aza on Tuesday, the site of a horrific massacre of civilians by Hamas. Reporters with i24NEWS, an Israeli TV network, were among the first to report the claim, which they attributed to soldiers who recovered the bodies of victims. The Turkish news agency Anadolu first reported on Tuesday that the IDF would not confirm the claim. The IDF later told other outlets that it would not confirm the reports because it is “disrespectful for the dead.”

According to Oren Ziv, a journalist who participated in the tour, “journalists were allowed to speak to the hundreds of soldiers on site, without the supervision of the army’s spokesperson team.”

The IDF spokesperson told The Intercept that a soldier told journalists “that this is what he saw” but that the military had not independently confirmed the claim.

“When we were there, all the bodies were in body bags. … We couldn’t see it with our own eyes, but obviously, it happened. We cannot confirm it officially from the military but you have seen, I guess, videos on social media, you’ve seen girls with blood over their thighs, it’s obvious that this stuff happens.”

“Specifically about the beheaded babies report, we cannot confirm the amount and specific place and everything like that,” the spokesperson added. “There have been so many horrible situations and we don’t have time, and we’re currently busy fighting and defending our country. We don’t have the time to check every report.”

Ziv also noted that while the scene was “horrific, with dozens of bodies of Israelis murdered in their homes,” he had not seen evidence of the beheaded babies. Other reporters on the ground said that an Israeli soldier told a BBC journalist that “some of the dead had been beheaded,” while at least two other journalists later deleted tweets referencing the reports.

“Just looked at today’s UK front pages and I am horrified by the headlines claiming ‘40 babies beheaded by Hamas’ in Kfar Aza,” Guardian reporter Bethan McKernan tweeted on Tuesday. “Yes, many children were murdered. Yes, there were several beheadings in the attack. This claim, however, is unverified and totally irresponsible.”

The uncorroborated reports were repeated by veteran journalists and politicians, from Fox News to CNN anchors, as well as U.S. politicians from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y. Fox News reporters chased Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D- Mich., the only Palestinian American in Congress, saying that “Hamas terrorists have cut off babies’ heads” and asking her to comment on “terrorists chopping off babies’ heads.” On Wednesday, the reports continued to circulate, including on major news outlets like CNN.

New York Times reporter Sheera Frenkel wrote on BlueSky on Wednesday that reporters should approach such claims carefully, try to verify their origin and sourcing, and seek to corroborate them in other ways. “Save the IDF coming out with an official statement (and it hasn’t, it’s declined to confirm) or someone confirming they saw it with their own eyes,” she added, “it’s a rumor being widely shared.”

Palestinians, including some journalists, carry the bodies of two Palestinian reporters, Mohammed Soboh and Said al-Tawil, who were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, on Oct. 10, 2023. [Photo Credit: Fatima Shbair/AP]

Fog of War

Online disinformation has become ubiquitous in recent conflicts, including in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

On X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, firsthand accounts by journalists and others on the ground in Israel and Gaza were at times drowned out by verified users of dubious legitimacy. While some claims remain disputed, X is also awash in rapidly spreading incendiary posts that are patently false, many being used to justify increasingly violent rhetoric and potentially worsening an already grisly war.

Attempting to even measure the volume of viral falsehoods currently spreading throughout X has become difficult, if not impossible, due to changes implemented under the new ownership of Musk. “It’s very difficult for academic research teams to gauge the volume question on X at this point because many, including us, no longer have API access,” said DiResta, of the Stanford Internet Observatory. Under X’s prior ownership, when the company was still known as Twitter, it provided research organizations like Stanford’s with software access to track public user activity on the platform, which made it easier to track how a hoax or online myth spreads.

DiResta said that X’s decision to sell account verification, which previously indicated some official association with an organization or news outlet, has exacerbated the trade in wartime rumors. “As curation algorithms have changed on Twitter/X, current blue checks” — those who purchased verification — “are prioritized in the feed and in replies,” she explained. “The composition of the blue check community has also shifted. There are many commentators, but fewer journalists.”

Others echoed that frustration. “As a journalist, I’ve been using social for news since, well, since that became a thing,” the journalist Barry Malone noted. “And I cannot recall ever seeing disinformation spread with such lightning speed around a big story as it is right now.”

Meanwhile, in Gaza, as besieged residents lost access to electricity and at least six journalists were killed in bombings, local writers who regularly report on life in the strip reported being unable to do so.

“My phone and laptop have died. No electricity as we’re running out of fuel for the power generator, after Israel cut electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza,” one of them, Maha Hussaini, tweeted earlier this week. “I will be off until we find alternatives, This is what Israel wanted, to commit genocide against a silenced people.”

Update: October 12, 2023 This article was updated to note that President Joe Biden made a comment about the decapitated babies on Wednesday that the White House later walked back.


(c) 2023, The Intercept


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