Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Social media plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion around the 2021 Hamas-Israel conflict. Social media has turned the social discourse into a “battlefield.” There was a storm of sock-puppet accounts, bots, and fake identity accounts [see definitions below] among genuine yet misleading pro-Palestinian narratives posted by celebrities, news organizations, and individuals.
- Many in the United States are drawing parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement due to a perception of state violence.
- Iran and Hamas have a history of social media manipulation. For example, in April 2021, multiple fake accounts were exposed to have links to Iran. Fast forward to May, during the conflict, when the watchdog group Fake Reporter exposed 120 fake accounts that were likely connected to Iran.
- Video media is one of the most powerful ways to influence people. For example, seeing footage from the conflict is far more compelling and emotional than reading about it. This appeal has led to YouTube becoming one of the top platforms for news, with 23 percent of Americans regularly getting their news from YouTube.
- The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian social media war is characterized by the guerrilla, asymmetrical nature of attacks. Activists can warp events, images, and videos around their agenda without any accountability. Print and broadcast media are centralized in different organizations, creating a situation where publishers, editors, and columnists are held accountable. By contrast, social media is decentralized, bordering on chaos.
- The weapons of this asymmetrical social media warfare are not guns, rockets, and bombs. They are TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Wikipedia.
The power and impact of social media are on the rise, with 53.6 percent of the world using social media1 and 42 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 using social media as their primary source of news.2 Social media plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion around the 2021 Hamas-Israel conflict. The Times of Israel reported that social media turned the social discourse into a “battlefield.” There was a storm of sock-puppet accounts,3 bots,4 and fake identity accounts5 among genuine yet misleading pro-Palestinian narratives posted by celebrities, news organizations, and individuals. Some pro-Palestinian posts, while genuine, may have been promoted by third-party interest groups. For example, a pro-Palestinian tweet made by the average John Doe could be hijacked by a third party through paid promotion to make the tweet go viral. On the other hand, many pro-Palestinian posts are posted by someone with a large audience or “organically” go viral.
Currently, Israel appears to be losing the social media war, with Palestinians garnering sympathy worldwide. Many in the United States are drawing parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement due to a perception of state violence, according to American University’s Thomas Zeitzoff.6
The following is a breakdown of influential social media posts propelled to the spotlight in the social media “battlefield.” Who pulls strings behind many of these posts is often unclear, but the way they warp the truth against Israel is glaring.
Sock-Puppet Accounts, Bots, and Fake Identity Accounts
Iran and Hamas have a history of social media manipulation. For example, in April 2021, multiple fake accounts were exposed to have links to Iran.7 Fast forward to May, during the conflict, when the watchdog group Fake Reporter exposed 120 fake accounts that were likely connected to Iran.8 The accounts aimed to demoralize Israelis. There was similar wording among multiple accounts, with the general theme being fear and weakness regarding the IDF. The accounts said things like, “I don’t feel safe in my home” and “The IDF has lost control of the situation.”9 In another case, Emanuel Miller from Honest Reporting discovered a network of bots pretending to be Israelis fleeing the country.10
Tensions began to rise in Israel after a video of an Arab slapping a Haredi man on the Jerusalem light rail went viral.11 The original video, posted April 15, was eventually taken down by TikTok, but people continued re-uploading it to evade removal. The caption on this re-upload translates to, “You will continue to delete, and I will continue to upload. It’s either the Palestinian people or you.” It is argued that this video sparked a trend of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews being recorded and posted online. Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, referred to the phenomenon as the “TikTok Intifada.”12
On May 10, a video from within Gaza during the airstrikes went viral with 47 million views. It depicts a Palestinian running through the street as bombs go off in the distance.13 Most of the comments are anti-Israel, some with the hashtag “#FreePalestine.”
In the days before the cease-fire, Arab TikTok singer @Moezenindtb posted two videos under the hashtag #FreePalestine. In the first video, with over 21 million views,14 he sang about how Israelis need to “stand up, take your people with you, leave the children happy,” while displaying a slideshow of Palestinian children. The message that Israelis are guilty of making children in Gaza unhappy exonerates Hamas. Hamas fired rockets at Israel first, used its people as human shields, and killed at least eight Gazan kids with their own misfired rockets.
In the second video, with 34 million views,15 Moezenindtb displayed a map of Palestinian territory before 1948 and a current map of their territory. The main lyrics preached, “their [Palestinian] lands in decline using their [Israel’s] forces, do you call that human justice.”
Of course, this oversimplification that Israel stole Palestinian land contradicts historical records. When Israel was established, they accepted the land borders that were originally laid out. The Palestinians rejected the original borders and attacked Israel along with multiple Arab nations. This was not a one-sided land grab; Israel was attacked.
On the day Israeli police cleared the Temple Mount in Jerusalem of rioting Palestinians using tear gas and stun grenades, this post,16 viewed by millions, circulated on the front page of Reddit:
The 14-second video shows stun grenades going off with text saying, “Let the world and history witness there are bombs in Al-Aqsa Mosque. They are suffocating us in Al-Aqsa Mosque.” The post garnered 122,286 upvotes (likes) and 16,303 comments, most of which were anti-Israel. One commenter wrote, “I think Israel ran out of feeling bad for the holocaust fund.” There was little mention among commenters that Palestinians were stockpiling rocks in the Mosque and throwing them at Jews before the police intervened.
This post, featuring a tweet pointing out the disparity of deaths during the war, completely mischaracterizes the situation.17 This post was featured on the front page of Reddit and received over 50,000 upvotes. The top comment noted that the United States helps fund Israel and concluded that the United States should “defund Israel.”
The writer headlined the post with the idea that Israel is purposely targeting civilians and “mowing down people in the streets.” Then it mocks the media for calling the conflict “fighting” because the conflict is “completely one-sided.” It is as if there needs to be an equal amount of deaths for it to be considered fighting. The conflict is one-sided in the sense that Israel has the upper hand. However, one-sidedness implies that only one side is doing wrong. Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israel, and Israel retaliated.
American model Gigi Hadid, who boasts 67.2 million followers, uploaded this post on May 11, 2021.18 It received over 3 million likes. The image of the text argues that people cannot advocate for other injustices like LGBT and women’s rights, yet choose to ignore the “oppression” of Palestinians. Her post disregards the fact that same-sex activity in Gaza is punishable by up 10 years in prison, and women there frequently face discrimination and violence.19
This Instagram post20 is a possible example of third-party promotion. The account, VPS_Reports, is an obscure leftist pro-Palestinian user who averages about 1,000 likes per post, with an occasional post that will get up to 5,000 likes. It is suspicious that this pro-Palestinian post somehow exploded to over 130,000 likes. It is also possible that the likes were organic (naturally occurring; without manipulation). Third-party promotion is impossible to track, as the information is not public. Either way, the post is manipulating information to falsely frame Israel as a terrorist army. Israel responded to rocket attacks from Hamas as any country would, with military retaliation. While Hamas fires thousands of rockets with the specific intent to kill civilians, Israel never targets civilians. The uneven death count is because Hamas places military installations in heavily populated areas, effectively using its citizens as human shields.
A video of a Sheikh Jarrah resident getting evicted by Israeli authorities got 2.4 million views.21 It falsely claimed the resident was “attacked and kicked out” rather than evicted under court order. Much of the comments were sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative. One comment read, “They’re making a big mistake, the world’s watching.”22
Al Jazeera tweeted two days after the cease-fire on May 23, 2021, that Jewish settlers and police had “stormed” the Al-Aqsa Mosque.23 In truth, 50 Jews peacefully visited the Temple Mount while escorted by police for their own protection. Al Jazeera later removed the tweet.
Video media is one of the most powerful ways to influence people. For example, seeing footage from the conflict is far more compelling and emotional than reading about it. This appeal has led to YouTube becoming one of the top platforms for news, with 23 percent of Americans regularly getting their news from YouTube.24
Among the top videos on the 2021 Gaza War, one does not have to look far to find bias against Israel. Boasting over 5.5 million views, a South China Morning Post video shows father Mohammad al-Hadidi holding his only surviving son from an Israeli airstrike.25 In the video, it is asserted that Israel claims it gives prior warning for residents to evacuate, but Mohammad al-Hadidi’s family received no such warning. This implies that Israel is lying about warning civilians. In reality, Israel warns civilians when destroying dwellings or facilities where civilians may be present, but, for terrorists, there is no obligation under international law to give advance warning.26 In the case of Mohammad al-Hadidi, senior Hamas officials were in his family’s apartment building.27 The video does not mention any of this and portrays Israel as deliberately targeting civilians.
Another widely circulated video during the war was by entertainer Trevor Noah from The Daily Show.28 Noah acknowledged the complex nature of the conflict and chose not to get into an argument about who is right or wrong. But he proceeded to contradict his point by focusing on proportionality and whether there is a fair fight. He implied that Israel was in the wrong for using a disproportionate level of force. Noah argued that Israel, being the stronger power, had a responsibility to respond in a different way. He asked, if someone has a knife, should the police shoot him? He claimed that police in the United Kingdom do everything in their power to avoid shooting attackers. However, if that attacker is stabbing and killing people, intending to kill more – like Hamas does – shooting them is an appropriate response. Should the United States not have gone to war against ISIS despite the great power difference? ISIS had no chance of defeating the United States, but the issue was their wanton murder of innocent lives. Hamas is like ISIS in that they both have little power to defeat advanced countries, yet they must be dealt with harshly because they kill and will purposely kill innocent civilians; whether they kill 1 or 100, it is unacceptable.
With six million internet views and counting, Vice’s “Inside the Battle for Jerusalem” portrays a one-sided, on-the-ground look at the conflict. Its video masquerades as an objective documentary while failing to provide context. The reporter claimed that Israeli police entered the Al Aqsa Mosque, which “triggered” the protests. She leaves out that Palestinians had been stockpiling and throwing rocks before the police entered.
Context is also left out in discussing the Sheikh Jarrah property dispute in Jerusalem. The reporter misleadingly states, “Israel claims Jews historically owned this land.” This makes the situation appear to be a dispute in which both sides claim ownership. In reality, Sheikh Jarrah was legally owned and inhabited by Jews from 1872 to 1948 when they were evicted by the conquering Arab force of Transjordan. Palestinian refugees were then allowed to move in by Jordan’s Commissioner for Enemy Property. Some Palestinians paid rent and others did not.29 Even some Palestinians agree that a Jewish organization owns the properties.30 The video also demonizes Israel, calling their retaliation against Hamas “disproportionate” and accusing Israel of “leveling apartment buildings and newsrooms.”
To the contrary, Israel carried out a surgically precise bombing campaign, doing everything in its power to avoid unnecessary loss of life.31 The director of UNRWA’s office in Gaza even stated that Israeli strikes were “precise” and “sophisticated.”32
Recruitment on Facebook
Some 36 percent of Americans regularly get their news from Facebook, which was not spared from the social media war. In this post,33 the user compares the Israel hashtag and the #GazaUnderAttack hashtag’s count and encourages people to continue to fight the “biggest cyber and media wars of your life.” The implication of the comparison is to continue the “fighting” by posting more pro-Palestinian propaganda to drown out the facts about Israel. This reflects the guerrilla nature of the war, unconcerned with posting facts but rather with posting the most. In Orwellian fashion, the goal is to repeat a lie enough so that it becomes truth.
A video of two soccer players boldly bringing the Palestinian flag onto the playing field received 159,000 likes and 1.6 million views.34 The influence of celebrities like sports players advocating for a cause can be powerful to fans who hold them in high regard.
Another video that received 2 million views broke down the conflict and its history using misleading and false narratives.35 The video was disseminated by the pro-Palestinian organization OnePath Network based in Australia, a group with over two million followers. In summary, the video claims that Jews stole Israel from the Palestinians and concludes that the issue is “not complicated.”
Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that allows anyone to edit and add information. The procedure to secure editorial approval is arduous, and there is no guarantee that the editor will be granted access in the future.36 Over the period of two decades, the page on the Second Intifada was edited more than 4,500 times.37 Editing wars have led Wikipedia to lock contentious articles to public editors, leaving only editors with a certain level of experience to participate.38 While there is a mix of pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian editors, it appears the pro-Palestinian editors have moved to the lead. In a sentence-by-sentence analysis of 50 Arab-Israeli articles, The Israel Group found that anti-Israel content was more than double the anti-Palestinian content.39 Inspecting for pro-Palestinian bias in Wikipedia articles requires vigilance.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian social media war is characterized by the guerrilla, asymmetrical nature of attacks. Activists can warp events, images, and videos around their agenda without any accountability. Typical print and broadcast media are centralized in different organizations, creating a situation where publishers, editors, and columnists are held accountable. By contrast, social media is decentralized, bordering on chaos. Users can post unabated comments, insults, racism, and lies even after agreeing to follow the terms and guidelines of the platform. And if the user is caught, he or she can appeal or just create a new persona. In this environment, herd mentality fueled by emotion trumps truth and reason. Posts with the most likes and views are propelled to the spotlight regardless of veracity.
William Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, “The empty vessel makes the loudest sound.”40
The “loudest” voices on social media, full of false claims and misinformation, are empty vessels that must be scrutinized with a skeptical eye.
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3 A Sock-Puppet Account Poses as a third party to circumvent the rules and manipulate public opinion.
4 Bots – Partially or fully autonomous accounts that post, like or comment based on their programming.
5 Fake Identity Account – any account that has a false name, i.e., bots, sock-puppet accounts