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International Fact-Checking Day: Fighting Disinformation During a Genocide

Eman Hillis Eman Hillis
2nd April 2024
International Fact-Checking Day: Fighting Disinformation During a Genocide
Al-Shifa hospital massacre is a result of the neglect of the world (Getty)

On October 7, at dawn, I had just finished fact-checking two widely shared claims on social media, confirmed that my students submitted the presentation files they were about to present that day, and went to bed to have 4 hours of sleep. Two hours later, I was woken up by the sound of bombs. It was Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.

In the first hours of the operation, and after Hamas and other resistance groups in the Gaza Strip declared the operation, fake news, and propaganda started extensively circulating everywhere. Images of Palestinian women were falsely depicted as Israeli hostages. Claims of rape and beheading of children were on every corner on social media. Video game clips, conspiracy theories, and old news reports were spread in enormous volumes at great speed.

As every Gazan fact-checker, I took an oath to reveal every misleading and fake news posted on social media whether it was about Palestine or Israel. However, Israel cut off electricity supply to Gaza. It became tough and even impossible for me to do my duty.

My colleagues faced the same thing. Although there were journalists who hardly managed to do their work, the voice of journalists was not as loud as it should be during a war of this scale. Many journalists have evacuated and their homes were targeted, or their families were killed. Israel even targeted the journalists themselves claiming that Hamas coerced them.

The Upsurge Of Fake News During the Gaza War

In the absence of the strong voice of journalists and the constant coverage of the war, the fake and misleading news coming from Israel circulated extensively everywhere, even among the Gazans who did not have proper access to the internet.

Israel seized the war to post fake news that was adopted by some leaders and agencies based on no evidence. When these claims go viral, they affect the war, and they affect our lives. Fake news can actually kill people.

The Baptist Hospital Massacre 

When the Baptist Hospital was targeted in October, it was circulating everywhere that the missile was Palestinian, not Israeli. Many Israeli media outlets and accounts blamed the Palestinian resistance factions for the attack. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli Forces spokesman, claimed that the Islamic Jihad movement was accountable for the attack.

I was traumatized by the thought of this, aware that this mess in the news would just severely harm us in all aspects. At that time, I had difficulty getting internet access. I could not confirm the viral claim. I turned on the radio searching for news channels covering the matter, but there were no signals.

I tried to call my cousin Zainab, who lives near the Baptist Hospital, multiple times until she finally answered. "Those are just trying to cover their crime up," she said. "The missile was too powerful. It is nothing like the resistance rockets."

Indeed, the missile that targeted the Baptist Hospital was nothing like the resistance rockets. When I got internet access, I hurried to confirm the source of the missile. Watching videos social media users and investigative media outlets provided for the bombardment, it turned out that the bomb was an American JDAM bomb supplied to Israel by the United States.

The coverage of major international media and newspapers was noticeably biased toward the Israeli narrative regarding this heinous tragedy. The New York Times was one of the papers that rushed to upload a note after Israel denied its responsibility for the bombardment, stating that the editors in the previous article about the bombardment "relied too heavily on claims by Hamas." The newspaper in its original report carried the headline: Israeli strike kills hundreds in hospital, Palestinians say." Hours later, the headline changed to this: "At least 500 dead in strike on Gaza Hospital, Palestinians say," which eventually changed to "At least 500 dead in blast at Gaza Hospital, Palestinians say."

The Wall Street Journal, in its initial report on the massacre, wrote that "Israeli airstrike on Gaza Hospital kills more than 500, Palestinian officials say." Four hours later, the headline changed to "Strike on Gaza Hospital kills more than 500, Palestinian officials say," adding that U.S. President Joe Biden was "deeply saddened by the explosion."

Many Palestinians believe that the tolerance the media showed towards the bombing of The Baptist Hospital normalized the Israeli violations in Gaza hospitals, paving the way for Israel to consider hospitals as battlegrounds. For Palestinians, the routine storms to Al- Shifa hospital are a main result of the deliberate neglect the world showed towards Israel’s massacre in The Baptist Hospital.

Gazans Fake Their Deaths

Whenever a video or a photo of a Gazan who has just lost their family circulates on social media platforms, users start to claim that the scene is staged or the dead bodies are dolls. It was viral from the very beginning of the war until now.

Some newspapers even shared this kind of disinformation and amplified these claims. In an article, the Jerusalem Post, an influential Israeli newspaper, once shared a photo of a Gazan family mourning their baby Muhammad Hani al-Zahar who was suffering from rigor mortis. The paper claimed that the baby was a doll. After a backlash, the paper removed the article from its website, saying on X (formerly Twitter) that the report "was based on faulty sourcing."

Behind the scenes of movies and ads were widely shared alleging that the actors are Palestinians staging their deaths. Real videos of people mourning their family members were shared and alleged to be from Pallywood, a disparaging combination of "Palestine" and "Hollywood." For the audience, the suffering of Palestinians is questionable and needs to be fact-checked.

During previous Israeli wars on Gaza in 2014, 2018, and 2021 the word "Pallywood" consistently peaked at either 9,500 or 13,000 mentions in a single month on X. After a month of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the number of mentions peaked at 220,000 in November.

A supporting image within the article body
"Pallywood" mentions the previous Israeli wars on Gaza. Source: Brandwatch

I know one of the women who lost her baby and social media users claimed that her baby was just a doll. The very existence of her one and only baby, who she had suffered too much to give birth to, was denied by Israel. Her tears were seen as acting. Every day I sit and imagine myself as one of those women.

The Myth of a "Safe Zone" in Gaza

Nothing of the viral claims could be compared to the "safe zone" claims, which threatened our lives greatly, killed thousands of civilians, and caused permanently serious injuries for tens of thousands.

At the beginning of this war, Israeli planes threw leaflets warning the people in the north of the Strip to evacuate immediately to the south claiming that it would be safe for civilians, warning "whoever chooses not to leave north Gaza to the south might be identified as an accomplice in a terrorist organization."

I was among the thousands of those who have risked journeys through the blasted landscape of destroyed buildings and corpses and evacuated to the south, to eventually become an eyewitness of the massacres committed at all of the areas that were identified as "safe zones." In the south, we were struggling to find bread, water, covers, and medicine. The Israeli strikes were not very different from those in the north. The percentage of martyrs in the South reached 42% of the martyrs in the Gaza Strip after a month of declaring it as a safe zone.

Two months later, Israel declared that Khan Younis, a city in the south, was a "dangerous combat zone." Instead, Al-Mawasi, a 1km-wide-14km-long land in northern Khan Younis, was declared a "safe zone." I escaped the severe bombs in Khan Younis to Al-Mawasi to find it a desert land. There was no water or enough food. It was anything but safe. Soon, Israel attacked the overcrowded area of Al-Mawasi without prior notice. Dozens of Israeli soldiers stormed with a severe cover of missiles into Al-Khair Hospital and Al-Aqsa University, where thousands of people were sheltering, committing horrible massacres. Back then, we did not have any safe corridor to escape. The tanks were coming from everywhere. We barely made it alive, not taking a single thing with us but our souls.

Al-Mawasi was not the only area declared safe and then targeted by the IOF. Rafah city, which is the most populated area of evacuees in the south, was targeted severely and even stormed by the IOF when Israel rescued two Israeli hostages leading to the killing of 74 Palestinians.

Israel uses the term "safe zone" just to disclaim its responsibility before the world, convincing the audience that it had done what it should towards innocent civilians while targeting that very safe zone without providing a safe corridor to escape or even prior notice.

Fake News Affects Our Lives

This war started based on fake and unverified claims like the rape of Israeli women, which was not based on any evidence, and the 40 beheaded babies that no one saw. These unverified claims were used to garner global opinion, to dehumanize Palestinians showing them as savages who rape women and behead babies, and to portray Palestinians as warmongers who are always thirsty for blood and can not accept peace.

The sexual assault claim was used to justify and cover up the crimes of sexual assault that the Palestinian women were subjected to by Israeli soldiers. The 40 beheaded babies were used to justify the killing of 13,000 children in Gaza.

The events that took place on October 7, which is an armed resistance of a colonized state, were twisted, amplified, and used to justify the displacement of 1.7 million people, including me, to justify the destruction of 70% of the buildings in the Gaza Strip, including my home, and to justify the destruction and the blockade of the streets, including my street.

The effect does not stop with Palestinians in Gaza, it also affects the lives of those in the diaspora. The bombardment of unfettered news has caused the death of a 6-year-old Palestinian boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, in Illinois, U.S. He was stabbed 26 times by his landlord in response to the "escalating right-wing rhetoric on the Israel-Hamas war."

Much of the public worldwide is left confused or indoctrinated as they are caught up in a vacuum not being able to differentiate between truth and falsehood. Many media outlets just posted the Israeli claims on October 7 and did not glance at the crimes the Israelis committed and are still committing afterward. 

In Western media, Apartheid-Israel’s genocide of Palestinians and military occupation of historic Palestine is not made possible without the violent portrayal, criminalization, and condemnation of Palestinians as inherently subhuman "terrorists."

On the other hand, there is a type of misleading news circulating among Gazans that brings them hope. Every night, there is a loud applause and whistling celebrating the ceasefire. People read news about the truce negotiations on the internet and falsely think that there is a ceasefire.

When this started, I was telling the people around me there is no such thing in the news, in an attempt to quiet them down a bit, and keep them away from fake hope. Not long after, I realized that I was killing the slightest and the single hope they had. Gazans are already desperate. They are deprived of every happy feeling, deprived of thinking about their dreams, deprived of reminiscing about their past. Now I celebrate with them. When they ask me to confirm the news, I just reply with a hopeful "insha'Allah," and continue celebrating. At least, as we drown in negative fake news, we will hold on to these short joyful moments of fake hope.

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