The Israel-Hamas war has received a lot of attention on social media, with Meta and TikTok currently under the microscope of American and European officials. But X, the social network acquired by Elon Musk in October 2022, is the most worrying case. Misinformation on the network erupted within minutes of the attack on October 7, 2023, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving.
The collaborative approach of Community Notes – small fact-checking texts written by volunteer contributors – has almost entirely replaced the moderation staff that Musk dismissed at the end of 2022. Once seen as an innovative experiment in moderation, Community Notes has been denounced by several of its contributors and former employees of the company due to a variety of shortcomings and an inability to deal effectively with misleading content.
Community Notes are vulnerable to manipulation or being used for misinformation purposes. Groups can coordinate to vote “for” or “against” certain Community Notes as a way of controlling how fact-checking is directed. WIRED‘s analysis of unpublished notes also reveals the information warfare taking place within the system itself. Several contributors are fanning the flames by spreading conspiracy theories through the notes.
Elon Musk has also been accused of exacerbating the fog of information surrounding the Israel-Hamas war. On October 8, 2023, the billionaire recommended two X accounts known to have spread fake content, @WarMonitors and @sentdefender. Although the tweet has since been deleted, it was believed to have been seen 11 million times in less than three hours.
In addition to the failings of the fact-checking system, the platform’s design and its algorithm for ranking posts have also come in for criticism. A study by American firm NewsGuard has shown that 74% of viral false posts on the Israel-Hamas war were shared by Premium account users. Thanks to their little blue checkmark, Premium users’ content is more visible on the platform and is not always cross-checked and verified.
On October 12, 2023, the European Union opened an investigation into X’s compliance with the DSA (Digital Services Act), which aims to promote safer online environments for Internet users. In the event of non-compliance, offending platforms risk fines of up to 6% of their annual worldwide turnover.
Uncovering the truth amid chaos: “Mission Impossible”?
While the Israel-Hamas war rages on, there is greater demand for information on this issue than what is on offer. This creates an opportunity for many players looking for public notoriety and/or financial gains from misinformation.
The torrent of misleading narratives has even found its way into the speeches of top politicians. For example, US President Joe Biden said he was horrified by images showing Israeli children being decapitated by Hamas. A short while later, the White House retracted the statement. Not only did the President seemingly not verify this information independently, but he may not have even seen these images.
Politicians are not the only ones having trouble uncovering the truth about the war. Global news outlets renowned for their reliability, such as the British news agency Reuters and the American daily The New York Times, reported the fake news that Israeli rockets had targeted a hospital in Gaza.
Even the OSINT group Bellingcat, renowned for its ability to debunk misinformation, has not been able to formally identify who was behind the strike, whose number of casualties has yet to be verified. At the time of writing, French intelligence services and US news agency Associated Press were reporting that the strike was probably caused by a Palestinian missile.