After posting a video on X/Twitter supposedly showing armed Hamas fighters going to the homes of Israelis, Ian Miles Cheong wrote: “Imagine if this was happening in your neighbourhood, to your family”.
Except the video clearly showed Israeli police, according to a community note on the post.
But the video posted by Cheong, a right-wing commentator, was viewed, liked and shared on Twitter (the social network formerly known to have decent content moderation) over 50 million times and it’s still up (I won’t link to any war-related disinformation posts).
Another post – from an anonymous premium account – claimed that “the US is sending $8-billion worth of military aid to Israel” and attached a photoshopped statement from the White House as proof.
Except the White House never issued any such statement. The post obviously went viral amongst right-wing conspiracy theorists – who often seem to have an antisemitic prejudice to boot.
The Hamas invasion of Israel has been a test for Twitter’s handling of misinformation since Elon Musk bought it for $44bn last October; when he fired most of its staff, including the content moderation teams.
The world is paying the price for this short-sightedness with Twitter’s inability to handle the masses of disinformation.
One video circulating of supposed fighting was actually footage from a video game.
“It’s now almost impossible to tell what’s a fact, what’s a rumour, what’s a conspiracy theory, and what’s trolling,” conspiracy theory researcher Mike Rothschild told Bloomberg. “Musk’s changes haven’t just made X useless during a time of crisis. They’ve made it actively worse.”
Modern-day wars, as we have seen in the last decade and especially in Ukraine, are increasingly being watched by millions on social media. The Russian invasion of Ukraine (see Naledi Pandor, it’s not that hard to say) was a coming-of-age moment for TikTok – where footage of Russian missile attacks captivated millions of viewers.
Videos and images of horrific Hamas attacks have been all over Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. People accustomed to cat videos and cutesy family images are just as fixated with images of horror. Just as we were when Ukraine was invaded.
Twitter leaves content moderation up to you
The colourful early morning pierced by rockets flying, leaving their contrails behind them, are terrifying images I have seen everywhere – as much as the interceptor missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome trying to stop them. The regular bang of those interceptors has become a mortifying soundtrack to the relentless rocket strikes.
Mandy Weiner, the 702 radio host, highlighted these loud bangs as she sheltered in a stairwell in Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv in a surreal description of finding yourself in a warzone on a family holiday. She was visiting family in Israel and was catching her departing flight when the sirens sent everyone in the airport down to the bomb shelter.
Despite the rockets flying and that staccato soundtrack, planes were still landing and taking off – giving you a sense of some weird normality of the relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Social media is where we are now watching terrifying events being live-streaming in real-time. Over 50 million posts were made in the first few days, Twitter said. While it said, “a cross-company leadership group has assessed this moment as a crisis requiring the highest level of response” it also washed its hands by adding: “X believes that, while difficult, it’s in the public’s interest to understand what’s happening in real-time”.
Basically, you’re on your own to make sense of what is real and what is video game footage or the usual old images and footage being recycled for whatever new conflict has occurred.
“We keep telling people that it’s their job to wade through an ever-growing wave of misinformation that is increasingly indistinguishable from reality,” Centre for Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed told Bloomberg. His group is currently being sued by Musk.
As truly awful as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, Twitter washing its hands of responsibility is unforgivable – as is the South African government’s.
The EU’s stringent new digital legislation isn’t. It has already warned Musk over fake images related to Hamas – and can fine X as much as 6% of its global revenue or ban it from the EU altogether.
The EU’s response is likely to be the only meaningful consequence of Twitter’s disinformation free-for-all – but long after many millions more fake posts will spread disinformation and hate speech.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.