Even when unintentional, experts say amplifying false information during a time of conflict can have dire consequences.
As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, fact-checkers have stressed the need to be careful when recirculating photos and videos seen on social media that purport to illustrate the violence on the ground.
In many cases, users of online platforms have unknowingly shared images posted by others that later turned out to be faked or misidentified. Even when unintentional, experts say amplifying false information during a time of conflict can have dire consequences.
Here is what you need to know before clicking the Repost button.
How is misinformation playing a role in social media imagery shared during the war?
Angie Holan, director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ International Fact-Checking Network, said the Israel-Hamas war “has generated a significant amount of misinformation.”
In one case, a viral post shared on X, formerly known as Twitter, claimed an attached image depicting the bodies of at least eight children showed victims of a “child genocide in Palestine” — before later being identified as a photo taken in Syria a decade earlier.
“When you’re talking about any sort of breaking news event, we often see things like out-of-context photos, photos that were actually taken years ago and are presented as recent. That’s a very common form of misinformation,” said Holan.
“We see video game footage presented as actual military footage, and so forth.”
Musician Justin Bieber faced backlash for a now-deleted Instagram post in solidarity with Israel that mistakenly used a photo of destruction in Gaza.
Jeffrey Dvorkin, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and former managing editor of CBC Radio, said internet culture has allowed for the easy sharing of images without verification.
“The story is so powerful and so emotional for so many people,” said Dvorkin, who authored the 2021 book “Trusting the News in a Digital Age.”
“The imagery is so compelling that people feel the need to do what is called bias confirmation. People share images that confirm their own biases, whether it’s on one side or the other. Without verifying where that information comes from, people are increasingly angered and confused.”
Who should be trusted?
Rather than endlessly scrolling on your favourite social media app, Holan recommends seeking out a reputable news source to directly consume more comprehensive coverage.
But with breaking news coverage, patience is key. She said readers should keep in mind that “more reporting may change the narrative” as events unfold.
“As we see in war, it often takes hours, or days, for even the best news organizations to verify accounts,” Holan said.
One recent example illustrating this was an explosion at a Gaza hospital, for which Hamas blamed Israel while the state denied involvement.
“There were assumptions made about who is responsible that have been proven questionable and I think that’s very common with breaking news events. Sometimes it takes time to verify who did what and when,” said Holan.
Dvorkin added there is an onus on news outlets to be accountable for the information they publish, whether on their own platforms or when sharing on websites like X or Facebook.
Failure to verify information before reporting it, or to be transparent about sourcing, could end up fuelling further distrust of media.
“The whole issue now seems to be, ‘Where does this come from? How do you know?'” he said.
“We need to make sure that mainstream news organizations are providing reliable information and telling the public how they discovered this. Was it through their own reporting? Did they find it through a trusted source that they found reliable?”
What common mistakes do social media users make?
Holan said many users fall victim to the common practice of being “too quick to share,” especially when it comes to photos or videos of violence.
“Any image that elicits a strong emotional reaction, you should be cautious about,” she said, especially if the source isn’t clear.
Dvorkin said there’s an obligation on every individual to make sure that what they’re seeing is verifiable before helping it gain traction. But he said that often doesn’t happen.
“There’s so much stuff that comes through our smartphones and through our desktops and laptops that we don’t even have the time to do a proper triage, especially if we are not in the media business.”
But Dvorkin said a healthy dose of skepticism can help to avoid these pitfalls.
“As citizens, we need to take a step back and say, ‘Well, where does this come from?'” he said. “And it obliges media organizations to say, ‘We’re not going to share this until we know more about it.”
Has the problem gotten worse?
Dvorkin said he believes misinformation on social media has never been more rampant.
“It’s gotten worse because the internet has become so much more widespread,” he said.
“There is so much information out there. Some of it’s true and some of it’s not true. People are being pushed into kind of emotional responses because the story is indeed very emotional, but sometimes the effect of that is to demonize the other.”
But Holan said she remembers a time when the problem was even harder to deter, pointing to the infancy of social media when “we were still having to develop tactics for dealing with (misinformation) for the first time.”
“Among the platforms, there’s more awareness about it and some of them have taken steps to address misinformation,” she said.
“I think the general public has a better awareness that some of the things they might see on social media or on the internet might not be true. So I do think that we have a few more defences against misinformation.”
What else can people do to ensure they’re sharing verified information?
Another advantage that readers have compared with the early days of social media is that there are tools anyone — whether a journalist or ordinary citizen — can use.
Like many websites that specialize in reverse image searches, Google now allows users to check when a photo first surfaced on the internet.
“These are some of the tools that professional fact-checkers themselves use,” said Holan.
While it may seem to the average user like that’s somebody else’s responsibility, Holan said we all need to be careful.
“We don’t talk a lot about what it means to be an informed citizen, or what that standard should look like,” she said.
“How informed do I want to be? How much effort am I willing to put into being an informed person? I think those are personal and ethical questions that everyone needs to answer for themselves.”
— With files from The Associated Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2023.
Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press