columnIsrael at War

The real source of Hamas war disinformation

“The New York Times” claims that Israel used fake social-media accounts to influence Congress. But it’s the corporate media that continues to spread lies about the war.

Hamas places rocket-launching sites next to schools in the Gaza Strip. The Mo’ath Bin Jabal middle school educates hundreds of Palestinian children and is also a U.N. shelter for local residents. Image from Dec. 14, 2022. Credit: Courtesy.
Hamas places rocket-launching sites next to schools in the Gaza Strip. The Mo’ath Bin Jabal middle school educates hundreds of Palestinian children and is also a U.N. shelter for local residents. Image from Dec. 14, 2022. Credit: Courtesy.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If the story is true, then it’s a scandal. But even if the reporting of The New York Times and the leftist NGO source for the article about Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs creating fake social-media accounts to influence the U.S. Congress is accurate, what’s outrageous is the newspaper’s attempt to portray the Jewish state as the main source of disinformation about the war it is waging against Hamas in Gaza.

If it were interested in highlighting the places where the overwhelming majority of the lies and distortions about the conflict were found, then the Times would do far better to investigate its own reporting and that of most of its corporate liberal media colleagues than this small-scale operation. And if the newspaper’s editors were truly concerned about misleading propaganda campaigns aimed at deceiving Americans about the cause and conduct of the war, then they might devote more space to probing how a vast network of blatantly anti-Zionist and antisemitic groups have helped flood social media with the denial of Hamas atrocities and the terrorists’ intentions, as well as lies about Israel.

The piece, which led the Times’ website for a while this week, raised some serious questions about the judgment of some in the Israeli government, specifically in the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which categorically denied the allegations. It allegedly involved the ministry contracting with Stoic, a Tel Aviv-based political marketing firm, to create “hundreds of fake accounts that posed as real Americans on X, Facebook and Instagram to post pro-Israel comments.”

The point of the effort, which was said to use ChatGPT technology to create posts and also manufactured fake news sites containing pro-Israel articles, was to influence members of Congress to maintain support for the Jewish state. Among those targeted were African-American Democrats such as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), both supporters of Israel, as well as Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who is not.

A negligible effort

Even if we accept this as truth, the Times acknowledged that the scale of the project was relatively small, with the fake accounts only generating 40,000 followers across several social-media platforms. Since many of those were bots rather than humans, the scope of its influence was negligible. Though the expenditure amounted to $2 million (not very much when compared to most political or commercial campaigns), the money would appear to have largely been wasted.

But that didn’t stop the Times and its main source, Fake Reporter—an organization deeply hostile to Israel—from proclaiming that it put the Jewish state in the same category as “Iran, North Korea, China and Russia.” The newspaper did point out that U.S. intelligence plays a similar game when, as it often does, it seeks to intervene in the politics of other nations.

Still, no less a figure than Michael Oren, a widely respected historian who also served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, said he was appalled and asserted that if the story was true, it was “a flagrant violation of American law and an inappropriate interference in the internal politics of our most important ally.” Going further, he said that “the campaign causes strategic damage to the State of Israel in wartime. I call on the Government of Israel to immediately and thoroughly investigate the claim, to disassociate itself and denounce any such campaign, and to dismiss all the individuals involved.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli is the man in charge of the ministry in question. His relative lack of government experience might have led his ministry to make such a mistake. Chikli has been a strong and articulate voice pushing for a more vigorous conduct of the war, and a better information policy from within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. He’s also a particular target of Israel’s far-left.

Fake Reporter was founded by the so-called “Breaking the Silence” group, which has engaged in smears of the Israel Defense Forces and is bankrolled by the leftist New Israel Fund. That’s why many Israelis dismissed the accusation out of hand.

Chikli responded to Oren’s statement by saying there has been no engagement with the firm the Times said ran the operation. He also attacked Oren and noted that the former diplomat sits on a board that oversees such engagement at his ministry.

Nevertheless, Oren and others who care about Israel’s reputation aren’t wrong to take this seriously—and so should Netanyahu. Though the United States plays the same sort of games abroad, Israel is in no position to behave in the same manner. And if any of it rings true, it’s because it’s exactly the kind of hare-brained and ill-considered sort of project possible to imagine coming from well-meaning volunteers from the high-tech sector—who reportedly met in the aftermath of the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 with government bureaucrats to consider how they could best help Israel win the information war—cooking up as an emotional response to the barbaric attack on their country.

Israel-bashers were delighted by the way the Times story seemed to discredit all efforts to make the case for the Jewish state. However, if serious debate is on the table about disinformation being spread about the fighting in Gaza, a project to create fake accounts that relatively few people saw isn’t the place to start or finish.

The real disinformation machine

Let’s start by noting that while the methods of the alleged Israeli project were illegitimate, the information it sought to spread about what Hamas has done and the efforts that Israel has made to avoid civilian casualties even while pursuing a just war against a ruthless enemy that hides behind non-combatants was clearly true.

That doesn’t excuse the creation of fake accounts, but taken in perspective in the course of a war that began with the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, it hardly rises to the level of importance that the Times gave it. Indeed, anyone who is outraged about this project but not about the systematic rape, murder, kidnapping, torture and wanton destruction deliberately employed by Hamas on Oct. 7—or indifferent to the denial of those crimes and the way the terror group has lied about casualty figures—has no moral authority to judge even the most foolish Israeli effort to counter them.

Indeed, a genuine interest in disinformation about the war would lead honest observers to concentrate on something far more consequential when it comes to altering the nature of public discourse about the war. Namely, it’s the way that some of the most respected sources for news in the world, including the Times, The Washington Post, CNN, the BBC and The Guardian have spent the last eight months often acting as Hamas’s stenographers rather than independent journalists.

Indeed, within 24 hours of Times readers being fed a lurid story about Israelis creating fake social-media accounts, the newspaper was promoting the latest edition in a series of Hamas propaganda stories involving Israel bombing a U.N. school complex. As with a host of other stories about supposed Israeli atrocities in which Hamas accounts are taken at face value before being ultimately debunked, the media again accepted and published the Palestinian talking points about who was targeted by the Israeli airstrike and the nature of the casualties without verifying the facts. Here again, it was only after publishing stories about grief-stricken, innocent Palestinian civilians that most of the media then covered Israel’s assertion that the U.N. facility was being used by Hamas fighters as a place to hide and plan future attacks.

The Israel Defense Forces has tried to get ahead of such misinformation being spread by the media and to publish the facts about its efforts in real-time. But the demonstrated anti-Israel bias of outlets like the Times has translated into a willingness to take the mouthpieces of a genocidal terrorist group at their word while regarding anything that comes from a democratically-elected government and an armed forces that acts with a higher degree of ethics and transparency than other nations with skepticism. That means the Israelis are often forced to respond and explain why the initial stories were wrong after the distortions have already been widely spread in a way that makes it difficult if not impossible to counter.

The information war matters

The kerfuffle about fake media accounts matters because the information war about Gaza is a crucial element in the battle for American opinion. It is precisely the sort of lies about Israel wantonly attacking schools and hospitals or the vastly inflated Palestinian casualty statistics that are not only inaccurate but ignore the fact that it is likely that as many as half of those killed were terrorists, not noncombatants. Indeed, this same week, the Associated Press published a report that admitted that the exaggerated numbers of Palestinian women and children that it has been reporting as having been killed by Israel have been wrong all along. And it is this media campaign built on falsehoods that creates the pressure on Israel to end the war before Hamas is completely defeated or even before all of the remaining hostages are released, a point often left out of the conversation.

The pro-Hamas mobs on American college campuses and in the streets of our cities chanting their support for Israel’s destruction and spewing lies about “genocide” are being fueled not just by the toxic myths of critical race theory and intersectionality that are forced down the throats of students by leftist professors. The distortions of the mainstream media—aided by the lies promoted on social media by far-left antisemitic groups like Students for Justice for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace—have created a political environment in which President Joe Biden has adopted policies that will essentially ensure that Hamas wins the war it began on Oct. 7.

Those who rightly seek to counter these lies need to understand that they will be under far more scrutiny than those who promote the fake narratives that rationalize and justify Hamas atrocities, and that seek to delegitimize everything Israel does and act accordingly. Still, the effort to divert the world from the massive propaganda campaign that has been undertaken to falsely claim that Israel is guilty of “genocide” or “apartheid” does not alter the truth about who is really spreading disinformation about Gaza.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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