The war between Israel and Hamas has given rise to a cornucopia of misinformation and disinformation on social media — especially with Elon Musk’s mean, shrunken version of X/Twitter doing little to screen out the worst stuff. But we should keep in mind that several dangerously wrong stories have been reported or amplified by mainstream news sources and political figures.
The most significant is the explosion at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, a disaster that has reportedly claimed hundreds of lives. Palestinian officials immediately blamed the blast on an Israeli rocket attack and, in the absence of any independent verification, news outlets were quick to report that claim as though it were fact. I’ll use The New York Times as an example, but it was hardly alone. According to the Internet Archive, the Times homepage published a headline on Tuesday at 2:25 p.m. that said, “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say.” Over the next hour or so, a subhead appeared saying that Israel was urging “caution.” Then, finally, at 3:46 p.m., came a subhead that stated, “Israelis Say Misfired Palestinian Rocket Was Cause of Explosion.” (I’m using the time stamps from the Times’ live blog rather than the Internet Archive’s.)
The Times’ evolution played out on Threads as well. Threads posts are not time-stamped, and at the moment this says only “one day ago,” though it was clearly posted sometime in the afternoon on Tuesday: “Breaking News: An Israeli airstrike hit a Gaza hospital on Tuesday, killing at least 200 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which said the number of casualties was expected to rise.” A short time later: “Update: At least 500 people were killed by an Israeli airstrike at a Gaza hospital, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.” Then, finally: “Update: The Israeli military said its intelligence indicated that a rocket that malfunctioned after it was launched by a Palestinian armed group was responsible for the explosion that killed hundreds of people at a Gaza City hospital.”
Now, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the weight of the evidence suggests that Israeli officials are correct in asserting that the missile was actually fired by Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas, and that it accidentally damaged the hospital. BBC News reported Wednesday that the evidence is “inconclusive” but added: “Three experts we spoke to say it is not consistent with what you would expect from a typical Israeli air strike with a large munition.” The independent investigative project Bellingcat cited a tweet by Marc Garlasco, a war-crimes investigator, who said, “Whatever hit the hospital in #Gaza it wasn’t an airstrike.”
The problem is that the initial incautious reports by the Times and other mainstream media, quoting Palestinian statements as though they were fact, clearly created a public narrative that Israel had committed a horrific war crime by bombing a hospital and killing hundreds of people. Indeed, two Muslim members of Congress, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar, tweeted out the original unverified report.
Two other examples:
• The claim that Hamas terrorists beheaded Israeli babies has become so widespread that President Biden repeated it several days ago, and even appeared to say that he had seen photographic evidence. The White House had to walk that back. But though Hamas acted brutally in slaughtering civilians and taking hostages, no evidence has emerged for that particular incendiary assertion. The fact-checking website Snopes reports: “As we looked into the claim, we found contradictory reports from journalists, Israeli army officials, and almost no independent corroborations of the alleged war crime, leading to concerns among fact-checkers that such a claim may be premature or unsubstantiated.”
• There remains no evidence beyond an initial report by The Wall Street Journal that Iran was directly involved in planning and approving Hamas’ attack on Israel. This was an especially dangerous assertion since it could have led to a wider war — and still could if the Journal’s story ends up being true. At the moment, though, it appears that the Journal’s reliance on Hamas and Hezbollah sources were spreading misinformation, perhaps deliberately. Indeed, Max Tani of Semafor reported earlier this week that the Journal’s own Washington bureau had raised “concerns about the story” before it was published.
Correction: This post originally said that the hospital had been “obliterated,” but the evidence suggests that the damage fell well short of that.