Beheaded Babies. Verifying truth in a war zone
"War is not a game for retweets and likes on social media."
Last night I was watching CNN and heard a someone describing the Hamas attacks on a Kibbutz referencing 40 beheaded babies. After the interview concluded Cooper said the claim had not yet been independently verified.
Later on air, Cooper asked CNN correspondent Nic Robertson about the assertion. Robertson told him a general at the Kibbutz had confirmed that, “babies were killed. He said that heads were cut off. He didn’t say of whom, of what age or what gender and we didn’t see anybody with their heads cut off and we didn’t see any babies with their heads cut off.” He added that Hamas was however executing people that way.
Then this morning, I saw a clip of a Fox News reporter following Rep. Rashida Tlaib down a corridor repeatedly asking for comments about, “Hamas terrorists chopping off babies' heads.”
There is clearly no debate on the atrocities inflicted by Hamas on Israelis this week, and you might say who cares about the precise specifics given the horror, but I wondered how reporters might verify such claims.
Fox News and many others referenced the information from an Israeli outlet @i24newsEnglish which shared on X, formerly Twitter, that 40 babies had been butchered (on October 10.) The i24news’ online story references, “40 babies and young children,” taken out on gurneys from the town of Kfar Aza.
Marc Owen Jones, the author of “Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East,” noted on X that the i24news, “40 babies” post got 25 million views and was shared by author JK Rowling’s account with 13.9 million followers.
Other outlets needed more evidence before repeating the claims.
Chief International Correspondent for The Independent newspaper Bel Trew deleted a post on X, that appeared to back-up the reporting. “I just wanted to clarify that I did not tweet 40 babies had been beheaded. I tweeted that foreign media had been told women and children had been decapitated but we had not been shown bodies - which was my response to reports which had gone viral about the 40 babies.” Her tweet is here.
Sky News host, Anna Botting, said the Comcast owned broadcaster hadn’t been able to verify the information despite asking Israel’s IDF for confirmation three times. You can see that discussion on Sky News last night here and a list of the media outlets that shared the claim.
War reporters know they must try to bear witness to what they are reporting in war zones, and also attempt to corroborate official statements by either side. No easy task. Even columnists far from the action can repeat claims that their editors decide need more evidence.
The LA Times appended a note to an October 9 column that described rapes, stating: “An earlier version of this column mentioned rape in the attacks, but such reports have not been substantiated.”
For news consumers, figuring out reality has become even harder with the tumult at X. Wired has a good story on the disinformation problem drowning out reality. “This is the hardest time I’ve ever had covering a crisis on here,” Justin Peden, a disinfo researcher, told the outlet. “Credible links are now photos. On the ground news outlets struggle to reach audiences without an expensive blue check mark. Xenophobic goons are boosted by the platform’s CEO. End times folks.”
The BBC’s Verify division is a good place to see a list of what’s being debunked. The corporation’s Shayan Sardarizadeh identifies all kinds of fake content including clips from video games being passed off as Israel/Gaza region news. One TikTok of a video game masquerading as war footage has been shared 3.5 million times. This isn’t just an Elon Musk problem. How many fact checkers is TikTok employing?
If you’re keeping up with disinformation discussions, corporate tracking company Creopoint has lifted the paywall to let anyone see links to questionable content surrounding the Israel/Hamas war, here.
Meanwhile the EU is demanding X owner Elon Musk get control of the fake news flood. Here’s the letter from the EU’s Thierry Breton complaining about violations. It prompted an intriguingly transparent back and forth between the two men yesterday with Musk asking the commissioner to detail the infringements.
Clearly fed up with the mess, BBC’s Sardarizadeh, wrote on X, “War is not a game for retweets and likes on social media.”