Countering misinformation during Israel’s war with Hamas
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Israel at WarIsrael and the Jewish community battles to amplify the truth

Countering misinformation during Israel’s war with Hamas

False narratives, misinformation and lies often crowd the media landscape.

This photo distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on Nov. 28, 2023, shows Israeli troops maintaining positions in the Gaza Strip, amid a temporary ceasefire (Israel Defense Forces)
This photo distributed by the Israel Defense Forces on Nov. 28, 2023, shows Israeli troops maintaining positions in the Gaza Strip, amid a temporary ceasefire (Israel Defense Forces)

Have you heard about Israel’s purported use of white phosphorus bombs in its war against Hamas? Maybe you’ve read about its intentional targeting of hospitals or read social media posts arguing that the country is an apartheid and/or colonizing state.

Or have you turned on a cable news station and heard talking heads make false equivalencies between innocent Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners who committed violent acts, including murder?

Misinformation and lies against the Jewish people and the state of Israel are as old as the blood libel. Of course, when that canard was born in the 10th century, there wasn’t Facebook and TikTok.

Kim Salzman, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Israel and overseas operations, is frustrated by some mainstream media outlets. She said she’s troubled when they take Hamas at its word, and she takes particular umbrage at reports of the number of civilians killed by Israel based on information provided by Hamas.

“Why doesn’t the media question how many of them were actually terrorists?” she asked. “In Israel, we’re still counting our bodies a month and a half after the attack. So, when they [Hamas] claim they’re all civilians, how do they know that? Why don’t they question that number?”

Salzman, who lives in Israel, said that she seeks out information from both Israeli and American sources. Often, she said, the English language sources get information wrong in their attempt to break news.

“The best example of this is what happened at the hospital when The New York Times put a headline in its paper within minutes, alleging that Israel had bombed the hospital and 500 people were dead,” she said.

[On Oct. 17, The New York Times reported that Israel bombed a Gaza hospital, repeating an unverified Hamas claim. Israel eventually provided proof that the explosion was caused by an errant missile fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group.]

Israeli media, she said, verifies information through the Israel Defense Forces, which vets its data before reporting it.

Salzman also takes issue with some reporting about the exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

“They completely fail to mention that those released are convicted terrorists,” she said. “Many of them have been charged with attempted murder, some have been caught on camera stabbing Israelis in the head. They’re not innocent Palestinians who have been held in underground tunnels for 50 days with no access to the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) — unlike the Israelis, where it’s children and completely innocent civilians held hostage.”

Salzman is attempting to combat the misinformation by meeting with various people and groups, as well as publishing stories online and through news organizations like The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Federation’s Gefsky community scholar, is also using education to combat the false narratives about Israel being bandied about on social and mainstream media. He recently taught the course “Making the Case for Israel,” offering suggestions on how to counter misinformation. When the class was announced, more than 200 people registered.

Schiff recommends that, rather than take published claims about Israel at face value, people do the work of old-school journalists and verify the reports they’re watching or reading by checking sources. If that isn’t done, he said, people are only dealing with innuendo.

“That can be extremely damaging in a variety of ways,” he said. “Take it as your responsibility, to the best of your ability, to let people know the truth once it’s been verified.”

He doesn’t express much faith in social media to present the truth. Rather, he said, the various platforms encourage people to be set against each other and amplify prejudices.

Schiff wrote about social media in his book “Judaism in a Digital Age.”

“We live in an age where social media has made the dissemination of gossip, half-truths and sheer falsehoods virtually immediate,” Schiff said. “As a result, people believe things that, even when proven to not be true, they still hold on to them.”

The Federation scholar takes issue with the idea that Israel is bad at public relations or fails to get its message out.

“I think there’s something different going on,” he said. “I think there are those who are simply disinclined to pay attention to the reality of Israel’s message.”

Julie Paris, the Mid-Atlantic regional director of StandWithUs, said her organization prides itself on sharing verified facts in a nonpartisan way.

“Anyone who comes to us knows they can count on the information we’re sharing to be accurate,” she said.

As a result, that information may come out a few minutes later than other sources to ensure the reports are correct.

That’s different than some online influencers, like Gigi Hadid, who post something to social media and have their message amplified almost immediately to millions of followers, Paris explained. When Hadid gets something wrong, like she did when she claimed Israel kidnaps, rapes and tortures Palestinians, the message nevertheless is shared repeatedly.

“When they try to correct themselves, the message is already out there,” Paris said. “So, we know we’re working against the clock.”

While Israel is fighting an existential threat for its existence, Paris said, organizations like StandWithUs are fighting wars on social media, in local communities, on college campuses and high schools, using fact-based information that they encourage people to share.

Paris urges people to access information they know will be correct and from trusted media sources.

The Federation has set up a page on its website entitled “Take Action,” (jewishpgh.org/info/take-action), which provides information countering some of the false narratives about Israel, as well as other tools, such as links for contacting local elected figures and Schiff’s most recent class.

“There seems to be a huge appetite for people who are having conversations with friends, relatives and neighbors to be able to understand, at a relatively simple level, a complex topic,” said Adam Hertzman, the Federation’s marketing director.

And while the Federation, through its leadership and Community Relations Council, is talking with politicians and community organizations that may post or publish false narratives, it’s important that constituents reach out as well, Hertzman said.

“Narratives can be dangerous,” he said. “All American Jews seem to be blamed for the actions of the Israeli government like all American Muslims are blamed by some people for the actions of Hamas, which is a terrorist organization.”

Much of the Federation’s heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of the CRC and its existing relationships.

Laura Cherner, CRC director, said that how the council reacts when false narratives are amplified depends on the person or organization.

“Nine times out of 10, the recipient knows us and trusts us and understands that we are representing the Jewish community and, therefore, want to elevate our voice and take our concerns seriously,” she said.

Often, a combination of public and private outreach works best to combat misinformation, including letters to elected officials and letters to the editor of local papers.

There’s a difference, Cherner said, between misinformation and willful antisemitic messaging and tropes. The latter should be reported to the police and the Federation. The Anti-Defamation League, she said, can be a useful resource for activities and rhetoric that cross the line into antisemitism.

When it comes to possible false narratives in the media, “We always have to be wary about the source of information,” Schiff said.

“Israel is a democracy with multiple fact-checkers looking into what’s going on and many lawyers who track the activities of the IDF,” he said. “Israel is not well served lying to the public. The same cannot be said for terrorist groups who are totalitarian and secretive in their operations. So, to pretend, as it seems to me much of the world does, that you should take these two sides as if they are equally credible is to fundamentally misunderstand the structure of where the information is coming from. And that is highly problematic.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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