Israel-Gaza war: Verify before you publish

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In the midst of the Israel-Gaza conflict, battle for truth has intensified, raising concerns for both journalists and news consumers.

A telling example is a striking image, shared widely on social media, depicting figures glad in military attire, adorned with logos of prominent media organisations. These ‘gunmen’, form a firing squad, taking aim at a blindfolded young woman, with the word ‘TRUTH’ emblazoned across her body. The image, accompanied by a caption referencing an “evil media empire twisting the truth about the Palestinians,” portrays the notion that the media is eroding the concept of truth within this intricate conflict.

This image vividly portrays the challenge of discerning truth in the face of widespread disinformation surrounding the conflict. It also highlights the risks associated with the lack of stringent checks and verification in today’s media landscape. Misinformation, manifested through altered images, propaganda and conspiracy theories, pose a real threat.

False news, often referred to as ‘fake news’, has long plagued news consumers. It can be broadly categorised into two groups: deliberate fabrication of manipulation to sway public opinion, as seen in the Israel-Gaza conflict, and stories with inaccuracies stemming from factors like the race to break news, editorial oversights or sensationalism.

Crafted narratives, intentionally designed as propaganda, aim to evoke emotions and garner support for one side of the conflict. This poses a challenge to journalism as some outlets prioritise popularity over accuracy, a matter exacerbated by social media’s influential role.

A 2018 study in the journal, Science, underscores the magnitude of the issue, stating that “false news online spreads farther, faster, deeply and more broadly than the truth.” It notes that falsehoods are shared or reposted 70 percent more frequently than the truth.

A recent article by NPR spotlighted cases exemplifying this widespread problem. Among them, a viral video wrongly claims to depict a Hamas fighter downing an Israeli helicopter – it’s a clip from the video game Arma 3. Another video, seemingly showing an Israeli woman under attack in Gaza, was filmed in Guatemala in 2015. An unverified voice message on WhatsApp advises Israelis to stock up on cash, fuel and groceries. Fake accounts posing as a BBC journalist and the Jerusalem Post newspaper spread false information before being suspended.

Beyond the immediate risk of spreading misinformation, this trend raises a challenge for media organisations because it further erodes public trust in the media.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2023 underscores this trend, revealing a 2 percent point decline in trust in news across various media markets in the past year. This effectively reverses gains made during the Coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, a significant majority of news consumers, 56 out of every 100, now express apprehension about differentiating genuine news from fabricated online content. This represents a notable uptick from the preceding year.

This underscores the critical need for rigorous fact-checking and verification in news gathering. While reputable media outlets strive for thorough verification, the rapid dissemination of news in the digital age, coupled with the sheer volume of information, makes real-time fact-checking challenging endeavour. The rise of AI-generated content further complicates separating fact from fiction.

Reputable media outlets rigorously verify information, but the fast-paced and high-volume nature of news makes achieving complete certainty challenging. Every piece of information undergoes intense scrutiny from various viewpoints, and while errors can occur, verification is crucial to combat widespread misinformation.

BBC Verify, created to bolster audience trust by showcasing the accuracy of their reporting, stands out as a noteworthy endeavour. Nonetheless, it has drawn criticism from those who accuse it of unfair portrayal, especially within the emotionally charged context of the Israel-Gaza conflict.

Journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh, specialising in disinformation, extremism and conspiracy theories for BBC Monitoring, highlights the challenges the organisation faces. Since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, Sardarizadeh has debunked numerous misleading visuals on social media. He says that the sheer volume of content exceeds any human’s capacity for comprehensive monitoring, adding that verifying content is not always straightforward and is highly time consuming.

Various online resources and verification platforms exist to support journalists and fact-checkers in combating misinformation. Marianna Spring, the BBC’s disinformation and social media correspondent, offers practical tips to help journalists differentiate between genuine and fake information.

  • Seek clues: Examine details like weather conditions, time of day and geographical cues. Also, assess the quality of the footage, as some images might be digitally created.
  • Question the source: Check the source’s credentials and background. Look at their location, expertise, profession, and previous posts to uncover any potential biases or motives.
  • Identify bots: Spot potential fake accounts by looking for profiles that consistently share conflicting and divisive information. Keep in mind that confirming this can be challenging.
  • Check other shares: This helps determine if the content has been shared by others.
  • Image search: To verify an image or video, capture a screenshot and use a search engine to get more information about it.
  • Crisis actors: Watch out for some individuals who may have been paid to act out a tragedy.
  • Context: Seek information from reputable news sources and verify the content.
  • Comments: Don’t believe everything shared in comments sections.
  • Pause before you share: Again, don’t share information you have not verified.

These guidelines serve as a flexible framework and align with other available recommendations. While not all news organisations possess the resources of institutions like the BBC, news verification, however strenuous, is undeniably vital in fulfilling journalism’s fundamental role – to seek and disseminate what can be demonstrably established as true.

Deliberate distortion of narratives for specific interests is no ‘selling a story’ to kill it. Such practices negate the journalistic ethos – the very essence of truth in the public interest.

Ms Vuchiri is a journalist and media consultant with keen interest in media development and digital innovations. vuchiri[at]gmail.com

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