AMMAN: “The first casualty of war is the truth.” The phrase remains valid more than 100 years after US politician Hiram Warren Johnson is purported to have said it.
Israel’s war on Gaza is no different. In fact, as Israel unleashed its firepower on residents of Gaza, in response to Hamas’ surprise attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 which, according to Israeli sources, claimed the lives of no less than 1,300 people and left many more injured, a war of opposing narratives also broke out.
The first 24 to 48 hours were dominated by the Israeli version of events. The mainstream Western media adopted that version completely as its own. Basically, the message was this: The terrorist group Hamas has carried out a massacre against Israeli civilians, killing thousands, and Israel had the right to self-defense.
The news reverberated across the globe. Later on, Israeli mainstream media talked about women having been raped, victims having been burned alive, tens of people attending a music festival having been gunned down, and, the most atrocious of claims, that 40 babies had been beheaded. This last claim went viral and sent the mainstream media into a frenzy.
CNN reported it, and US President Joe Biden mentioned it. Hundreds of pro-Israel and Israeli social media activists posted the allegation, while others retweeted it on social media platforms.
On Western news outlets, the outrageous, yet to be corroborated, crimes of Hamas made headlines and became the focus of morning talk shows. The Israeli narrative was dominant. There was little or no mention of disinformation or misinformation spreading across the media.
But then the tide began to turn. Thousands of activists took to social media platforms to sift through the Israeli claims. The most egregious fallacy was debunked: There was no evidence of 40 Israeli babies being beheaded. The news was reported by an Israeli journalist working for I24News, an Israeli television network. When pressed for sources, Nicole Zedek finally said that she had heard the claim from soldiers. The Israeli army could not confirm the allegation even when the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated the claim.
As non-Western reporters investigated this and other allegations, without being able to substantiate most, social media activists stepped in to expose the fallacy of Zedek’s unsubstantiated reporting and called for her dismissal. Later, and due to a massive backlash on social media, CNN and the White House issued retractions. Other mainstream media outlets did not.
As Israel began its indiscriminate shelling of Gaza, only a few Arab news networks were reporting live the extent of human and physical destruction. Western media outlets had dispatched their correspondents to southern Israel to cover the Israeli side of the story. Almost a week would pass without any of the major mainstream Western outlets covering the other side.
But that was not the case on social media, especially the X platform. Pro-Palestinian activists began posting graphic images of what was happening in Gaza: videos, photos, and testimonies. The Israeli propaganda machine was suddenly on the defensive. Atrocity propaganda played on both sides. For every video posted of slain Israelis — and there were many — tens of videos of maimed Palestinian children and bombed residential buildings were posted in return.
The Western mainstream media still stuck to the Israeli narrative: Israel was the victim of a terrorist attack. The Israeli propaganda machine was hard at work to stop the deluge. It attempted to label the Oct. 7 attack as “Israel’s 9/11” and “Israel’s Pearl Harbor” in order to create an analogy that Western audiences would adopt and sympathize with.
But on social media platforms, the war took a different direction. Now, facing a vast outburst of graphic images of Palestinian victims — no Photoshop and no AI generation — the hasbara counteroffensive took a different path. Through sympathetic mainstream media outlets, it began to complain of misinformation and disinformation exploding on social media.
The EU warned Elon Musk’s X to remove misinformation and grisly imagery from his platform.
A similar, milder, message was sent to Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, who runs Facebook and Instagram. It was never clear what kind of content the EU was complaining about.
Misinformation works both ways. Was Musk asked to remove the fake photos distributed by the Israeli army of the charred body of an Israeli baby that was later checked as fake and AI-generated? Or was it the videos of tens of Palestinian children, some shredded to pieces, who were arriving at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City almost every hour?
Musk was criticized for allowing anyone to buy a blue check verification sign, thus enabling false, and antisemitic, accounts that spread falsehoods. That is true to some extent, but that works both ways. When millions of people abandon biased mainstream media and head to social media platforms, chaos is bound to take place. This is the reality of today’s world.
And while X has let the cyber combatants fight it out with little intervention, Facebook was accused of manipulating algorithms to hide pro-Palestinian content to the extent that users resorted to unusual posting methods to confuse and bypass such algorithms.
But while Gaza was being pummeled and its inhabitants torn to pieces, hashtags like “genocide, collective punishment, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes” spread like wildfire everywhere on social media. Such terms associated with Israel would be sacrilegious if used by mainstream media.
The defeat of the Israeli narrative on most social media platforms had much to do with Israel’s actions in Gaza. Grim images of what was happening in Gaza slowly infiltrated some Western mainstream media. Pundits began to ask questions about the bloodbath that is taking place in Gaza and some began to argue about Israel’s impunity and exceptionalism.
But it was social media that managed to mobilize tens of thousands, especially in Europe and the US, to come out and protest at Israeli policies, but more importantly, the policies of their own governments.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was grilled on X for her double standards vis-a-vis Ukraine and Gaza, and her deafening silence on the massacre of Gaza children. The condemnation came from European citizens, who called on her to resign.
The same happened to UK Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, who appeared on TV to condone Israel’s cutting off of water, food and electricity to the people of Gaza as “self-defense.” He was lambasted on social media for being complicit in war crimes.
Social media can be described as a game changer in the propaganda war, which for decades was manipulated freely by the hasbara and the pro-Israel mainstream media.
Arab satellite news delivers the raw picture of what is happening in Gaza, but that is not the case for the rest of the world. Without social media platforms, the internet in general, the rest of the world would still be played by major Western mainstream outlets promoting the Israeli narrative.
It is fair to say that social media has enabled millions of pro-Palestine cyber defenders worldwide. This is what happens when social media joins a war: The truth may be the first casualty, but not for long.