20.11.23 Propaganda Review

Splitting the Truth: In the current conflict in Gaza, the information war is play as much, if not more, of a role than events on the battlefield

The Hamas attack and Israel's military response have caused a global information crisis that has split Western audiences and the Western media environment. The situation in the global information ecosystem seems like a clear illustration of the phenomenon that experts call 'truth splitting'. In this case, the differing sides of the argument are not only unable to agree on the interpretation of basic facts, but also frame any counterarguments as knowingly biassed. Moreover, in order to mobilise sympathy for the side they consider to be the 'victim', they are actively demonising the other side, disregarding the reliability and relevance of the facts. However, in addition to this emotional and informational mobilisation, the picture is distorted by a wave of astroturfing — the simulation of mass support for a certain opinion with the help of bots and fake accounts. Finally, another level of information warfare is the partisan and state narratives disseminated in the media and on social networks. Thus, the countries of the 'anti-American axis' are purposefully using the conflict to promote their own agendas: Russia is accusing the West of hypocrisy and double standards, Iran is focusing on Israel’s threat to the Arab world, and China has positioned itself as a global player ready to take on the role of arbitrator and mediator in international politics. The data on the dissemination of these narratives on social media suggests that they are having some success: the 'truth splitting' effect outweighs logic and sound facts.

The Hamas terrorist attack and the war in the Gaza Strip has provoked a real crisis in the global information space. The most vivid manifestation of this has been the fake 'bombing' of Al-Ahli hospital, which became top news across the world. Unlike the war in Ukraine, which is perceived within an unambiguous framework that identifies aggressor and victim (albeit with important nuances), even in countries that have not joined Western sanctions, in this case sympathies are divided, both within the Western community and Western media. As a result, each faction identifies its 'main victim' in the conflict and conducts informational and emotional mobilisation in support of it. 

As a result, we are dealing with an extremely vivid demonstration of a phenomenon that the experts at the RAND Corporation described in a report published several years ago as 'the decay of truth’. This effect occurs when the parties fail to agree when recognising or interpreting even basic facts, and having 'deciphered' the opponent, i.e. having identified their position and basic narratives, they stop responding to their arguments, considering them just a part of this 'hostile' framing. At the same time, the demonisation of the opponent becomes the most effective means of mobilising support for the 'victim' identified by each party. Moreover, fake and sensationalised news (confirming the established beliefs of each faction) has a much better chance of being noticed and reposted than true facts, which are more often ambiguous and need to be clarified and verified, the RAND experts write in an updated commentary on this topic. In fact, in the current Palestine-Israel conflict, information warfare is no less important, if not more important, than actual events on the battlefield, because it is the reputational damage and external pressure that are the only forces capable of stopping the Israeli offensive.

The mechanism described above of mobilising sympathy through the demonisation of the opponent has led to a surge in the popularity of fake bloggers who broadcast fake content, as shown in a recent BBC survey of the most popular 'experts' on the Israeli conflict on X (formerly known as Twitter). As a result of this, social media in many ways sets the tone of the debate, which ultimately changes the practices of traditional media. In particular, in an effort not to lose out to social networks in the face of high demand for information, they are forced to lower their professional standards, as happened in the case of the hospital bombing.

In addition to information and emotional mobilisation, the second level of information warfare is astroturfing — the imitation of such mobilisation thanks to bots and fake accounts. In the initial days of the conflict, the Israeli company Cyabra analysed the accounts of 162,000 participants in discussions about the Hamas attack and its aftermath on social media and identified a quarter of them as fake. 41,000 such accounts produced 312,000 pro-Hamas posts in the first two days of the conflict, which garnered 531 million views. As such, it also becomes a tool for mobilisation, capable of creating a false perception among real users of the dominant opinion.

Finally, the third level of information warfare is the party and state narratives promoted via social media, which determine the political framing of the conflict and the global agenda behind it. Experts from the German Marshall Fund have analysed the themes and narratives of official or state-affiliated Russian, Chinese and Iranian social media accounts and found both a common desire among the three countries to use the conflict to mobilise anti-American sentiment and specific approaches that reflect their visions of their own role in the international arena.

The overarching theme within Russian propaganda narratives is the 'hypocrisy of the West', which presents Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine, accusing it of crimes against civilians, while at the same time actually justifying Israeli aggression and the killing of civilians in Gaza. While the narrative of 'hypocrisy' appeals primarily to an audience in the Global South, the other fake narrative — that Western weapons sent to Ukraine are ending up in the hands of Hamas — appeals more to a Western audience. The main thrust of Russian propaganda is that it is Western countries (primarily the United States) that provoke wars (including in Ukraine and the Middle East) in order to extract political dividends from these conflicts.

To the fullest extent, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been used by Russian propaganda to shift attention away from the war in Ukraine. Since the end of 2021, Ukraine and the United States have remained the most frequently mentioned countries (after Russia) in Kremlin-linked media and social media accounts, but between 7 October and 6 November, Palestine and Israel took their places in terms of the frequency of mention. In pro-Russian accounts on Telegram and Facebook, three of the five most frequently used key phrases were related to the war between Israel and Hamas. Kremlin-linked Telegram feeds posted about 9,000 war-related posts in a month, which were viewed about 865 million times and generated about 8 million reactions; Facebook had about 7000 such posts, which generated more than a million reactions and responses.

Iran's propaganda narratives focused most attention on the suffering of Gaza's civilians and Israeli brutality. Iranian state media also attempted to link the war in Gaza and Ukraine by comparing Ukrainian nationalism to the early stages of Zionism. Anti-Israeli mobilisation has allowed official Iranian accounts to grow their audience significantly. Thus, in October, pro-state accounts on Facebook received about 4.5 times more reposts and 6 times more comments than in September, and on Telegram they received almost 2 million views and more than 15,000 reactions, up from 1.1 million views and 7000 reactions the month before.

The third member of the 'anti-American axis', China, has been the least inclined to condemn Israel and is positioning itself as an 'unbiased mediator' appealing to international law. At the same time, the pro-Palestinian stance of Chinese sources has manifested itself within the silencing of essential details of the conflict. For example, on the day of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October, the English-language China Global Television Network (CGTN) did not cover the events at all, publishing a short video clip on its accounts that only described the rockets fired from Gaza at Israel. In the days that followed, CGTN focused much more on Israeli airstrikes and the suffering of Gaza's civilians than on the terrorist attacks that provoked Israel's retaliation.

Another common Chinese narrative has been to contrast China's 'peacefulness' with the detrimental role the United States has allegedly played in the Middle East crisis. Chinese state media has dedicated extensive coverage to the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution that called for an immediate humanitarian truce in Gaza. These points of emphasis are in direct relation to China's desire to become a mediator in the crisis and, in particular, a negotiator with Arab countries, displacing the US in this role. Finally, an important focus of Chinese propaganda has been to level accusations of hypocrisy against Western countries for their stance on human rights in China's Xinjiang province. The Chinese embassy in France published a picture on X (formerly Twitter) showing the supposedly flourishing capital of Xinjiang and the destroyed city of Gaza.

As the authors of the study point out, the war between Israel and Hamas has given autocratic regimes in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran a rare opportunity to proclaim their moral superiority over the West. Thanks to the 'truth splitting' effect, such propaganda work achieves its goal despite its obvious logical contradictions. The Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) highlights that it was Russia that was behind the bombing of Syrian hospitals in 2015 and is also responsible for the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, but this has not prevented Russian officials from being outraged about the rocket attack on the grounds of Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza. These statements have circulated widely on pro-Kremlin social networks and in the official media.