From Opposite Sides of War, a Hunt for Elusive Facts

In the frantic early hours of Oct. 7, amid wailing sirens and word of gunfights along Israel’s southern border, Achiya Schatz rushed with his toddler and heavily pregnant wife into a bomb shelter near Tel Aviv.

He did not stay long.

The first reports of the Hamas attack were already fusing with rumors, sweeping into social media feeds and private chat groups in an emotionally charged and largely unverified mass. Mr. Schatz, one of the best-known disinformation researchers and fact checkers in Israel, rushed back home to his computer, knowing he had little time to stop the false claims from metastasizing.

In a way, he was already too late.

Since the initial attack, disinformation watchdogs in the region have been overwhelmed by unfounded narratives, manipulated media and conspiracy theories. The content has spread in enormous volumes at great speed: video game clips and old news reports masquerading as current footage, attempts to disavow authentic photos as artificially generated, inaccurate translations and false accusations distributed in multiple languages.

In the fog of war, rumors and lies are especially dangerous, capable of taking on the veneer of fact and affecting decisions. Fact checkers and misinformation analysts are meant to be part of the defense, offering a cleareyed examination of the available evidence.

The work, however, is hard even for seasoned professionals, who faced pushback while fighting false and misleading narratives across multiple elections and a pandemic. In the Mideast, where fact-checking websites and disinformation research are relatively nascent and often poorly funded, the challenges have been compounded.

“You don’t have a lot of established fact-checking organizations with long track records in the region, and that makes it harder,” said Angie Drobnic Holan, the director of the International Fact-Checking Network, which supports fact checkers worldwide. “On the ground, it’s a new area that needs development.”

Many Israeli and Palestinian fact checkers entered the field within the past few years. They have done valuable work, sometimes without pay, in recent months trying to ferret out the facts from a combat zone, Ms. Holan said. Their proximity to the conflict makes them deeply invested in the truth, and better equipped to understand the cultural nuances that shape it.

It also exposes them to accusations of bias. Neutrality can be difficult in a region where political and religious differences have been hotly contested for generations, and even more so during an intensely polarizing war.

Adding to the difficulty: Access to reliable information is spotty, especially in Gaza, where heavy bombardment and power outages disrupt efforts to vet claims. Harassment and threats have increased. Their mental health is in a precarious position — fact checkers face post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by ongoing exposure to violent and graphic imagery; some are mourning colleagues and relatives who have been killed.

The emotional burden presses hard on Baker Mohammad Abdulhaq, a journalist and fact checker in Nablus, a Palestinian city in the West Bank less than 50 miles from Jerusalem. Eight years ago, he founded a fact-checking initiative called Tahaqaq Observatory, which translates to “verification.” Between Oct. 7 and Dec. 25, he and his team of nine fact checkers published an average of nearly two reports a day — nearly four times their September rate.

Conducting their research has been a bruising process, sometimes requiring them “to witness harsh scenes in Gaza of children and women killed as a result of Israeli airstrikes,” Mr. Abdulhaq said over email.

“We also directly communicate with their families, collecting harrowing testimonies from those who suffer, creating significant psychological pressure,” he said.

Tahaqaq’s main audience is Palestinian, and most of its reports are written in Arabic. Many are not flattering toward Israel: Mr. Abdulhaq and his team have evaluated inaccurate claims about prisoner exchanges and concerns that Israel used white phosphorus against civilians. Tahaqaq, he said, was targeted by 179 cyberattacks trying to disable the website on Oct. 23 after writing about the deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City.

Mr. Abdulhaq said he had some harrowing interactions with Israeli authorities before Oct. 7, including a weekslong detention in 2018 in an Israeli jail after returning from a conference about Palestinian issues in Lebanon and receiving a media award in Cairo. He said he was questioned about his journalistic activities, then released without any charges.

Such experiences, however, have limited effect on his fact-checking, he said.

Tahaqaq has also examined false and misleading claims from Palestinian and other Arab accounts, including a video mistranslated to suggest that an Israeli officer was bemoaning the difficulty of fighting Hamas when he was actually discussing the precision and professionalism of his troops. Another video that purported to show a Palestinian child whose entire family had been killed by Israeli airstrikes actually documented a boy who survived floods in Tajikistan over the summer.

Tahaqaq began in 2015 as part of Mr. Abdulhaq’s master’s thesis on fact-checking. It ran out of money two years later, then spun back up in 2020 to report out claims about Covid-19. Now, the group relies on donated time from its fact checkers and occasional financial assistance through the Arab Fact-Checkers Network.

The network, a three-year-old project run by the media organization Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, includes more than 250 fact checkers from Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Saja Mortada, the Lebanese journalist in charge of the organization, said the war between Israel and Hamas has been the most complicated crisis to monitor in a year that also included claims related to the war in Sudan, earthquakes in Syria and Morocco, and storms in Libya.

“Fear and uncertainty can make false information spread rapidly, as people might easily believe and share things that match what they’re afraid of, or already think,” she said.

The warning signs of such a misinformation surge were immediately evident to Mr. Schatz, the Israeli researcher, on Oct. 7.

“I was in shock, like everyone else, but I realized that it is exactly in that state of shock that the worst type of things materialize and go viral on the internet,” he said.

His group, FakeReporter, relies on a team of 14 people to research and vet conspiracies and rumors circulating on social media. It is known for discovering an Iranian disinformation campaign in 2021 that used WhatsApp groups to sow confusion among Israelis. That fall, the organization also uncovered WhatsApp groups formed by Israeli extremists to attempt attacks against Palestinian nationals. FakeReporter’s findings have been cited in both left-wing and right-wing Israeli publications.

Mr. Schatz came to disinformation research through political activism. He joined fellow Israeli reservists in a group that protested the country’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories and, in 2020, participated along with thousands of other Israelis in demonstrations against government corruption.

He began to notice strange claims about the protesters appearing in the WhatsApp groups that were used to plan and carry out the rallies. Accounts that used odd syntax would join the group and quickly spread false claims that the demonstrators were being paid or intentionally gathering in large crowds to spread Covid. Rumors that the Israeli government was deploying online bots to plant disinformation had long circulated, he said, but were little studied.

“The tactics were so manipulative, it seemed like something bigger was going on,” he said. He eventually traced some of the misleading posts about protesters to bot accounts.

Later that year, Mr. Schatz started FakeReporter with five friends. The project asked Israeli activists to report strange or misleading social media accounts and WhatsApp messages; thousands of messages flooded in. After a year of full-time unpaid work, the group began turning to grants and donations to help fund its efforts.

Mr. Schatz said that reporting on misinformation requires people to put aside their politics. His team receives claims to analyze from Israelis across the political spectrum, and the group recently began accepting reports in Arabic as well. During the first month of the war, the group debunked footage that claimed to show Israeli children held in cages in Gaza. (The footage was years old, and it was unclear where it had originated.) It also debunked claims that Israel had fabricated, or used artificial intelligence, to fake its own civilians’ deaths at the Nova music festival.

“We work hard to stick to what we know or don’t know, and to leave aside our political opinions,” Mr. Schatz said. “Especially now, in a time of war, we have to work carefully to not let our opinions cloud what is factual and what is not.”

Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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