In the frantic early hours of October 7, amid sirens blaring and reports of gunfire on Israel’s southern border, Achia Schatz fled with his child and heavily pregnant wife to a bomb shelter near Tel Aviv.
He didn’t stay long.
The first reports of the Hamas attack were already being mixed with rumors, spreading across social media feeds and private chat groups in an emotionally charged and largely unverified mass. Mr. Schatz, one of the most renowned disinformation researchers and fact checkers in Israel, went back 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 monitors in the region have been overwhelmed by unfounded narratives, manipulated media and conspiracy theories. The material has proliferated rapidly: video game clips and old news reports masquerading as current footage, attempts to artificially recreate authentic photographs, mistranslations and false allegations distributed in multiple languages.
In the fog of war, rumors and lies are especially dangerous, able to disguise fact and influence decisions. Fact checkers and misinformation analysts offer clear examination of the available evidence to become part of the defense.
However, the task is tough even for seasoned professionals, who faced pushback while fighting false and misleading narratives during multiple elections and a pandemic. In the Middle East, where fact-checking websites and disinformation research are relatively new and often poorly funded, the challenges have become even more complex.
“There aren’t a lot of established fact-checking organizations with a long track record in this area, and that makes it difficult,” said Angie Drobnik Holan, director of the International Fact-Checking Network, which supports fact-checkers around the world. “On the ground, this is a new area that needs development.”
A number of Israeli and Palestinian fact checkers descended on the region over the years. In recent months, Ms. Hollan said, she has done valuable work, sometimes without pay, trying to find out the facts from the war zone. Their proximity to the conflict makes them deeply invested in the truth, and better equipped to understand the cultural nuances that shape it.
Due to this they also face allegations of bias. Neutrality can be difficult in a region where political and religious differences have been hotly debated for generations, and even more so during a highly polarized war.
Compounding the difficulty: access to reliable information remains low, particularly in Gaza, where heavy bombardment and power outages hamper efforts to investigate claims. Harassment and threats have increased. His mental health is in a precarious state – the fact-checker suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder caused by constant exposure to violent and graphic imagery; Some people are mourning the deaths of colleagues and relatives.
The emotional burden weighs heavily on Baker Mohammed 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 October 7 and December 25, he and his team of nine fact checkers published an average of about two reports a day – almost four times the rate of September.
Mr. Abdulhaq said over email that conducting his research had been a difficult process, sometimes requiring him to “see harrowing scenes of children and women killed as a result of Israeli air strikes in Gaza.”
“We also communicate directly with their families, collecting harrowing testimonies from victims, who are facing significant psychological pressure,” he said.
Tahaqq’s main audience is Palestinians, and most of its reports are written in Arabic. Many are not flattering toward Israel: Mr. Abdulhaq and his team have debunked false claims about the prisoner exchange and concerns that Israel has used white phosphorus against civilians. Tahaqaq was targeted by 179 cyberattacks in an attempt to disable its website on October 23 after it wrote about the deadly explosion at Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City, he said.
Mr Abdulhaq said he had had some distressing interactions with Israeli officials before October 7, including a week-long detention in an Israeli prison in 2018 after returning from a conference about Palestinian issues in Lebanon and receiving a media award in Cairo. Was also included. He said he was interrogated about his journalistic activities, then released without charge.
However, such experiences have limited impact on their fact-checking, he said.
Tahaqaq has also investigated false and misleading claims by Palestinian and other Arab accounts, including a video that mistranslated as saying an Israeli officer was lamenting the difficulty of fighting Hamas when he was actually fighting his troops. Was discussing the accuracy and professionalism of. Another video that purportedly depicted a Palestinian child whose entire family was killed in Israeli air strikes actually documented a boy who survived flooding in Tajikistan over the summer.
Tahaqq was started in 2015 as part of Mr. Abdulhaq’s master’s thesis on fact-checking. It ran out of money two years later, then reopened in 2020 and began reporting claims about COVID-19. Now, the group relies on donated time from its fact checkers and occasional financial support through the Arab fact-checkers network.
The three-year-old project, run by the network and media organization Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, involves more than 250 fact checkers from Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Saja Mourtada, a Lebanese journalist in charge of the organization, said the war between Israel and Hamas has been the most complex crisis to monitor in a year that also includes claims related to the war in Sudan, earthquakes and hurricanes in Syria and Morocco. Libya.
“Fear and uncertainty can cause misinformation to spread quickly, as people can more easily believe and share things they fear or already think,” she said.
The warning signs of such a misinformation surge became immediately apparent to Mr. Schatz, the Israeli researcher, on October 7.
He said, “Like everyone else, I was in shock, but I realized that it is in a state of shock that the worst things come out and go viral on the internet.”
His group, FakeReporters, relies on a team of 14 people to research and investigate conspiracies and rumors circulating on social media. It is best known for the discovery in 2021 of an Iranian disinformation campaign that used WhatsApp groups to sow confusion among Israelis. That fall, the organization also exposed WhatsApp groups created by Israeli extremists to attempt attacks against Palestinian civilians. 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 with thousands of other Israelis in demonstrations against government corruption.
He started noticing strange claims about protesters appearing in the WhatsApp groups that were used to plan and execute the rallies. Accounts that used strange syntax joined the group and quickly spread false claims that protesters were being paid or were deliberately gathering in large crowds to spread Covid. He said rumors had long circulated that the Israeli government was deploying online bots to spread disinformation, but little study had been done.
“The strategy was so clever, it seemed like something big was happening,” he said. Ultimately they discovered some misleading posts about protesters in the 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; There was a flood of thousands of messages. After a year of full-time unpaid work, the group began turning to grants and donations to fund their efforts.
Mr. Schatz said people need to put aside their politics to report on misinformation. His team receives requests for analysis 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 was exposed Footage claiming to show Israeli children Kept in cages in Gaza. (The footage was years old, and it was unclear where it originated.) It also rejected claims that Israel used artificial intelligence to fake the deaths of its own citizens at the Nova music festival Had or had used it.
“We work hard to stick to what we know and don’t know and to keep our political opinions separate,” Mr. Schatz said. “Especially now, in a time of war, we have to work carefully so that our opinions do not overshadow what is factual and what is not.”
produced by audio Adrienne Hurst,