In the wake of Hamas’s attack on military targets and civilians last week, and Israel’s siege and bombardment of Gaza in response, those seeking reliable news about the ongoing conflict are being subjected to Fake News from all sides. We spoke with Irene Vianini, a journalist and disinformation expert based out of Milan, Italy, about the nature of disinfo in our chaotic media landscape, and what people can do to protect themselves against it.

Fake news and the war in Gaza

Blasting News: It has become common practice to expect deluges of fake news where politically charged situations are concerned, from the war in Ukraine, to the migrant crises (both US and Europe), and now Gaza.

In your opinion, is the problem worsening, or are our institutions and the public at large getting a better handle on it?

Irene Vianini: Both assessments are correct. On the one hand, disinformation spreads like wildfire when emotions are running high. When individuals are confronted with deeply emotional content - as we all have been over the past few days with the horrific images from the Israel-Hamas war - they are more likely to engage with it without taking the time to question its origin or veracity. It is then especially difficult for social media platforms to tackle the spread of such high volumes of disinformation. A lot of attention is now on Twitter, whose content moderation team has been slashed since the platform was acquired by Elon Musk.

On the other hand, it is true that we have become more aware of the issue of disinformation - the COVID-19 infodemic played a big role here. As these last few days show, however, we still have a long way to go.

BN: How would you categorize the different kinds of disinfo one might come across in this situation?

IV: It is important to focus on intent.

There are some actors that have a strong interest in pushing their message forward, even at the cost of spreading false information. False information spread with malicious intent is commonly known as “disinformation.” There are then social media users that react to the information they find online and might unknowingly contribute to the spread of false information.

False information spread without intent to mislead is called “misinformation.” It is important for social media platforms to detect information operations spread through coordinated inauthentic behavior and reach the users that have been exposed to such information operations with the relevant fact checks.

BN: Where does deepfake content specifically come into play in this context?

IV: Deepfakes are a serious concern. As the technology gets better, deepfakes become more and more realistic. However, what we are seeing at the moment is that deepfakes are not as widespread as more traditional sources of disinformation, such as images taken out of context - over the past few days, fact checkers have debunked a lot of images that were attributed to the Israel-Hamas war that broke out on 7 October, but were actually images of previous conflicts or images from video games.

BN: What should media consumers look out for in order to separate fake news from reality about what's currently happening in Gaza?

IV: Always look at the source of the information. Especially now that we are flooded with unverified content, we should rely on reputable media to discern what is verified information from what is not, and bring us the verified information. And if we find ourselves confronted with deeply emotional content on social media, we should take a few seconds to assess where that content is coming from before we hit the share button and spread it further ourselves.