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Oct. 26, 2023, 2:09 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Hanaa' Tameez   |   October 26, 2023

Combatting the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation about the Israel-Hamas war circulating online has been one of the biggest challenges for journalists covering the conflict.

On Monday’s episode of Vox’s Today, Explained podcast, co-host Noel King interviewed Shayan Sardarizadeh, a senior journalist for the BBC Monitoring’s disinformation team. He’s worked on three open source investigations to make sense of events on the ground, while debunking misinformation about the conflict and publishing daily threads on Twitter about the misinformation he encounters each day.

Sardarizadeh, who covers disinformation, extremism, and conspiracy theories, talked to King about his step-by-step processes to verify or debunk information circulating on social media, some of the reasons why people share false information, and the value he sees in fact-checking. Here’s some of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. Find the full episode of Today, Explained here.

Noel King: I want to understand how your job works in real time. Can you walk me through the process of checking one of these claims that you’ve discovered is misinformation?

Shayan Sardarizadeh: Sure, I’ll give you two: one [that is] misinformation [and] one [that is] disinformation.

We know the way this particular conflict started was that on Saturday, October 7, Hamas militants infiltrated Israel and killed something between 1,200 to 1,300 Israeli citizens. Now we know that some Israeli citizens were taken hostage during that attack that was unleashed on Israel. So a rumor began on Sunday morning that some senior Israeli generals had been taken hostage by Hamas militants. And then a video came out in the afternoon (our time in the U.K.) that got millions and millions of views online. It was on X, it was on Facebook, I saw it on Instagram, I saw it on TikTok. It’s a 30-second video, and in it, you see several men wearing military uniforms, to look like security agents and balaclavas, with three men being escorted by security agents and the caption on the video said “several high profile Israeli generals captured by Hamas fighters.”

When I saw that I was like, okay, we have reporters on the ground, they’re not telling us anything like that. They’ve contacted the IDF and they’re not saying any of the generals have been taken hostage. So let’s properly check this. And if you check the video, there’s a moment in the video that one of the security agents wearing a military uniform has the logo DTX on it and I just searched for DTX and lo and behold, DTX is the State Security Service of Azerbaijan.

So then I thought this video must have been shared at some point somewhere of the Azerbaijani Security Service arresting some people. So I went on YouTube, Instagram, Tik Tok, and started putting search terms using Google Translate in the Azerbaijani language looking for that video. And I found a video uploaded on October 5 on YouTube by the official account of the Azerbaijani State Security Service — a verified YouTube channel — that was the longer version of that video and of higher resolution…it made it perfectly clear that it was the security of Azerbaijan arresting Karabakh separatist leaders. Then I searched online to see whether any Azerbaijani news sources had reported this happening on October 5 and I found several.

So that was it to me. At that point, it was clear this video is false. It has nothing to do with the conflict between Israel and Hamas. It’s related to the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The first instance of that video being shared was on the platform Telegram, which is a messaging app really popular in some parts of the world. So it was initially shared there and wasn’t very viral, and then some people who have big followings on platforms like Twitter, Instagram or TikTok, had seen that video and they posted it to their accounts. And that’s how it took off and became really big.

King: That sounds deliberate to me. You said it’s misinformation. What do you think?

Sardarizadeh: I would categorize that as misinformation because I think most of the people who shared it had no idea what it was. To give you an example of disinformation that I’ve seen in the last two weeks, we saw a video shared online that was a minute and a half [long] and it looked like a BBC News video. Somebody had gone through the effort to copy our branding, style, and logo in a very convincing way. The content of the video said that BBC News was reporting that Hamas militants who infiltrated Israel and killed Israeli citizens had gotten their weapons from Ukraine. Now, this wasn’t something that we had reported at all. This wasn’t a video we’d created. It was 100% fake. Ukraine has nothing to do with this conflict.

The day after that, Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia, posted online putting out exactly that same narrative that Hamas militants were using the weapons given to Ukraine by Western powers. So you have to wonder why anybody would go through the effort of producing a fake BBC video to say the government of Ukraine is actually in cahoots with Hamas.

King: What tends to be the motive of people who spread misinformation and disinformation?

Sardarizadeh: Misinformation, most of the time, comes from people who are doing what is known as engagement farming. On platforms like TikTok or YouTube or Twitter, they can make significant sums of money off of it if they get massive engagement. One of the examples I saw was on TikTok, where somebody was claiming that they were running live streams of the conflict from the ground in Israel, and they had something like two or three million people who were watching the “live stream.” The footage was actually from a military exercise from five years ago, but people were watching it and he was making money off of it.

Social media platforms’ algorithms are designed to make content that is shocking. The algorithms want that type of content. They want us to see that type of content. That type of content goes viral, regardless of whether it’s true or not. So that’s one incentive. But then with the example I just gave you, and I can give you several more, either somebody is trying to shape the opinion of a group of people or a group of nations, some politicians, some influential people about what is going on, which is politically in their favor, or somebody has an actual economic interest mixed with politics, in what’s going on and they’re doing this because they will have something to gain from it.

King: How many people see the work that you do, versus the thing that you end up debunking?

Sardarizadeh: That’s the age-old problem of people who work in this field. But even if you had a fact-check on a piece that had 10 million views, and yours got 2,000 or 3,000, even if you manage to change one mind, one person who saw the original post sees your fact-check, and is convinced that was false and [doesn’t] believe it anymore. I think any fact-checker, any misinformation reporter can take pleasure in that and [say] “okay, I did something good.”

King: I hear you. I really do. I hear you making sense of this. And yet, everything that you’ve just told me makes me a bit frightened and a bit depressed. When you think about the tide of misinformation, just this tide of bullcrap. and you’re like a lone soldier at your keyboard, how do you sort of get through the day without becoming very overwhelmed and very depressed?

Sardarizadeh: I’m an optimistic person. I still think the vast majority of people have common sense, are good people, and want to get factual information. I still think most people still believe in such a thing as a sure truth. I do.

I think it’s just a case of people like me working harder, spending more time hopefully, and then spreading this ability, this knowledge. One of the things that I do constantly and I take huge joy from is I try to on social media do media literacy threads. I try to tell people the process I follow to check a video, to verify a video. This is the process I followed to verify an image, step-by-step. Simple. Many of the stuff that goes viral online that is false or misleading would take minutes to check, sometimes seconds.

The other thing is social media is not a friend of sourcing. It’s always good to look for sources on social media. I think most people know this. But that’s the power of social media: that just because something is viral doesn’t mean it’s true. The most important thing, that is something I always say to people, [is] just to be skeptical. Everything that I’m seeing, I have to check for myself, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true.

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