Israel, US are losing the influence war over Gaza—but the Palestinians aren’t winning
The world no longer consumes information in a way that allows governments full control of narratives.
There’s a famous quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” A lie, of course, can be a statement made with conviction and assurance when real certainty is lacking; it can be a self-interested historical revision; it can be the deliberate misattribution of a crime. Today, in the emerging social media conversation the world is having about Gaza, half-truths, embellishments, and outright lies are spreading faster than facts, and merging into a stream beyond the control of any nation, party, or media outlet. It is that stream—in which lie, half-lie, and truth flow together—that is shaping international views of what’s playing out in Gaza.
For the United States, Israel, and even for Palestinian civilians, that could forestall good outcomes.
As Israel prepares for a likely prolonged and difficult ground operation, Israeli and U.S. officials have described the expected incursion as necessary to protect the innocent civilians of a democratic society from terror. International media are amplifying those official justifications, explanations, and assurances of restraint in the context of exploding footage of Palestinian suffering, while also trying to evince compassion for the recent Israeli victims of Hamas. This same drama has played out multiple times in the past. But this time, thanks to the rise of social media, neither officials nor the media have any real control over how the world will digest images and content from the conflict.
That bodes very poorly for U.S. and Israeli officials, mainstream journalistic outlets, and the Palestinians themselves. Even as Israel struggles to control the wartime narrative, it is failing to address a growing global perception that its own policies are preventing justice for Palestinians and causing death and suffering in Gaza well beyond the proportion suffered by Israel. Israeli and U.S. officials are missing a chance to influence the global discussion by failing to grapple with the question of a just future for the people of Palestine.
Regardless of your opinion on the Middle East and how the region’s long history has led to the current crisis, let’s look at what is most likely to happen in Gaza in the coming days and weeks and the political consequences for the United States, Israel, and the people of Palestine.
First, Israel has mobilized 360,000 reservists and is about to launch ground operations into Gaza meant to decapitate Hamas. “They will be defeated…both in military equipment and in running the Gaza Strip as an institution,” Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency who now serves as agriculture minister, told Europe’s Channel 4 News outlet last week.
U.S. defense officials on Monday said they are counting on Israel to follow rules of war. But questions of conduct and rules of war aside, in a major clash between Palestians and Israeli forces, Palestinians are likely to suffer far more casualties, many children and young people. And because of Hamas’ documented use of critical civilian infrastructure for rocket attacks, many of those victims will be people seeking medical care and shelter.
Again, neither of those two phenomena are new. But for the first time in a clash between Israel and Hamas, the majority of the video footage will not be from professional newsrooms or even credentialed journalists. Rather, it’s likely to emerge from people on the ground recording their experiences, thoughts, and opinions on phones and sharing them on social media.
For professional newsrooms, covering the situation in Gaza is difficult. The Israeli government is not allowing foreign journalists into Gaza, according to reports on the ground and Israeli-posted rules for journalists. Meanwhile, Palestinian journalists in Gaza must contend with multiple challenges, including threats to their personal safety and that of their family from Israeli military action, and violence and coercion by Hamas, who routinely kidnap and abuse journalists to influence reporting. Even the U.S. government is pressing independent reporting outlets operating in Gaza.
All of that contributes to confusion about breaking events. In that confusion, Hamas is able to move more quickly to change perceptions precisely because it has less credibility to lose by doing so.
Consider the Ahli Arab hospital event. On Oct. 17, as viral footage spread of a huge explosion, Hamas officials quickly declared that Israel had targeted the Gaza City hospital and that the dead were in the hundreds. This (or some other tip about the hospital) was accepted as fact by Israeli veteran Hananya Naftaly, who soon tweeted a justification: “BREAKING: Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza. A multiple number of terrorists are dead. It's heartbreaking that Hamas is launching rockets from hospitals, Mosques, and schools and using civilians as human shields. #Hamas_Is_ISIS." Naftaly deleted the post minutes later but it was too late—it had already spread. Hamas’ take was repeated by the New York Times and many others, leading to street demonstrations in cities around the region.
It took days for a more probable explanation to emerge: the explosion was likely caused by an errant Hamas rocket. By then, the story of the Israeli hospital bombing had already shaped much public opinion, particularly on social media.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Israel did strike the hospital days earlier in response to a rocket attack, damaging its cancer-diagnostic area. Israel had also ordered the evacuation of the hospital, a practical impossibility for many patients.
In other words, both Hamas and Israel share blame for damaging a hospital. But what the hospital episode shows is how Hamas can use information chaos to win sympathy and escape accountability. The group moves quickly and exploits its key advantage: it has less to lose by spreading lies.
William Marcellino, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, told reporters last week that the confusing media environment allows Hamas to essentially conduct rapid information operations while the rest of the world struggles simply to understand what’s happened.
“There is this real tension between agility and timeliness, but also accuracy and control. So the more you decentralize local actors to respond on social media or to respond within the…environment, you have the chance to take initiative…When you decentralize controlling authority and you let anyone who's sort of like on your side do information work. If you get it wrong … it can have really big impacts on your credibility … But maybe for Hamas, that's a good risk to take to be the most agile, to be first, and to be sort of quick on the draw.”
Yari Lapid, an Israeli politician of the centrist Yesh Atid party and a former journalist, had harsh words for the established press on Sunday.
“I have no problem with criticism of Israel. But when you know that one side lies and one side makes every effort to verify the facts, the least we can expect is that you don't give a never-ending platform to the lies. Be suspicious. Be careful. Give us a fair chance and enough time to check the facts,” he said. “If the international media is objective, it serves Hamas. If it just shows both sides, it serves Hamas. If it creates symmetry between sufferings without first checking who caused it, it serves Hamas.”
Of course, the press can’t just take instructions to suspend objectivity or not air the response of one party during a conflict. But a much larger problem lies in the slowly diminishing relevance of established media and journalism in general.
Most young people get their news through social media. But social media companies are increasingly de-emphasizing news in favor of user-generated content. That means a growing portion of the footage and news that will shape young people’s understanding of the coming Israeli ground offensive will come from social-media influencers, pseudo-journalists, and news “personalities” who will reframe acquired footage to appeal to their audiences’ values, biases, and appetites. Some social-media companies, like X, have basically abandoned any pretense of content moderation, leading to a massive rise in disinformation.
Under the leadership of Elon Musk, X has amplified specific user accounts that claim to be “news” sources but are run by anonymous individuals, as opposed to professional reporters and editors who risk career injury for irresponsible reporting. Since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, tweets from these accounts have racked up hundreds of millions of views and engagements, outperforming tweets from established news organizations like the New York Times. That’s according to a recent report from the University of Washington, which refers to these accounts as new “elites.”
“These elites post frequently, many sharing unvetted content and emotionally charged media. While sharing no single political ideology, many embrace a similar culture of rapid production of unlinked or ambiguously sourced content, embracing a ‘firehose of media’ ethos that places the onus of verification on the end-user,” the report says.
Other social media platforms operate according to principles that aren’t visible from the outside world. TikTok, one of the most popular and fastest-growing social platforms among young people, is at least somewhat beholden to the interests of the ruling party of China, which seeks to weaken the global influence of the United States and its allies.
This is occurring at a time when the plight of the Palestinian people is also increasingly visible to the outside world, and at a time when many young people are emotionally reacting to the cause of marginalized people in western societies. In the broader context of international social justice movements, the harsh realities of daily life for Palestinians appear urgently unfair to many, including to many Israelis and the Jewish diaspora. Even Palestinians within Israel receive nakedly unequal treatment under Israeli law. Expect to hear more people adopting the language that the group Human Rights Watch first adopted in 2021 to describe that societal inequality in Israel: “apartheid.” No doubt strong feelings about these issues are driving huge marches on behalf of Palestinians around the world, calling for a “Free Palestine,” without exactly defining what Palestine is or what that freedom entails.
That call for basic human dignity, safety, and equal treatment under law has been met with silence by Israel’s Likud administration, long adversarial to a two-state solution for Palestine as well as greater recognition for Palestinian rights in Israel. And it has been met with little more than words from U.S. officials. The Biden administration is asking for billions of dollars of new military aid for Israel, but little for new humanitarian aid for Palestinians.
The U.S. last week vetoed a UN resolution calling for a pause in Israeli operations in Gaza to allow for aid to pass through. Republicans are even less sympathetic.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, tweeted on Monday, “For Republicans, our goal is to support Israel and its rights. There was no occupied land according to international law when Hamas struck Israel. Gaza has been completely occupy-free for almost 20 years. This was an unprovoked war, and our funding will reflect that.”
Last Thursday, in a nationally televised address, U.S. President Joe Biden said, “The United States remains committed to the Palestinian people’s right to dignity and to self-determination. The actions of Hamas don't take that right away… We cannot give up on a two-state solution. Israel and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety, dignity, and peace.”
It’s a fine sentiment. But many scholars consider a two-state solution no longer viable because Israel has built so many settlements in the West Bank, among other factors. Nor is it likely that Palestinians in Israel will receive full civil or voting rights.
U.S. and Israeli leaders have failed to define any sort of credible or hopeful future for millions of Palestinians. The Biden administration is reportedly working heavily behind the scenes on these and other issues on behalf of Gazans. But “behind the scenes” shows exactly why last century’s backroom diplomacy is failing the current moment. Why should the people of Gaza or Palestine trust a secret process from Washington to determine their fate when that has never worked?
Even RAND, in a commentary last week, observed that the current Israeli strategy of attacking militants in the mixed population of Palestinians and just waiting for some new reality to emerge is a failing.
“Once all the killing is done, Israel will have to do something even harder if it's to have any hope of preventing the next war and the one after that: It will need to rebuild Gaza into something better than it was. That means ensuring Gaza's inhabitants have a chance at economic prosperity, potentially even at the risk of loosening the blockade. That means ensuring Gaza's inhabitants have political options apart from Hamas and the corrupt and pliant Palestinian Authority. And it means rebuilding the social fabric of Gaza, which will likely be even more tattered after what could be a devastating war that could leave the enclave that much more hostile to Israel,” noted Raphael Cohen, the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at RAND’s Project AIR FORCE.
Former CENTCOM and CIA head David Petraeus told CNN on Sunday that the coming ground offensive risks setting up conditions to perpetuate the same cycle of violence we see today. “It's going to be very, very tough and how they do it is very important,” he said. In Iraq, by his account, planners asked themselves a question before each move: “‘Will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?’ And you've got to be careful that the answer to that is going to be yes.”
Last week, when a reporter asked Dichter what a post-Hamas future should look like, the Israeli minister responded that the “international community” must decide, adding, “I don't think that Israel has to elaborate on how Gaza has to be managed post the war.”
But Israel cannot abdicate responsibility, Petraeus said Sunday.
“Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad will try to come back, so that whatever it is that takes over from the Israelis, they have to determine that urgently. [Former Israeli prime minister] Ehud Barak was absolutely right on that. But they're not going to just do humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. They're going to have to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign to keep Hamas and the Islamic Jihad from coming back.”
After Dichter’s interviewer noted that poor planning for a post-war future doomed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, the Israeli cabinet member responded: “I think that to draw similarities from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Gaza Strip is totally mistaken.”
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