In the days since the war between Israel and Hamas erupted, false information and misleading videos have flooded social media platforms, making it difficult for readers to sort fact from fiction. Footage said to depict a Hamas militant paragliding into Israel was in fact taken in June, during an incident in South Korea. A graphic video posted to Facebook was not of an Israeli hostage burned alive, as one user claimed, but the lynching in 2015 of a 16-year old Guatemalan child. A clip allegedly showing Israel’s Iron Beam air defense system wasn’t from a real event at all, but from the video game “Arma 3.”
“An algorithmically driven fog of war” – that’s what tech reporter Ari Ascher Shapiro, speaking on WNYC’s On the Media, called the problem. It’s an update of a phrase attributed to 19th-century Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. “War is the realm of uncertainty,” he wrote. “Three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog . . . . ”
Clausewitz fought in the Napoleonic Wars, when the phrase “fog of war” would have evoked thick plumes of black gunpowder on the battlefield. It is easy to imagine “fog” referring to the lack of information military leaders and soldiers would have had about the strength and position of the enemy. But recently, scholars have argued otherwise. “His famous metaphor,” writes historian Alan Beyerchen in the journal International Security, “is not so much about a dearth of information as how distortion and overload of information produce uncertainty as to the actual state of affairs.”
That’s much closer to today’s “fog” on social media, a result not of too little information, but too much of it, with no reliable way of instantly determining its accuracy. This fog has infiltrated, in real time, the highly politicized, high-stakes debate over the war between Israel and Hamas.
“I’m so angry about how impossible it is to tell what’s real or fake on this site anymore,” NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny said on X. “There’s nowhere else to go so we all just stay here and act like anything is reliable.” Under Elon Musk, X, formerly known as Twitter, has made deep cuts to its content moderation staff. Meta, which owns Facebook, has reduced the number of news articles that appear in users’ feeds. These changes have made it “close to impossible” for researchers to track all of the war-related misinformation and violence on social media platforms, Rebekah Tromble, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, told NBC News.
The risk of encountering false information hasn’t limited users’ willingness to wade into the increasingly fraught debate over the war, but it might give them the pretext to believe whatever they happen to agree with, and disbelieve what they don’t.
“People are turning to sources that mirror their feelings,” Steven Lee Myers wrote in a news analysis in The New York Times. “There are so many untrue claims that some people question the true ones.”
JOSEPH HOGAN, a Retro Report producer, was previously its director of fact-checking. He made these videos to help sort fact from fiction online: