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In Misinformation Over Israel-Gaza War, Images From Past Conflicts Can Undercut True Toll

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In a video circulating online meant to convey the horrors of the war between Israel and Hamas, a small boy wails, his face caked in dust. Clinging to the sandwich he was eating when an airstrike razed his family’s home, he sobs for his two teenage sisters lost amid the chaos, one of whom would later be confirmed dead.

“A little boy crying for his sisters in Gaza,” reads a post accompanying the video, which was widely shared in recent weeks on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Yet the boy’s cries actually rang out hundreds of miles away, in Syria, nearly a decade before Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza over the past three weeks.

As Israel sends its troops farther into Gaza, vowing to eradicate Hamas in retaliation for a brazen assault in early October that massacred more than 1,400 people, videos and photographs of the conflict offer a powerful record of the costs of war. But online, those accounts are competing with misappropriated depictions of unrelated tragedies — a cycle that experts say not only diminishes the experiences of victims past and present but also risks casting doubt on legitimate evidence of atrocities from the war. Photographs and clips taken out of context are a common form of misinformation, but experts say their misuse to relay the extent of suffering is particularly egregious.

“Can you imagine the kind of commodification of violence against a loved one and have that be used by others as a kind of generic depiction of violence?” said Elisa Massimino, the executive director of the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s horrifying.”

Among the popular images and videos supposedly illustrating the human toll of the war: A heap of dead children swaddled in white, described as Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. (In fact, the children are Syrian and the photograph was taken in 2013.) A young boy trembling in the dark, covered in a white residue and grasping a tree, cast as “another traumatized child in Gaza.” (In fact, the video was taken after a recent flood in Tajikistan.) A teenage girl being beaten by a mob and fatally lit on fire, promoted as proof of the ruthlessness of Hamas. (In fact, the video was filmed in Guatemala in 2015, and the girl was reportedly attacked over accusations she was involved in the killing of a taxi driver.)

For the photographer who filmed the Syrian boy crying for his sisters in Aleppo in 2014 as the Syrian government bombed rebel-held parts of the city, the appropriation of his work to illustrate the brutality of conflict is familiar, and he believes it can undermine the current reality.

“This is not the first time I hear that my photos and videos are being used outside its original context,” the photographer, Hosam Katan, said in an interview. Mr. Katan worked for the Aleppo Media Center, a group of antigovernment activists and citizen journalists, and is now based in Germany. “Maybe some people are trying to get more empathy for Gaza, but at the same time, such fake videos or photos will have the opposite impact, losing the credibility of the main story.”

In his book showcasing images of life as war raged in Syria, Mr. Katan recounts capturing the video of the boy, Mahmoud, whose older sisters, Asma’a and Nadima, were missing after the airstrike. Asma’a was subsequently confirmed dead. A brother, Muhammad, was carrying a baby sibling, Bayan, whom Mr. Katan likened to a rose because of the red outfit she wore that day, Valentine’s Day.

There is no shortage of photographs and video from Israel and Gaza showing suffering. In Gaza, Israel’s relentless airstrikes have killed more than 8,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Overcrowded hospitals and scarce food and water in Gaza have punctuated a dire humanitarian crisis. And Israelis have been burying their dead and live in fear about the fate of more than 200 people kidnapped by Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the October attack.

For some, the misrepresentation and continued circulation of footage from previous tragedies brings to mind the concept of “revictimization,” or forcing survivors to perpetually re-experience their pain.

“There’s a real human right and some deep moral questions, I think, about this kind of thing,” said John Wihbey, an associate professor of media innovation and technology at Northeastern University who has studied misinformation. “As photos of persons who were traumatized or who were in horrific situations recirculate, there is a revictimization or retraumatization.”

Yet such posts — especially those that clearly distill a particular moment — succeed at capturing attention because they appeal to people’s emotions. As the number of victims grows, researchers have found, compassion can begin to fade.

“Narratives can powerfully convey an understanding and emotionality that numbers can’t do,” said Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.

Mr. Slovic pointed to a 2015 photograph of a Syrian toddler found facedown on a Turkish beach, washed ashore after the boat carrying him and his family capsized as they sought to flee the war in Syria. Mr. Slovic and his colleagues found that the image was more effective at motivating public response than the grim statistics about the hundreds of thousands who had been killed in the war. In the days after the photo gained widespread attention, Google searches about the conflict and refugees sharply increased, as did donations to a Swedish Red Cross fund, the research found.

But the introduction of misinformation around such stories and visual accounts, Mr. Slovic warned, could give people reason to reject or ignore such evidence more broadly.

Human rights experts have expressed similar worries.

Visual evidence can play an important role in building a case about human rights abuses, said Sophia Jones, a researcher at the Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch. Verification is critical and a level of skepticism is healthy, she said, but a complete lack of trust carries its own dangers.

“I think it’s absolutely fine to ask questions, and we all should be asking questions. But the lack of trust in anything that we’re seeing I think is problematic because a lot of it is real,” Ms. Jones added. “There are horrible things happening, and those need to be investigated.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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