Monday, March 4, 2024

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is increasingly becoming a global online war.

Iran, Russia, and to a lesser extent, China, are utilizing state media and major social networking platforms to support Hamas, undermine Israel, and criticize the United States.

Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, along with extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, who were previously in conflict with Hamas, have also joined the online fight.

According to government officials and independent researchers, the flood of online propaganda and disinformation is larger than anything seen before, reflecting the geopolitical division in the world.

Cyabra, a social media intelligence company in Tel Aviv, has identified at least 40,000 bots or fake accounts online since Hamas launched its attack on Israel in Gaza on October 7. Rafi Mendelsohn, vice president at Cyabra, stated that this content is viewed by millions of people worldwide and is impacting the war in a way comparable to physical tactics on the ground.

The content is highly emotional, politically biased, and often false. It has generated anger and even violence beyond Gaza, leading to concerns that it could escalate the conflict. Although Iran denies involvement in Hamas’ attack, its foreign minister has warned of retaliation on multiple fronts if Israeli forces continue in Gaza.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a nonprofit research organization in London, has detailed influence campaigns by Iran, Russia, and China, but it does not appear that these campaigns are coordinated, according to American and other government officials and experts.

Although Iran, Russia, and China have different motivations for supporting Hamas over Israel, they have consistently promoted the same themes since the start of the war. These countries are not only providing moral support, but also engaging in overt and covert information campaigns to amplify each other and broaden their global reach across multiple platforms and languages.

For instance, the Spanish arm of the Russian global television network, RT, reposted a statement by the Iranian president accusing Israel of committing a war crime at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, despite intelligence agencies and analysts suggesting a different cause. Similarly, Sputnik India, another Russian overseas news outlet, quoted a military expert claiming, without evidence, that the United States provided the bomb that destroyed the hospital.

James P. Rubin, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, described the situation as an undeclared information war with authoritarian countries.

Hamas has adopted a comprehensive media strategy similar to groups like the Islamic State, spreading graphic images through bot accounts originating from countries like Pakistan. Despite bans on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, their message continues to spread rapidly online.

Many officials and experts who track disinformation and extremism have been astonished by the speed and extent of Hamas’ message spreading online. The emotional nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the graphic images of violence captured in real-time have played a significant role. Additionally, the use of bots and official accounts from Iran, Russia, and China, amplified by social media platforms, has further amplified their message.

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