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Separating truth from propaganda in the new age of cyberwarfare

Separating truth from propaganda in the new age of cyberwarfare

UPDATE: This article has been updated on November 16 at 12:16 pm.

Welcome to the new age of cyberwarfare, in which armies liveblog deadly attacks, and even provide infographics. Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are among the weapons being mobilized by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in their campaign against Hamas and other militant groups, launched yesterday.

The IDF are using the verified Twitter account @IDFSpokesperson and the hashtags #IsraelUnderFire and #PillarOfDefense to communicate messages such as the “elimination” of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, the alleged number of rockets that have been fired at Israel from Gaza since the start of the strike, and claims regarding efforts to “minimize harm to Palestinian civilians.”

Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed branch of Hamas, is thought to be responding in kind from the unverified handle @AlquassamBrigade, posting descriptions of its “homemade projectile” strikes on Israel and messages about supposed victims under the hashtags #ShaleStones and #GazaUnderAttack.

As Wired’s Noah Shachtman has pointed out, this is “a very different way of waging the opinion war online.” While journalists have long served, for international observers, as the primary witnesses to and relaters of far-flung conflicts, militants are now able to cut out the middleman, and communicate directly with the global public. As such, they can frame events with the language, images and videos of their choice. In other words, their propaganda machines are equipped with more potent tools than ever with which to manipulate the media narrative.

What is the role of news organisations in this new era? The same as it has always been: to relay the facts, with as much accuracy and as little bias as possible. Only now that militaries are doing their own war reporting, it is more complicated than ever to “sort out the truth from the marketing spin,” as Mathew Ingram puts it. As such, verification and authentication have grown indispensible.

Although their task has become more difficult, news organisations also have more helping hands on deck than ever before, from organisations like Storyful to the growing army of citizen journalists who are constantly on the lookout for manipulation. "Our @StoryfulPro crew have been on the frontline of that cyber-war," tweeted Storyful Founder Mark Little on the subject, speaking of the team that specialises in delivering actionable social media content to news organisation clients.

Gareth O'Connor, Storyful's Head of News Gathering, spent the day curating the Storyful Pro news alerts feed on Twitter. By email, he gave Editors Weblog a glimpse of what that entailed: "Working off two live Twitter lists for Israel and Palestine, I was able to see developments instantly in real-time. All sides in the conflict are using social platforms," he said. "This is a conflict in real-time and this presents new challenges for journalists. This is why we constantly curate and verify sources on our Twitter lists."

Citizens, too, have been hard at work, sniffing out suspicious claims. For example, at 1:29 AM this morning @AlqassamBrigade posted an image on Twitter of a man clutching a bleeding child in a hospital. Soon afterward, various Twitter users responded with claims that the photo had been taken in Syria, including one user who appeared to support Hamas.

“I can’t believe I’m saying but this picture is from #Syria, not Gaza. Thank you @Huxley10 for point it out,” posted Twitter user @RazanSpeaks, before continuing in a second tweet: “That said, we fully support you.”

Twitter's self-cleaning oven is keeping the other side in check, too, as is demonstrated by the following succinct response by Ian Clark, a self-described “progressive librarian and passionate library advocate” to a clarification claim by the IDF:

"Clarification, No rockets were fired from #Gaza on Tel-Aviv. #Hamas propaganda is constantly spreading misinformation," said the Israeli military's spokesperson.

"So are you," replied the passionate library advocate.

Sources: Wired, GigaOM, BuzzFeed, NYT Bits Blog, AllThingsD, NYT

Image from IDF via Flickr


Emma Knight


2012-11-15 17:14

The World Editors Forum is the organization within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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