Israeli and Hamas authorities rushed to blame each other for the deadly bombing that ripped through the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City last week.
As many as 500 people are believed to have been killed in the attack, although some have disputed this figure.
The blame game quickly took on a life of its own, with many international newsrooms trying to piece together what happened from videos and photos, as well as eyewitness accounts.
Many online sleuths were also hard at work, sifting through material to analyse the rocket’s origins and sharing their work on X.
The flood of online disinformation has only helped to muddy the waters.
The discussion quickly made its way to Maltese social media. Local commenters on both sides of the debate say that their version has been shown to be the definitive one. Times of Malta has also received several requests from readers to verify many claims linked to the blast.
A timeline of disinformation
The blast occurred at roughly 7pm local time.
Shortly afterwards, Hananya Naftali, an aide to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, tweeted that “Israeli Air Force struck a Hamas terrorist base inside a hospital in Gaza. A number of terrorists are dead”.
Naftali later deleted his tweet, saying it contained inaccurate information and was based on a Reuters report that was later changed. The original Reuters report quoted an unnamed civil defence official saying that over 300 people were killed in an Israeli air strike.
Likewise, Israeli authorities were quick to tweet a video seemingly showing the rocket being launched from within Gaza. The tweet was later edited to remove the video, after it was pointed out that the timestamp on the video did not match the time of the blast.
Meanwhile, another video of the rocket started being shared online. One tweet, viewed over 400,000 times said that the grainy footage showed “live footage of the moment Gaza hospital was bombed by Hamas own misfired rocket”.
The video later turned out to have been filmed over a year before the hospital attack. Reuters fact-checkers found that it had been uploaded to YouTube back in August 2022.
Over the next few days, several other videos would also falsely claim to show footage of the attack, including some that date back two decades to the US attacks on Baghdad in 2003.
On the other side of the fence, a since-deleted tweet from an account disguised as the official IDF account started to be widely shared. The tweet appeared to show Israeli forces taking credit for the attack. Again, the post was shown to have been sent from a fake account.
Fake Al-Jazeera journalist, unverified audio recording
Meanwhile, an eyewitness account by Al-Jazeera journalist Farida Khan saying “I saw with my own eyes that it was Hamas ‘Ayyash 250’ Rocket. It was Hamas misfired Rocket” was shared almost 700,000 times on X.
Only, Farida Khan does not actually exist. Fact-checkers from Deutsche Welle and Reuters, amongst several others, all reported that the tweet was posted by a fake profile. Al-Jazeera also confirmed that Farida Khan is not associated with the news agency in any way.
Meanwhile, both sides say they have evidence that the other is to blame.
Palestinian authorities say that they have the missile shrapnel unequivocally showing that it was the work of Israeli forces, but have failed to produce any evidence of this, despite several promises to do so.
On the other hand, Israeli forces published an audio recording the day after the blast saying that it shows that it was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. In the recording, two Hamas operatives can be heard talking about how the rocket was fired by the “Palestinian Islamic Jihad”, a radical militant group often aligned with Hamas.
However, two independent Arab journalists described the recording as an “obvious fabrication” to Channel 4, saying that the tone and language used in the clip are not credible.
To date, whether or not this audio recording is genuine remains unknown.
What is known is that both sides have been previously been guilty of misleading claims throughout the conflict.
This would not be the first time that misfired Palestinian rockets killed civilians, with similar incidents recorded in a previous outbreak of violence in 2022.
It would also not be the first time that Israeli forces falsely blamed Palestinians for the killing of civilians. IDF was forced to apologise for the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh a year after initially denying responsibility.
Digital investigations inconclusive
By the weekend, many reputable newsrooms and independent researchers had carried out in-depth digital investigations, often analysing photos of the blast’s crater, verified footage of the rocket and satellite images of the site.
The investigations have proven inconclusive and, at times, contradictory.
BBC Verify, the BBC’s fact-checking unit concluded that the evidence is “not consistent” with an Israeli air strike, suggesting that the misfired Palestinian rocket theory is likely to be true.
Both US and UK governments have reached the same conclusion, saying that their intelligence suggests that a misfired Palestinian rocket is the most likely cause.
On the other hand, several other investigations reached the opposite conclusion. A detailed preliminary audio and visual investigation by Forensic Architecture, a research centre at the University of London, and other organisations say that the evidence suggests that the attack came from Israeli territory.
Social media platforms urged to control disinformation
Meanwhile, the EU has been busy issuing warnings to Meta, TikTok and X, urging them to control the spread of disinformation, as social media platforms buckle under the sheer volume of false claims about the conflict.
EU authorities say that the platforms’ failures to do so may see them in breach of the bloc’s new Digital Services Act. The act obliges very large online platforms to take action against disinformation in their channels.
The sheer volume of misinformation about the blast, as well as the broader conflict, makes it very difficult to determine what is and isn’t true.
Detailed investigations by independent newsrooms, researchers and journalists have reached different conclusions on the origins of the blast. In any case, all agree that it is almost impossible to reach a definitive conclusion at this stage.
Disinformation about the conflict shows no sign of slowing down, forcing the EU to issue warnings to social media platforms urging them to control false posts on their platforms.
The Times of Malta fact-checking service forms part of the Mediterranean Digital Media Observatory (MedDMO) and the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), an independent observatory with hubs across all 27 EU member states that is funded by the EU’s Digital Europe programme. Fact-checks are based on our code of principles.
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