Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

The Israel-Hamas conflict and the failure of the information war

The fear of disinformation can lead to an intellectual and political quagmire

Artillery Row

It’s 2011, the eve of the digital news revolution, and I have some advice on how to earn a bit of notoriety and a quick buck. Buy a warehouse, ideally in a foreign state with a poor international reputation. Hire a load of politically savvy, yet cynical teenagers attuned to the cynical decline of Western discourse. Set up hundreds, even thousands of fake social media accounts, with journalists willing to invent stuff to sway said discontented population. Wait for your influence to fly.

Soon enough you will pique interest, from international businessmen to the intelligence operations of foreign governments. Eventually journalists at major media outlets will catch wind of your deceitful work on the new frontier of digital deception. By the end of the decade, advances in AI and acquisition of the world’s most influential social media platform by an erratic libertarian billionaire will allow you to scale up your operation on a level unforeseen.

The real problem in the age of social media was never algorithmic deception

The trick, you see, is that you never really had to do any work. Once the idea that the casual social media user could be manipulated was planted in the heads of journalists, governments and a concerned population at large, you had earned the greatest deceit. A leviathan of fact checkers, journalists and NGOs was invented to protect the population, not just from foreign interference but from themselves. This was an information war, and the casualties, it seemed, were mounting by the day.

The resurfacing of the world’s most intractable conflict over the past weeks has decisively killed off this facile turn in understanding the pathologies of the digital media age. Over the last decade we’ve seen these two concepts, “disinformation” and “online hate”, bulldoze their way into how we seek to organise the experience of understanding information online.

The veil has been pulled back on how these two meagre concepts have served to deceive us. The real problem in the age of social media was never the manipulating whims of algorithmic deception, told through the infantile understanding of truth that we had invented to navigate the digital age. It was us.

On Wednesday, I was asked to go on a dying hybridisation of digital media with the old — TalkTV — to discuss how Elon Musk, the owner of X, was seeking to tackle disinformation. Immediately upon speaking to the producer, I knew that like the vast majority of her media contemporaries, she did not understand the concept.

Inaccurate reporting that the American embassy in Lebanon was being evacuated had just broken. Apparently, this, too, was misinformation — something I had already seen regurgitated by numerous foreign policy journalists on my Twitter account.

What should Musk do about this? That was the question demanded of me. I was essentially being asked to comment on how a social media platform, an organisation let go by a founder who had come to be sceptical of his creation, should now tackle a problem that apparently engulfed everything from journalists getting things wrong to those posting alleged videos of the conflict taken from a video game.

Like the TalkTV producer, the EU’s digital right’s chief Thierry Breton was hand wringing over the same concern. Musk’s attempts to monetize his acquisition had led to an army of immoral grifters seeking to cash in on the appropriation of dead children, seized from the cache of recent recorded horrors that have befallen the Middle East. Tragic as this was, in terms of determining the narrative over the conflict, it was small fry.

Tackling disinformation has revealed only the perennial problem of history

The real problem, as it always has, came from the blunders of our more established media voices and politicians. Take for instance, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, who expressed “horror” (in a now deleted tweet) that the UK press reported the beheading of 40 Israeli babies (no such paper had actually done so at the time). A similar idea was voiced by the commentator Grace Blakeley, who described this reporting as a “sophisticated disinformation campaign. Had it contributed to a sentiment long expressed by those supportive of Palestine, that the UK’s media was engaged in an ongoing pro-Israel bias?

Perhaps take the suggestion put out on X by Turning Point UK — and flirted with by Nigel Farage — that a man had been arrested at a pro-Palestine rally for displaying a British flag (he had in fact been arrested for shouting racist abuse). Had this been swept up with the ongoing debate as to what exactly the phrase “from the sea to the river” meant? Was it a call for genocide, or merely the expression of the desired borders for a Palestinian state?

What about the Israeli Ambassador, telling the British public on Sky News that there is no humanitarian crisis on the Gaza Strip, as its troops prepare to invade and hundreds of civilians succumb to its bombing campaign? Think even of the potted histories of the Middle East via infographics, shared widely on Instagram by activist left wing campus groups to justify the actions of Hamas.

There is no guiding ideology or reasoning behind the above. They are all examples, not of the crude digital information wars in the paranoid struggle against the nebulous concept of disinformation, but the oldest game in history resurfacing.

The flawed leviathan of tackling disinformation has revealed only the perennial problem of history: there is no absolute truth or authority over information. There are of course degrees of accuracy, and we amplify and de-amplify certain pieces of context to make one’s case. The lesson from a decade of being very online remains: we have confused the digital world for the real, ignoring the old prejudices and biases of media and politics — indeed, of ourselves. The old realm of influence in the material world, which dictates ideas and beliefs, has been forgotten.

At a time when trust in media and institutions is in decline, the age of disinformation and digital media has thrust upon us a facile, disingenuous and ultimately toxic understanding of the way in which human beings have come to hold ideas. There are no winners in the information wars — only losers.

Encouraging fear of constant manipulation, we have accelerated the age of post-journalism, in which the middle ground of consensus entirely collapses. The economic model of journalism is dependent purely on confirming what you think your audience wants to think. If the experience of the last two weeks online has taught us anything, it’s that if we want to save ourselves from the zero sum game of our present discourse, if we are to trust or debate each other again, we must leave behind these facile and toxic concepts. The simple, naive age of information wars are over. The real ones are back, and they are much harder to fight.

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