Explosive claims about the Israel-Hamas war are going viral. But the truth is not always so simple

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Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

The public is enveloped in the fog of war.

As the world’s eyes remain fixated on the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, viewers are being overwhelmed with dubious claims saturating the global discourse. Adding to the challenge of swimming through the heavily polluted information ocean is the reality that some questionable claims circulating have also been given credence by authoritative sources.

In only the last few days, the Israeli Defense Forces, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office and President Joe Biden made the shocking assertion that Hamas terrorists had beheaded babies, a grisly claim that the White House has since walked back.

As the allegation came under heavy scrutiny, Netanyahu’s office took the extraordinary step Thursday of publicly releasing graphic photos of the bodies of babies who had been murdered and torched by Hamas, a monstrous act beyond comprehension, though inconsistent with the initial claims of decapitation.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had played a direct role in orchestrating the terror attack on Israel, a claim that has been called into serious question by further reporting, citing US intelligence sources. All the while, an untold number of doctored and misleading images have gone viral online, leaving audiences with a warped perception of what is actually happening in the Middle East.

It goes without saying that war is messy. And from that mess can emerge information that is not entirely accurate. Government authorities and news organizations on the ground encounter a multitude of logistical challenges and ethical dilemmas as they quickly gather information and attempt to verify it. Those challenges are especially pronounced when operating in an environment teeming with high emotion and chaos brought by bombings and gunfire.

Such conditions are fertile grounds for spawning preliminary reports that later prove to be incorrect. Sometimes they turn out to have been exaggerated or missing crucial context. In other cases, they are entirely false. Honest mistakes can occur while working under immense pressure to disseminate information to the public at a hurried pace — even from sources with good track records.

This has been on full display during the Israeli-Hamas war. Usually, a reader can take The WSJ’s reporting to the bank. Usually, when the President of the United States makes an explosive — and especially gruesome — claim, the public can trust that he has done his due diligence.

But that hasn’t been the case, despite the stakes being extraordinarily high — a truth that government officials and journalists must remember as they deliver news and updates to the public.

In our fractured and algorithmically-driven, 24/7 news environment, information can speed across the planet and seep into the public consciousness at an astonishing pace. This too often happens before information is properly scrutinized, verified and wrapped in the necessary context. In the rush to inform, audiences can end up misinformed if proper care is not taken.

Once a narrative has been rooted, it can be challenging to ever ascertain whether it is entirely true. Were babies decapitated by Hamas terrorists? Did Iran directly play a role in orchestrating the attack? The evidence available at the time of this publication paints a less-than-clear picture. A definitive statement simply cannot be made.

That gray area leaves newsrooms with thorny conundrums as they try to fact-check widely circulated claims and sort fact from fiction for their audiences — all while watching the initial narrative’s roots grow deeper and deeper into the public’s understanding of events.

In many cases, powerful media and political figures who have shown little interest or concern with disseminating the facts, are comfortable misleading and/or lying to their audiences in hopes of amassing power or treasure. The result is a muddying of the waters, providing fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and distracting from the very real human impacts taking place in the war zone, where thousands have already been killed and injured.

While social media platforms have slashed moderation and misinformation efforts, news organizations are facing ever greater challenges of reporting on the war in real-time. Their responsibility to get it right could not be more paramount.

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