Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson, Tal Heinrich, said that Hamas beheaded babies on Wednesday, despite the IDF’s inability to verify it.
A military spokesperson told The Intercept on Tuesday that the Israel Defense Forces were unable to confirm the horrifying claim that during a weekend attack, Hamas decapitated babies. The assertion gained notoriety and became a salient feature of a tragedy that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis.
“Women, children, toddlers, and elderly were brutally butchered in an ISIS way of action and we are we are [sic] aware of the heinous acts Hamas is capable of,” the spokesperson wrote in response to questions from The Intercept about the viral reports. “We cannot confirm it officially, but you can assume it happened and believe the report,” she reiterated in a follow-up phone call.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson Tal Heinrich reiterated the news on Wednesday despite the IDF’s inability to verify it, providing a glimpse into how unsubstantiated reports come to be recorded in history.
The allegation of murdered infants is the most recent in a string of horrifying tales that have surfaced in recent days as Israeli soldiers retook control of towns attacked by Hamas militants. Reports of Hamas crimes against civilians inflamed anger among the people, political officials, and policymakers as Israeli authorities vowed retaliation and launched a massive bombing campaign for over 2 million Palestinians living in the confined Gaza Strip.
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On Wednesday, President Joe Biden claimed, “I never really thought that I would see…have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children,” but the White House later clarified that the president had not seen such photos and was instead basing his statements on Heinrich’s comments and news accounts.
Although the claim has not been fully proven and at least one news source has retracted a mention of it, allegations that Hamas members sexually assaulted many Israeli women have also gained widespread attention. According to Biden’s words on Tuesday, women had been “raped, assaulted, and paraded as trophies.”
Modern warfare has adopted the practice of spreading false information at the same rate as reliable news, which has been made worse over the past year by Twitter’s change under Elon Musk’s ownership. Musk’s modifications to the platform’s verification criteria have made it more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, making it even more crucial for journalists and public officials to verify the material before repeating it. The platform was once a key source for breaking news.
According to Renée DiResta, research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which monitors and studies how false narratives spread online, viral lies and misconceptions frequently increase before, during, and after wars or other emergencies because people are more concerned and hungry for information. She stated, “Content that people find fascinating gets shared. “In times of crisis, viral content frequently contains a lot of rumors; while it is currently unverified, it could eventually prove to be true.”
Russian military historian and director of the Museum of Air Defense Forces, Yuri Knutov, said that the Hamas attack revealed the Iron Dome’s inefficiency.
The effects of the quickly growing rhetoric are all too real and lethal as unverified reports are presented alongside authentic, equally horrifying ones.
“It’s been about four days since this incredible and tragic escalation of violence and the level of misinformation — even disinformation — seems near unprecedented,” media critic Sana Saeed told The Intercept. “We have seen journalists, in particular, spread unverified information that is being used to justify Israeli and even American calls and actions to annihilate an entire population.”
“From unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters raping Israeli women to unsubstantiated accusations of Palestinian fighters beheading babies: These claims have spread like wildfire especially thanks to many journalists who are repeating things without any semblance of critical thinking or journalistic caution.”
“What’s at stake here is literal human life,” Saeed added. “But Palestinian life matters so little, that spreading incendiary information that justifies Israeli war crimes isn’t a concern for those tasked to punch up to power by virtue of being journalists.”
The accusation that newborns had been decapitated originated with reporters who visited the town of Kfar Aza on Tuesday, the scene of a horrifying Hamas slaughter of civilians. The claim soon went viral online and was echoed by well-known journalists and officials. The assertion, which they ascribed to soldiers who found the victims’ remains, was among the first to be reported by reporters for the Israeli TV network i24NEWS. The IDF declined to confirm the claim, according to a story published on Tuesday by the Turkish news agency Anadolu. Later, the IDF informed other media sources that it would not corroborate the claims because it was “disrespectful to the dead.”
A journalist who took part in the trip, Oren Ziv, claims that “journalists were allowed to speak to the hundreds of soldiers on site, without the supervision of the army’s spokesperson team.”
A soldier told journalists “that this is what he saw,” according to an IDF official, although the military has not independently verified the report.
According to a notification to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Department of Safety and Security in Gaza, Israel ordered 1 million Palestinians to leave within 24 hours.
“When we were there, all the bodies were in body bags. … We couldn’t see it with our own eyes, but obviously, it happened. We cannot confirm it officially from the military but you have seen, I guess, videos on social media, you’ve seen girls with blood over their thighs, it’s obvious that this stuff happens.”
“Specifically about the beheaded babies report, we cannot confirm the amount and specific place and everything like that,” the spokesperson added. “There have been so many horrible situations and we don’t have time, and we’re currently busy fighting and defending our country. We don’t have the time to check every report.”
While the scene was “horrific, with dozens of bodies of Israelis murdered in their homes,” Ziv also observed that he had not seen any indication of the beheaded newborns. additional reporters there said that an Israeli soldier told a BBC reporter that “some of the dead had been beheaded,” and at least two additional reporters later removed tweets that included the reports.
“Just looked at today’s UK front pages and I am horrified by the headlines claiming ‘40 babies beheaded by Hamas’ in Kfar Aza,” Guardian reporter Bethan McKernan tweeted on Tuesday. “Yes, many children were murdered. Yes, there were several beheadings in the attack. This claim, however, is unverified and totally irresponsible.”
Veteran journalists and politicians, including Fox News and CNN anchors as well as American legislators like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., repeated the unverified reports. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the sole Palestinian American in Congress, was pursued by Fox News reporters who claimed that “Hamas terrorists have cut off babies’ heads” and asked her for comment on “terrorists chopping off babies’ heads.” The reports were still being reported on Wednesday, including by important news organizations like CNN.
After the attack by Hamas in southern Israel this morning, Israel launched Operation Swords of Iron, which involved launching between 2,000 and 5,000 rockets.
Reporters should examine such statements cautiously, attempt to confirm their origin and sourcing and look for other ways to validate them, according to a BlueSky article by New York Times reporter Sheera Frenkel on Wednesday. “It’s a rumor being widely shared,” she continued, “save the IDF coming out with an official statement (which it hasn’t, it’s declined to confirm) or someone confirming they saw it with their own eyes.”
Fog of War
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, for example, online misinformation has become pervasive in current conflicts.
First-person reports from reporters and others present in Israel and Gaza were occasionally drowned out on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, by verified users of questionable reliability. While some of the assertions are still up for debate, X is also rife with quickly circulating incendiary remarks that are blatantly untrue and are frequently used to justify increasingly violent rhetoric and/or escalate an already brutal fight.
Changes made under the new ownership of Musk make it difficult, if not impossible, to even attempt to gauge the volume of viral lies currently spreading around X. Since many, including us, no longer have API access, it is exceedingly challenging for academic research teams to estimate the volume question on X at this time, according to DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory. It was simpler to follow the propagation of an online hoax or myth when X’s previous ownership, when the business was still known as Twitter, gave research institutions like Stanford’s software access to track public user activity on the network.
According to DiResta, the trade in warfare rumors has gotten worse as a result of X’s decision to offer account verification, which formerly showed some official affiliation with an organization or news media. “As curation algorithms have changed on Twitter/X, current blue checks” — those who paid for verification — “are prioritized in the feed and in replies,” she said. “The blue check community’s demographics have likewise changed. Journalists are few, compared to the number of commentators.
The founder of Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins, has highlighted various instances of fraudulent material spreading on the site over the past few days, including “multiple blue tick accounts repeating an unverified claim that had no evidence to back it up.”
“Musk has created a fundamental issue with Twitter’s credibility in moments of crisis,” he wrote.
On Wednesday, Bellingcat released further instances of false information spreading online, including popular social media posts using footage that was shot years ago or in another country to portray the most recent Israeli bombing of Gaza. “Misinformation is particularly nefarious in this case as it frequently entwines authentic information with hearsay,” the publication stated. “And may result in something that is genuinely worthy of record — such as a military strike in an urban area — becoming associated with a viral falsehood.”
Others expressed similar annoyance. The journalist Barry Malone said, “As a journalist, I’ve been using social for news since, well since that became a thing.” “And I cannot recall ever seeing disinformation spread with such lightning speed around a big story as it is right now.”
Local writers who often report on life in the strip reported being unable to do so in Gaza as beleaguered inhabitants lost access to electricity and at least six journalists were killed in bombings.
“My phone and laptop have died. No electricity as we’re running out of fuel for the power generator, after Israel cut electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza,” one of them, Maha Hussaini, tweeted earlier this week. “I will be off until we find alternatives, This is what Israel wanted, to commit genocide against a silenced people.”