Disinformation and antisemitism in the context of Hamas' terror attack on Israel
An interview with CeMAS Co-CEO Josef Holnburger

Since Hamas' brutal attack on Israeli civilians on October 7, numerous propaganda narratives of Palestinian terrorist organizations have been spreading online - fueled by algorithms that cater to an audience of millions. Our partner CeMAS (Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy) analyzes these trends through systematic online monitoring of actors who spread antisemitic and dehumanizing worldviews. In an interview, CeMAS co-executive director Josef Holnburger talks about antisemitic and anti-democratic narratives circulating on online platforms and the impact they bring to the analog world.

More on this topic here.

What narratives can be found on popular social media & messenger platforms since Hamas' attack on Israel on October 7? Which actors are spreading them and how big is their reach?

JH: Since October 7, a great deal of disinformation has been circulating - much of it in Germany as well. In this context, in addition to the already problematic messenger platform Telegram, on which a large part of the conspiracy ideology and far-right milieu is organized, the messenger service X, formerly Twitter, has also established itself as a particularly wide-reaching multiplier of disinformation.

Very shortly after the terrorist attacks by the islamist and antisemitic Hamas, for example, false claims were made by the conspiracy ideology milieu that the Israeli government had known about these attacks and had deliberately allowed them to happen. In other words, the Israeli government was alleged to be complicit in the brutal murders of its own people. Here, traditional antisemitic conspiracy narratives are adopted - Jews are here insinuated to actually be perpetrators themselves. Unfortunately, this development was not surprising; rather, it shows how great the potential and parallelism of antisemitism and conspiracy narratives is.

In addition, there is disinformation from Russia - once again, this situation is used to weaken solidarity with Ukraine, for example: For instance, by spreading disinformation that Hamas had received weapons supplies from Israel - a lie.

Can we already see what consequences the massive "pollution" of the social media landscape with disinformation and antisemitism are having on the analog world? To what extent does digital hate correspond to an analog danger for those affected?

JH: The impact of disinformation is very massive, but it is always underestimated: attitudes that have existed for decades can change within a few years via disinformation. We see this, for example, regarding trust in vaccinations or the legitimacy of democratic election results.

Especially in the context of the terrorist attack on Israel, it is now important for journalism to carefully check its sources and Hamas' claims. The example of an alleged rocket attack on a hospital in the Gaza Strip makes this particularly clear: here, even established German media had reproduced Hamas' statements, which subsequently turned out to be lies. The disinformation fueled antisemitic world views, were heard again and again at antisemitic demonstrations, and also led to attacks on synagogues.

For this reason, too, there is now a need for significantly extended protection of Jewish institutions - Jews are concretely endangered by the antisemitic disinformation and conspiracy narratives that have (deliberately) been put into circulation.

Which continuities to already known narratives and players can be identified? What is new? Are there any connections to the war in Ukraine and Russian disinformation?

JH: The conspiracy ideology and right-wing extremist milieu has been able to network extensively and professionalize itself over the past crises. Their own "alternative media" have been able to massively expand their reach - for example, a video platform run by the Austrian right-wing extremist Stefan Magnet. He already spread antisemitic codes and ciphers during the corona pandemic - with the ongoing situation since October 7, he has been able to further expand his reach and is currently becoming the beat and catchphrase generator of the scene, for example by marking this war as a supposed plan of a "Great Replacement" - a racist and antisemitic conspiracy narrative, which was also strongly spread in 2015.

Therefore, there are currently many well-known actors who want to use the situation to spread their antisemitic, but also racist ideas - for example, by now demanding large-scale extraditions or by turning Israel from a victim into a perpetrator.

Russian disinformation is always a factor in this - the tactic here is called "flooding the zone with shit". The more disinformation is circulated, the higher the possible loss of trust in established and renowned media reporting and generally in democratic institutions and regulations. The truth suddenly seems very small next to all the disinformation.

How do the platforms differ from each other with respect to what is being posted? Is there any platform left at all that adequately addresses disinformation (about the conflict) and antisemitism? Are there political responses or sanctions that work?

JH: Currently there are two platforms which are particularly problematic: X, formerly Twitter; and Telegram. On both, content moderation has been practically abolished or never really built up. On X, formerly Twitter, there is an even bigger problem: Here, accounts that spread disinformation can even get a boost by paying 8 US dollars a month. Accounts that have already become massively known in the past for spreading disinformation and antidemocratic ideas were even praised by Elon Musk.

The massive amount of disinformation is a challenge for the platforms as a whole - not all of them are living up to their responsibility.

Meta, for example, has changed its rules due to this massive increase - posts are now deleted more quickly here, but at the same time it was announced that deleted posts will no longer automatically lead to blocked accounts. What is needed here is more capacity in content moderation, not less - the lack of consequence for the deliberate spread of disinformation is currently sending the wrong signal.

More on our cooperation with CeMAS here.

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