PEN America’s Guide to Avoiding Disinformation Regarding the Ongoing Crisis in Israel and Gaza
In recent days, amid the horrors unfolding in Israel and Gaza, it has become clear that we are facing an unprecedented wave of mis- and disinformation spreading online through social media. In moments such as these, we are particularly vulnerable to the spread of false information. Signals of urgency and emotional appeals impact our thinking. Confirmation bias can lead us towards overly simplistic thinking, flattening nuance. Repeated exposure to false claims can make them feel more credible than they really are (the “illusory truth effect”). These are all key factors that make us especially vulnerable to disinformation during tense moments of crisis.
Below are tips for how to best navigate emerging news on the unfolding crisis:
1. Take a beat and question your reaction to things you see online.
It’s okay to sit for a moment in the space of, “I’m not sure if this is true or not.” This can be hard, particularly when the issues calling to our attention are personal or trigger heightened emotional responses. Disinformation is often spread through misleading or inflaming headlines.
Be open to learning, to being surprised, and for the situation to continue to change. If you’re having a “this is exactly as I expected,” response, you may be missing something. It’s important to take a step back, challenge your initial reaction, and ask the question: Can I trust that this information is accurate? Should I wait to see if these reports will be verified? It can even be wise to circle back to a given story in a few hours;even the White House has been impacted by misinformation, offering corrections following statements on the crisis.
2. Conduct a quick fact-check.
Consider where content is coming from—and remember that a verified check-mark on social media does not equate to accuracy or trustworthiness, especially given recent verification policy changes at Twitter/X. Before deciding to share, boost, or believe the information that you find online, take a minute to do a fact check:
- Take advantage of resources such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, or BBC’s Reality Check. Shayan Sardarizadeh, a BBC Verify journalist, has been providing live-fact checking updates regarding the crisis on his Twitter/X account.
- Enter the facts of the story through a search engine alongside the terms “true,” “false,” or “hoax.”
- Investigate the source; a Google search can help. Consider whether the poster may be an online troll, bot, or politically-biased influencer. Can you trust the account that has shared online content?
- Ensure that you’re relying on trusted, responsible news sources (especially credible local news outlets).
3. Check the captions and source of images and photos.
Images, videos, and other visual content can be presented improperly or out of context to mislead. Images claiming to depict current events may be misidentified or drawn from prior events. It’s important to verify the time and place that a photo was taken. Remember, you can always do a reverse image search to determine the origin of the photo you’re seeing—assessing for false labeling.
4. Consider the role of conflict and censorship in shaping the flow of information.
Acts of terror, blockades, military bombings, and internet shutdowns all make it more difficult to get accurate on-the-ground information. Palestinian journalists have been among the civilian casualties in Gaza, at least one Israeli journalist perished in attacks by Hamas, and buildings housing media outlets have suffered damage in bombings, further limiting news reporting from the ground. Cyberattacks have also struck an Israeli news outlet.
Research has also found that social media platforms are more likely to restrict Palestinian voices online. In determining which stories to share, consider whose voices might be absent from the conversation or how the conflict may be affecting what information is available.
An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the most trustworthy sources of information are their friends and family. You are the best defense that your community has against the spread of disinformation. In debunking mis- or disinformation, keep it simple and ensure that your correction comes from a source that your audience can trust as credible. It can be tricky to do this when your friends and family might be sharing false information themselves; PEN America has a tipsheet to guide you through that process: How to Talk to Friends and Family Who Share Misinformation.
6. Take control of your digital experience.
Regularly conduct scans of how and where you consume information. Are you relying on social media or are you regularly checking in directly with reliable news outlets? Stay aware, diversify your news diet, take frequent breaks from social media, and look to credible sources of information like subject-matter experts, trusted news outlets, or official sources.
7. Be a resource for others.
It’s important to correct misleading or false information, whether publicly or privately. But what can you do to help proactively?
- Share resources on mis- and disinformation and easy tools to conduct fact-checks usingt trusted fact-checking websites such as FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com.
- Encourage others to take advantage of PEN America’s resources on disinformation.
- In confronting false information, you can also share PEN America’s tip sheet on communicating during contentious times.