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Hello, I'm Cassia Adler. From the BBC, this is The Global Story. Welcome to our first episode. Our mission is to give you fresh, smart takes on the stories that matter. We focus on one story in detail, Monday to Friday, with the help of the BBC's best journalists. Today, the Israel-Gaza war. It's been seven weeks since Hamas, which governs Gaza and is labeled a terrorist group by the US and many other Western governments, murdered 1,200 people in Southern Israel. Israel's response, as we know, has left Gaza in ruins, an emphatic symbol of its military prowess. But this war isn't only being fought on the ground. There's a battle online to control the narrative to influence opinions on losses and suffering, rights and wrongs, facts, and fake news. So we're asking, who is winning the social media war? To help answer this question, we've got our Chief International Correspondent, Liz Du set, and our disinformation correspondent, Mariana Spring, with us today. Welcome both to The Global Story.


Welcome, Katian. Congratulations on your new podcast. Let me sign up as the first devoted listener. And Mariana is the second.


Yeah, I'm the second listener. Thank you so.


Much for having us. It's great to talk to you. Liz, we're talking today about the Israel-Gaza war online as well as on the ground. Like you, I spent time in and outside Jerusalem during this current phase in what I hate to call the cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. But what really struck me this time was the level of passion and hatred on social media. Did you find that as well?


Very intense, threatening at times, vile, vicious. Mariana is nodding. There always is, as you know, Katya, in a war. Any general will tell you that the battle for the narrative matters in conducting the war on the ground. The war on the ground, we should also emphasize, is one of the worst we have ever seen in terms of the numbers, in terms of the atrocities that have been committed, in terms of the suffering. This is a war like no weather on the ground and in the battle for the narrative.


Mariana, you're nodding there.


First, I just wanted to talk a little bit about why I decided to investigate the social media battle a bit more closely. That's because I've had loads of people getting in touch asking me how the online conversation is affecting this war, and in particular, the public perception of it. I really wanted to figure out a bit more about what content is reaching who, where it's spreading, and why all of this matters.


That's the whole thing now, is that you can only listen and watch the people you want to listen and watch in this way, and that's very dangerous.


Yeah, I think there's something that is really important to talk about here, which is how what was already a very polarized conversation that seems to have been turbocharged by a lot of the polarization on social media, which is created by, in part, the algorithms that exist that can recommend us different content based on what we like or we don't like and can send us perhaps towards videos or posts that we wouldn't have encountered before. One of the things that's really struck me is the way that depending on where you are turning your updates, you could be getting a totally different view of what's unfolding. Some of that is dependent on your age and your platform of choice. There's been quite a lot of talk about TikTok, for example. Tiktok has a large Gen Z audience. I feel like I'm just on the cusp of being Gen Z. If you look at some of the numbers on there and break down the engagement with Israel content versus I stand with Palestine content, you've got 240 million views for I stand with Israel. In comparison, you've got 870 million views for ISDAN with Palestine. Some of that content predates Hamas's attack on the seventh of October, but nonetheless, it gives you some indication of how the conversation is unfolding on there.


I think what's really interesting is the content that's proving very popular. Tiktok is known for videos that feel really authentic, very real. People just in their pajamas talking about something they're interested in. Content that doesn't tend to perform as well is content that is very produced, that's very slick. I've certainly seen that a lot of the content that's coming from pro-Israeli creators or from the Israeli military's official TikTok account hasn't tended or seem to play quite so well with Gen Z users who prefer videos where people are just sitting in their bedroom offering their view about what's going on and perhaps content that seems to be authentic from the ground. It's important to say seems to be because it can actually be very difficult to work out whether content is official, whether it's being encouraged by the Israeli government or by Hamas, if it's being directed or engaged with by them in some way, or whether it is genuinely authentic and people are just posting what they think and what they feel, and certainly from people on the ground, what they're seeing. That's the TikTok battle, I'd say.


Mariana, we'll talk a little bit more about fake news in a moment, but it's very interesting what you say about TikTok as a platform and what goes down best. So if we talk about this as a war that's being fought on social media, that suggests a certain intent. So maybe Israel's government or Hamas or decision-makers in the wider Arab world, would they then choose which platform to put their information or their videos depending on the audience?


Yeah, I think that's a really good question. All sides and everyone are posting similar content often on the different sites. And what's interesting is how that same content will play well on one site, but then not so well on another site, and how much people are having to then gear up their content to suit what people like on TikTok or what people like on X, for example, which we used to call Twitter, because some of that more polished, slick content has actually performed really well on X. The audience on X is, to some extent, quite different from the audience on TikTok, rather than it being perhaps populated by younger users, it's the place where journalists and policymakers and powerful people will have accounts. There's some benefit to really cutting through with people there, really managing to reach them there. If you look at the official state of Israel's account on X has had, according to X, his own data, between the 16th of November and the 21st, over 40 million views, which is a lot of views. If you compare that then to the state of Palestine's account that's connected to the UN's official mission, that has far fewer followers and it has had far less engagement on X.


But then if you look, as we discussed about TikTok, it's a different story. So part of me would love to be inside the room where people are making the decisions about what they share and what they don't share and how they're strategizing. I think that's just a whole new facet of war, I guess, that didn't exist before.


But I think, though, it is something, Katya, and you would know this too, from having been based in the region, that this is one of the most polarizing conflicts, most sensitive, most controversial, most impassioned conflict, certainly that I have covered, in my case, a few decades of covering conflicts around the world. This is a story now where everyone has their broadcast medium in their pockets that this has become, let's use the name of your podcast, a truly global story. Activists I know in Afghanistan are posing in Pakistan, my young nieces in Canada are posing. Everyone around the world has something to say and the ability to say it. We are being scrutinized. Our words are being watched, our language is being watched, our percentage of what we say about this and why don't we... We are under the greatest ever, and not just scrutiny, but under attack. And the attack is of the most vicious. I think that we discussed this with colleagues, and I think it's not just us as journalist, everyone, politicians, everyone who is engaged in one way or another in this war of our time is being drawn into these battles.


It's interesting, isn't it, Liz? Because especially at the BBC, one of our key guiding lines is objectivity. We're supposed to stand back. But as you say, social media makes things very personal against us as journalists as well. I remember over the years in the Middle East, before social media was so ubiquitous, was there was this... People used to say, If all sides in a conflict are accusing you of bias, then you're probably doing something right. I think that's a bit of a lazy assumption, to be honest, because we should look at some criticism. But the battering now is quite violent to the point sometimes I feel in this current conflict, I just need to put my phone under a cushion and just pretend it's not there for a while because it just feels so violent. What have been your experiences?


Very, very draining, very hurtful at times. I'll tell you one in which I did a Q and A for our BBC live page and I was asked about the tunnels in Gaza. Well, Hamas and its backers, Iran, boast that there are about 400 kilometers of tunnels winding underneath Gaza. Gaza is about 45 square miles and one of the most densely populated places on Earth. So it's a question of engineering and arithmetic that in such a small, densely populated place and so many tunnels that by definition, some of the tunnels must be winding underneath civilian areas, which, of course, include hospital schools, et cetera. So I pointed this out, the barrage of criticism I got, because the day I did the Q and A was also the day that the Al-Ali hospital got attacked, and the investigations and arguments still go on as to whether it was attacked by an Israeli missile or by a misfired Palestinian missile. But I was accused of being responsible for the attack because I had done a Q and A on a BBC live page stating what everyone knew that there is a network of tunnels, Hamas, and others boast about it.


By stating what was widely known, I was accused of basically trying to perpetuate attacks against Gas. I had to come off Twitter, X, as it's called now, there were death threats, and it was very, very nasty, very, very painful. But there's been more than one article, whose the title is, Pick a Side. You have to pick a side. But we know all of you, Mariana, Becaccia, our job is not to pick a side. Our job is to try to understand each side.


I think you're right, Liz. And one of the problems is that while our job is to not have a side at all on social media, the whole way that it works is to have a side. You pick your team and algorithms fuel that, encourage that, because you're constantly served more content that probably confirms your biases, and you see the other side as you must critique and hate what they post regardless. You also believe what your side says, regardless. And so you can find yourself in this really tricky position where you're perhaps believing things that are misleading or untrue. You're inclined to be hateful towards other people because you see that as part of sticking up for your side and doing what you need to do on social media. I think it's for that reason that the social media companies have big questions to answer about just how toxic this conversation has become because they will often say things like, Well, we're just reflecting what's going on in the world. But actually, social media's algorithms are not just reflecting what's happening. They're actively pushing people certain types of stuff and perhaps changing or altering what they think of what's going on.


I got in touch with all of the social media companies about this, TikTok, Instagram, X. X and Instagram had nothing more to add. But TikTok have pointed out that there are various actions that they're taking. According to TikTok, they've removed one million and 164,000 videos in the conflict region for breaking rules, including content promoting Hamas, hate speech, terrorism, and misinformation. According to TikTok, they take swift action against an increase in fake engagement. They point out that across all of the platforms, there's been similarly high engagement with Palestinian content, or not just on TikTok. In their guidelines, TikTok say they stand firmly against hateful behavior and hate speech.


Today on The Global Story, we're asking who's winning the online war in the Israel-Gaza crisis? We've discussed TikTok, but there are other platforms, and we'll look at them and tell you why this really matters for where this war goes next. This is the Global Story. I'm Katia Adler. We tell one story in detail Monday to Friday. Subscribe or follow us wherever you can. Today, amidst the noise, the terror, the anguish, and bloodshed on the ground, we're asking who's winning the current Israel-Gaza war online? The losers, it's clear, are the innocent civilians. Now, Liz, you've pointed out that it's social media has never been so loud, so passionate, so active in a Middle East war. What difference do you think it is making or it will make to how the conflict unfolds?


I think I would begin by saying, Katya, that although we're focusing on some of the negative aspects of the trolling, the battles online, it is also a very good thing that so many around the world care. Terrible things are happening in our time, and the world should know about them. That engagement online is also leading to record protests in the streets of major cities around the world, including London, including Washington. It also has had consequences for the way the war is being watched across the region and the real fears at the beginning that the war could spread, that these very, very shocking images, distressing images, brutal images could then light fires right across the region. There were fires, there were protests which went violent. So what happens online does have the power to actually spread offline, which is why people hope that out of these fires comes a little light that perhaps when the war stops, and we don't know when that will be, that Israelis and Palestinians, and once the emotions are not as raw as they are now, they will try to find a different way out of this conflict. So that the Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace.


It's a real debate, isn't it, Mariana, online, on the one hand, as Lee says, where there's public engagement, global public engagement in this particular case and so much civilian suffering, one positive way of seeing it would be that could put pressure on governments to try and bring an end to this conflict once and for all, to try and look to a peaceful solution for Israeli, Palestinians long term, and in the short term, to stop the attacks on civilians immediately. But on the other hand, you're saying that a lot of the content online, the emotive content online, is actually dividing people further. We looked at TikTok. What about X? You mentioned it formerly Twitter, as a lot of us still call it, is now run by Elon Musk. He was somebody who sold himself as the man of full, free speech. How is that playing out now online in this particular conflict?


This has been probably the biggest test for Elon Musk. He took over X at the end of last year, and there were lots of layoffs and there were lots of changes. And as a consequence, the site has been under huge amounts of scrutiny for how it's been handling what's going on. And there have been real concerns about disinformation, hate, particularly anti-Semitic hate, but also his homophobic hate that have spread on the platform. Elon Musk himself was accused of fanning the flames of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories by responding to a user who'd shared them. That's something he categorically denies, having contributed to anti-Semitism on the platform. I think for the first time, and I don't know if either of you have found this, but what pops up on your feed and what doesn't is not as curated as it was before. So it can actually be really quite hard to figure out who's who. We know the blue tick thing, which is that blue ticks used to be given to accounts that were verified or who were often journalists or politicians or people were who they said they were, and that's why they had a blue tick.


Elon Musk got rid of that and changed it so that you can buy a blue tick. That means there are accounts that look verified or look like you can trust them, but actually, they're not who they say they are or they're promoting things that are false or misleading. All of that has really contributed to the chaos and confusion on social media and people finding it really, really hard to figure out what is happening. The EU are actually investigating X over allegations that it hasn't done enough to get on top of the problem of disinformation and hate. Again, X has defended itself. It said that it's taken loads of action to deal with this content. Above all, it values protecting the user's freedom of expression, their voice on the platform. I think what's really interesting is all of this actually brings us back to the point about what is working on different social media platforms and what is quote-unquote, winning. Because people don't know what to trust, and what I've tended to find from speaking to influencers that are posting content or from people that are just watching videos, messaging, sharing stuff, that because they don't know who to trust, it means that content that is slick or well-produced or very well-done, they're really suspicious of it.


They think, Oh, hang on. They're suspicious of the media, too. They're suspicious of us. They don't trust what we're saying. They do trust what they see as authentic, more real and much more genuine. They have someone just sitting at home saying, Well, I think this is what's happening. They see it as unvarnished and true. I think that's really difficult because just because something is polished doesn't necessarily mean it's misleading. It could just be quite a good video or a good post.


You're saying the words there, Mariana, real, and genuine, and, Liz, earlier you were talking about truth, but those words are as fiercely debated and contested as opinions online and videos we see online too, as well. The accusations of fake videos, fake victims.


Listen, this has dovetailed with the move by many media organizations, including the BBC, setting up what we call a verify unit so that we go and verify the videos. It was interesting, just before we started our conversation, I was following one of our BBC WhatsApp group by the people who are doing what's called OSINT, open source intelligence. They were looking at the latest videos from Gaza, and they were saying, Okay, they were looking at the telephone poles, the shadow of the telephone poles, the tree, the bus stop. It's extraordinary the tools that they have. So on one side you have these videos to be verified, but then on the other side you have, I think, the videos which are really electrifying this war, especially for the younger generation, but not only the only generation, because in telling a story... We're part of the traditional storytellers, the mainstream storytellers, and it matters who the storyteller is. And on Instagram, there is a new generation of Palestinian filmmakers. They're in their 20s, and they are providing raw, unfiltered, very personal, very emotional stories, but they are on the ground. And when you follow their videos, people like 24-year-old Motaz, whose Instagram followers have rocketed from, not the best phrase to use, but 25,000 followers on Instagram to now 14 million and counting.


Every day I look at his account, he's gone up by a million more. Plestia, another 20-something, Hind, Hudery. They're not really journalists. They do some journalism. They don't hide. They are taking stands on the war, but they are providing a really breathless and breathtaking andand really it's hard to question them because they are there on the ground in the heat and dust under the bombings. They are losing their own family members. They are losing their... They say, Montage says, I'm scared. I don't know whether I'll be alive tomorrow. And you are carried through this war by them. This is really one of the strongest threads coming out of this war, this reporting in this way. That is also making people angry. I think this is a new dimension of the way, not just the way we follow war, but how close we get to war or think we get to war.


We all have to view with caution, I guess, what we're seeing on social media, particularly when it plays on our emotions. When it comes to Instagram as well, there have been quite a lot of questions for Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook about its moderation, or accusations that Meta has been over zealous in how it's been moderating. There are examples of very big accounts, one being I on Palestine, which has got millions of followers, over six million followers, that was suspended briefly. Meta said this was to do with a security issue to do with the security of the account, but lots of people were concerned that this was actually unfair, moderation that an account that was putting out information about what's going on the ground, particularly videos of people who've experienced really horrific violence, was being censored in some way or not. I think it raises that wider question of the social media companies are being criticized left, right and center. They're either not doing enough or they're doing too much, or they are, certainly from the evidence I've seen, they've struggled to keep on top of this. They'd all point towards the way that they are taking action against harmful content, that they are keeping on top of both graphic and sensitive content, and then also disinformation and also hate and everything else.


But it's a reminder that the social media companies don't seem to have fully got to grips with how to cope with this kinds of stuff and holding them to account for how they handle this content and what happens on their platforms is really difficult.


I think, Mariana, if we're asking the question, who is winning the online war? We have to look at who we mean by who. When we're talking about sides, are we talking about Palestinians or Hamas? Not the same thing. Are we talking about the Israeli government or Israel? I mean, Israelis themselves don't feel represented, many of them, by their government. So how is all of that playing out on Instagram?


I think it's really interesting to think about what we mean by that and who we think is perhaps having the most influence online. I think it's important, actually, to not necessarily view this as one side versus the other or Hamas versus the Israeli government on social media. A lot of this is about smaller social media battles that are being waged by different creators or influencers or people sharing content who align with one side or the other. I think in some ways, a lot of that's to do with the way that we think of influencer culture as reality telly or people that build huge followings by sharing different makeup products they've been using or new outfits. But actually, influencer culture now is a lot bigger than that. Actually, a lot of the people who you're describing, Leece, are in some ways akin to influencers, but they're influencers who are on the ground living through such a terrible time that it's hard for anyone to imagine, and therefore comes with it, too, the same problems that have come with influencer culture, which is trying to work out how authentic a piece of content is, it can be really hard.


When influencers sell us products on social media, they have to have a little hashtag where they say add and they'll talk about what they're sharing. Now, there's some absolutely devastating and very raw testimony coming out from people on the ground. But it can also be really hard to get to the bottom of other people encouraging them to post that content. How do you really verify the truth of what's going on? And sometimes that's easier than in other occasions where there have been accusations of, or this person is being directed by Hamas to do this, or This person is being told to do this. It can be really hard to figure out what you can trust and what you can't trust. And I think that's why the videos you're describing from Instagram influencers where they say, I don't know if I'm going to be alive tomorrow, I've lost this person, or I don't have anything to eat. They're really performing well with particularly younger people because they can trust that because it's what someone's feeling or saying, or it feels very genuine and authentic.


They also give us, Kachi, we have to say, we've been saying about how this is one of the worst wars we've seen in terms of the numbers, but the images which are being brought to us through social media, they're the images that are so graphic that some of them would be too graphic, we would decide too bloody, too gory to put into our traditional news reports. The babies shivering on hospital journeys full of dust, babies arriving in the hospital having lost their entire families, whole families being wiped out. The war itself, we're talking about the messengers rather than the message, but the war itself and the images that we are seeing are also distressing.


It can be sometimes one image that really resonates with a particular individual. I remember when I was out in the Middle East covering this conflict, and it was the day that mothers were saying how they were writing the names of their children on their limbs, so that if they were killed in an Israeli bombing attack, even if they couldn't hold a funeral for them, at least they would know that that is the person who's died and be able to identify them. As a mom, that really caught hold of me in a similar way to when looking at the pictures of the babies who were kidnapped by Hamas and held in Gaza. Again, as a mom, you just think, I can't even imagine that. Mariana, on social media, is there space, really, for the bigger picture, the broader context? Because it is fundamental in an issue like this, the Israeli-Palestinean conflict, to know the.


Broader history. I think that gets to the crux of the problem, really. There isn't much room for nuance and context and complex discussion on social media. A lot of it is very blunt, direct. It's very, I think this, it's very categorical, and there's no room for any other thought or view. I think that that is the role that social media plays in this, that it actually makes it even more difficult for people to be able to have complex and nuanced conversations. But I think what I do realize is that people want to know what's going on. They do really want to know, but they can't always quite understandably figure out what to trust and what's true and what's not. It's our job to... Perhaps if you were thinking about the BBC even 40, 50 years ago, that we're on high and you're broadcasting out to people. Now, social media has brought us all down so that we're all on the same level. You want to be like, Guys, come with us as we tell you what's happening and we show you what's going on and we investigate the social media world or the real world.


The more that we can, particularly when it comes to harmful misinformation, and it's something Lisa and I have chatted about before. In one story I covered two four-year-old boys. One Israeli and Palestinian had both been killed. Then social media was saying, No, they haven't. They're not real. This didn't happen in that way. Those stories are devastating. I think it's really important that we unpick them and tell people how this happened so that everyone is equipped with the right skills to say, Right, I can investigate this too, and go and take a look.


But I think there are still, though, Katya, we shouldn't forget them because I'm hoping that they will be the people who listen to your podcast who will continue to follow it. There are still a lot of people out there and perhaps they don't grab the headlines or they're the noisiest on social media, but we still do get the people who send messages to us and they may criticize at the start, then you respond politely and say, This is how we see it, or, We're trying to do the best. You're smiling, Katia. Then they come back and say, Great, good, thank you for clarifying that. Thank you for answering my message. That's an important side of the story that people are coming to us to try to understand a very urgent, a very crucial conflict of our time, as we have been saying, it has reached hearts and homes worldwide. There are many who just would like to have better understanding. They've been coming to us at the podcast that I've been involved with called The Conflict. I hope, I know they will be coming to your podcast. They are also part of the conversation.


Liz and Mariana, thank you so much for your time and sharing your expertise with us on the global story.


We'll be listening. Thank you, Katja. Thank you, Mariana.


Thank you for having us. Thank you. Thank you.


So that was the BBC's Liz Duset and Mariana Spring. We also want to hear from you, our listeners, on this new podcast, we want your ideas, your stories, your experiences to help us understand and tell the global story. Email us at theglobalstory@bc. Com. You could text us or leave us a voice note on WhatsApp on plus 4.4, 3.0, 1.2.3, 9.4.0. We really would love to hear from you.




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