Post-truth. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ”Relating to circumstances in which people respond more to feelings and beliefs than to facts.”
The term was coined about ten years ago but exploded into consciousness in 2016 when the same dictionary named it as their word of the year, a fitting honor for a term that increasingly seems to define the era in which we live.
The perils of this post-truth era are horrifyingly revealed in the current news cycle unfolding in the Israel-Hamas war where misinformation and disinformation is shaping the opposing narratives. And this post-truth moment is perhaps most starkly represented around the unique velocity – and ferocity – of the coverage of the explosion at the hospital in Gaza.
Immediately after the hospital explosion, the Palestinian leadership blamed the Israel Defense Forces and cited a figure of 500 killed and insisted the hospital explosion was just part of the IDF’s wave of indiscriminate airstrikes in Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a planned meeting with President Biden who arrived the following day on an historic trip to the Holy Land to show support to Israel and to assure Palestinians that humanitarian aid was going to get through to Gaza.
After taking five hours to assess its own intelligence assessment, the Israeli Defense Forces offered a detailed picture of overhead satellite, drone imagery and intercepts of conversations and assessment of the shape and size of the blast – that they say proved it was a misfired rocket from the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad that caused the explosion. The rocket struck the parking lot and did not cause structural damage to the hospital itself, the IDF said. The death toll remains uncertain, but it appears to be closer to 100 to as many as 300 killed.
As blame and death tolls shifted, the confusion swirled with misinformation and disinformation spreading like wildfire. The emotion surrounding the horrific blast at the hospital served as oxygen for a blaze that was out of control. And, it is still burning with demonstrations in support of Palestinians growing throughout the Middle East and a rising chorus of calls for a ceasefire, which Israel has rejected.
By the time Biden landed in Tel Aviv, U.S. security officials were weighing in with a preliminary assessment of their own, claiming to have independently verified the satellite imagery and intercepts that indicated Israel provided. The implication is that Israel is correct in its assessment that blame lands at the doorstep of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but it is very important to note that the official position of the United States is that the findings are not conclusive. So where does that leave us?
President Biden’s speech last night seemed to find signal amid all the noise with a thoughtful and empathetic expression of support for Israel, and a brotherly admonition not to allow their rage to consume them and cause an overreaction in Gaza that could kill thousands of innocent Palestinians who are already suffering under an intense blockade that Israel has imposed. There was a thin glimmer of light from the rubble yesterday as two of the 200 hostages held by Hamas were poised to be released: an American woman, who is not in good health, and her daughter.
In this time when tensions and emotions are running higher than I have ever seen them through my 30 years of reporting in the Middle East, I am reflecting on the role of journalism and the values of our organization. We believe journalism has the opportunity and responsibility to resist the temptation to be first over getting it right, to elevate facts over emotion. Social media is a curse in a conflict as layered and complex as this one, as it too often fuels falsehoods over truth, divisions over understanding, and arrives void of any historical context.
Most of all, it seems to arrive with unrelenting speed via social media and so when a false report enters into the algorithms of platforms such as Twitter, now branded as “X,” and TikTok, the global impact is almost immediate. The glaring example of this were the early reports of “up to 40 babies beheaded,” as NBC News reported in an “unconfirmed report.” And that report – which was soon to be proven completely untrue – flamed across the social media landscape. The respected, veteran journalist Rami Khouri writing for Al Jazeera, explored how this all got started:
“The beheaded babies tale originated with a report on Israel’s i24News site by reporter Nicole Zedeck, from her interview with Israeli reserve soldier David Ben Zion. Max Blumenthal and Alexander Rubinstein reported on October 11 that Ben Zion is a notorious radical leader in Israel’s West Bank settler movement. Among other things, he called on rampaging armed settlers earlier this year to wipe out the Palestinian village of Harawa, which settlers attacked and burned several times.
Media around the world quickly picked up the i24News report, and the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman said that babies and toddlers “with their heads decapitated” had been found at the site. CNN, among others, reported beheadings and “ISIS-style executions”. When journalists asked a spokesman for the Israeli military about the story, the reply was, “We cannot confirm but you can assume it happened.”
Within days, though, the Israeli foreign ministry and armed forces and some correspondents said there was no evidence for the beheadings, and the White House said that Biden was quoting press reports he’d read. It seemed clear by October 12 that no evidence existed to confirm the baby beheadings story. It was fake news, planted by an ideological warrior to stoke tensions in the heat of battle.”
What actually happened in the Hamas attack when children were shot and burn to death is bad enough. The beheading falsehood only undercuts the importance of the accurate reporting on the horrors of that day. And as Khouri concludes in his piece, “But the damage was done, and wildfire-like social media spreading of fake news had influenced millions of people around the world – mostly by intensifying existing ideological or cultural fault lines and confrontations.”
“The Palestine-Israel conflict now takes place in three primary battlefields: militaries on the ground, media narratives on the air, and attempts by both sides to protect their access to advocate in the public sphere, especially in higher education, public lectures, rallies and advocacy. The media plays pivotal roles in all three arenas, which is why it must be monitored more closely than ever.”
The truth is hard work, and the truth takes time to unearth. It also requires historical context.
It feels like this is the lesson of this war perhaps more than any other and, there is much at stake for the world with the enormous loss of innocent lives already reaching an unprecedented level and threat of a wider war looming. Another sacred aspect of what we do is to offer that ‘calibration’ between what social media is spreading in seconds like wildfire with a longer view of the historical timeline that has brought us to this moment.
Before solid evidence was available and reliably assessed, it seems people had already made up their minds who was to blame. Protests broke out across the Middle East and Biden’s planned summit with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders was canceled.
Daniel Silverman, a political science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies war and misinformation, told NPR, “There really so far does appear to be a flood of misinformation in a very short time, and in a way that’s having a material impact on the diplomacy around the conflict, on the mass mobilization and protests, some of which have the ability to lead to violence… It’s hard to argue misinformation isn’t a central story here, and a really consequential one.”
Mark Twain famously said, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing up its boots. And these days a lie can instantly travel to every corner of the world before the truth even has time to figure where its boots are.
Kolina Koltai, a senior researcher at the open source intelligence news outlet called Bellingcat, which is doing fantastic work using technology to calibrate social media, and satellite images and data gathered through technology with what people are actually seeing on the ground. She told WIRED magazine, “There’s just been this massive sort of pressure to get videos out there, get your take, get your analysis, and it’s like a perfect storm for chaos.” Bellingcat’s reporting using technology to calibrate social media, and satellite images and data gathered through technology with what people are actually seeing on the ground shows how news organizations should approach these tragedies.
That calibration – measuring the speed of social media posts against the more trusted reporting from reporters on the ground – is what we call ground truth.
Some readings on the history and context of the conflict
Here are some suggestions for news sources, books that frame the history and GroundTruth podcast episodes and special reports that explore the long history that has brought us to this point in the Middle East. I hope will help provide some context and, well, ‘ground truth,’ in this post-truth world
So many of you are wondering where can you go to get this more reliable information and I want to offer some suggestions. First, stay off of social media. Look to established journalism organizations with solid standards and practices and track records for getting it right and guidelines for letting their audience know when they do not. You can dismiss it with, “okay boomer,” as my sons sometimes say to me, or you can test it yourself. See how often the reporting on NPR or the BBC leads you down a rabbit hole of misinformation versus the stream of posts you are rifling through on X. I am putting my money on the colleagues I know at good news organizations who are on the ground risking their lives to bring you reporting that is accurate and fair.For historical context, the BBC does an exceptional job on timelines and often provides links to them alongside their breaking news stories. You can find the BBC’s history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here:
For solid reporting from Gaza and a unique depth of experience, the Israeli correspondent for the leading newspaper, Ha’aretz, is Amira Haas. She has spent more time on the ground in Gaza than any Israeli reporter, and indeed there are few from anywhere in the world who have her contacts and depth of knowledge and stunning compassion for Gaza and the Palestinian people. Here is a story from last week that is typical of her work, focused on the issue of fresh drinking water amid the Israeli-imposed blockade and what it means for the people living under the harsh restrictions:
Two other amazing veteran correspondents of the Middle East and long-time colleagues who I deeply admire are: Leila Fadel and Jane Arraf who are on the ground reporting for NPR. For an example of the courage and tenacity that Fadel always brings to her reporting listen to her reporting from the West Bank on the reprisal killings of Palestinians, believed to be at the hands of far-right extremists in Israeli settlements.
If you really want to step back and read some books that can offer historical context, I would recommend the following three books:
Six Days: How the 1967 war shaped the Middle East. By Jeremy Bowen. Jeremy is a friend and colleague and we overlapped in Jerusalem where he was the bureau chief for the BBC and is now the Middle East editor for the BBC. Jeremy uses his vast array of contacts to weave together a completely convincing and compelling account, hour by hour, of the 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As insightful as the best modern history writing and as gripping as fiction, this is a deeply personal book.
The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood by Rashid Khalidi (2007) An unflinching examination of why the Palestinians failed to win a state of their own in the 20th century during and after colonial rule. External actors come in for much of the criticism, but Khalidi, a respected Palestinian-American historian, also finds fault with Palestinian community leaders.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit. Candidly, I have only read excerpts of this book, but I was impressed at how it gets to the heart of the Middle East through personal and historical narrative. It captures the internal and external pressures that have left Israel today at a moment of existential crisis. Ari Shavit draws on interviews, historical documents, private diaries, and letters, as well as his own family’s story, illuminating the pivotal moments of the Zionist century to, as his publisher put it, “tell a riveting narrative that is larger than the sum of its parts: both personal and national, both deeply human and of profound historical dimension.” And lastly, I would like to offer some of the special reports and podcasts we have done through the years at The GroundTruth Project and invite you to see the kind of work we do and the great opportunity I have had to bring my great love for history and years of personal experience in covering the Middle East and starting our family out with the births of two of our sons – on different sides of the divide – to some of my own reporting.
The Eleventh Hour: How World War I shaped the Middle East – A GroundTruth special report with podcast and video and text about the 100th anniversary of WWI and how all the lines of the modern Middle East — the lines now being fought over — were drawn at the end of WWI. The armistice which will be marked on November 11 is a poignant anniversary to reflect on war. They announced they would end the war on the 11th day, the 11th month, at the 11th hour, which is where that phrase the 11th hour comes from. Take a look at the overview for the short video that says all this, which we can use on November 11… And take a look at this part of the series about Jerusalem as there is also some decent video in here.
End of Days podcast. This is about the rise of Christian Zionism in the US, and how the far right in America is supporting Israel and how the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically exploited that connection. Scenes from the podcast takes place during Sukkot, the Jewish holiday, that was the same one being observed in the desert in south Israel at the concert where Hamas carried out its horrifying attack on innocent civilians. I offer this because to understand the emotional, molten core of Jerusalem and the shared sacred space it holds for all three Abrahamic faiths is critical to understanding the tensions that have brought us to the terrible moment in history we are now in.
The Body and The Blood – A reporter’s journey through the Holy Land. I wrote this book during the time I was living in Jerusalem with my wife and sons. And with modesty and humility, I share it with the truth in advertising that I was very young when I wrote it 25 years ago. I hope it might interest those of you who wonder about the dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land and about the possibilities for peace in the Middle East at a time when it still felt possible. Sadly, I believe peace is a more distant possibility now. The book might also help explain why there was a Greek Orthodox church in the middle of Gaza and what the Israeli airstrike that destroyed it and killed two people mean in the historical context. The book is a contemporary journey along the path of Jesus’ life through Bethlehem in what is now the West Bank and south toward Gaza.