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26 October 2023

The age of media anarchy must end

A deluge of misinformation during the Israel-Hamas war has shown why we need new rules for the digital era.

By Lewis Goodall

Carl von Clausewitz wrote of the fog of war. In the latest iteration of the forever war of Israel-Palestine, rarely has this fog seemed thicker. Misinformation (always a tool of conflict) is everywhere.

In both Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, total war has met the phenomenon of total coverage, or totalising online coverage. Every second is charted, documented and narrated, conceived and counter-conceived by governments, journalists, experts and punters alike. Knowledge and narrative become almost as important as bombs and bullets.

It’s sometimes easy to forget how new this is. At the time of the last major Western interventions – during the “war on terror” – neither Twitter, nor Facebook, yet existed. The flow of information in war zones was still largely restricted and mediated by states and TV news. Reasonable gaps could pass between momentous events without comment, much less final judgement. It was a way through the fog: it could be stolid but it functioned in some important ways. It now feels like a distant past.

In Ukraine, our new reality was easier to navigate. Though an army of Russian bots toiled on behalf of the Kremlin, they were more easily spotted and countered by Western state agencies and media companies. There was relatively little polarisation among democratic electorates (at least at the beginning), little argument about which side was right and which side was wrong. There was an appetite for old-fashioned, solid, accurate news reporting. The online media space was, generally speaking, navigable.

None of this holds true for the Israel-Hamas war. Opinions about this conflict are riven sharply along political, generational and even cultural lines. News from or about the region is shone through a series of separate, sharply defined prisms, each refracting beams of information in different directions, to different eyeballs. This is the “ecosystem” theory of media and we’ve seen it in technicolour horror over the past two weeks.

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The appetite for any truth that does not conform to the exact politics a person subscribes to is limited. Any journalist reporting on the conflict will tell you that the same information can be met with charges of either anti-Semitism or being a Netanyahu shill. When the news came of the horrendous explosion at a Gazan hospital, few waited for evidence of attribution or eyewitness testimony, but instead used the event to prosecute their cause and reaffirm their beliefs. The same was true when reports first started to emerge about the exact nature of the horrific kibbutz attacks on 7 October. Whispers and fragmentary information are enough – because on social media, that is all you need for a narrative to ignite and spread – often aided by the state actors, on both sides, who stand to benefit. Nuance is nowhere.

[See also: Misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war is a serious problem]

Should we care what happens on these platforms? No one should mistake the zealots of the online world for the less news-hungry laity outside it. But it would be a mistake to think this crucible of news doesn’t matter. Whether we like it or not, the narratives set on elite networks, such as Twitter, often define the terms of debate. Misinformation that becomes accepted there gets spread to the world outside, and is eventually inhaled by everyone else. This can have real-world consequences because it shapes public opinion, politics and policy.

Other factors haven’t helped lift the fog. British politicians, especially from the Conservative Party, have been unable to resist the opportunity to make the British political debate even more insular than normal, using one of the gravest geopolitical events in recent decades to attack… the BBC. The futile, pointless argument over the broadcaster’s long-standing policy of not describing any group as “terrorist” has distracted from what matters. Worse, by undermining one of the few trusted and independent arbiters of information the UK has, Tory ministers have made it easier for others to peddle disinformation. 

Not that the “mainstream” media has been flawless. Numerous large media organisations, including the New York Times and the BBC, sent notifications to the phones of millions stating that al-Ahli hospital had, according to Palestinian officials, been bombed by Israel, and that is all many will ever see (both the NYT and BBC have since conceded they were at fault). Similar Israeli claims about the war have received the same treatment.

Organisations, including the BBC, are staffed by some of the most experienced and best journalists in the world, who need no help in judging claims and counterclaims from warring states. But their level-headed analysis rarely fits into a brief notification or a breaking news tweet.

Far graver is the role of Elon Musk, who as the owner of Twitter, or X, is proving entirely corrosive to properly functioning discourse. Musk’s philosophy of information is pre-Hobbesian. In removing verification for established journalists and media companies, in reinstating thousands who had been banned from the platform for abuse or trolling, and in gutting the content moderation team of his company, he has turned Twitter into an information state of nature, a war of all against all. This isn’t the democratisation of news, it is its anarchisation. It pretends that all information is equal when it is most decidedly not. This is guaranteed to accelerate wider democratic decline.

Two things need to happen. The first is easier, at least in theory. Major media organisations should stop searching for instant clicks via phone notifications and breaking news tweets. This will require cultural change but it is possible. The gains from the current model are outweighed by the costs.

The second shift is much harder. It would require regulators in the major media markets – the US, the EU and, to a lesser extent, the UK – to get serious about online regulation, including platforms such as Twitter. More scrutiny is required of algorithmic models that intensify partisanship and narrow ecosystems. Musk has already threatened to remove the site from Europe because Brussels has promised exactly this. But in the borderless online world, everyone must act in concert. As Thomas Hobbes would tell you, only a leviathan can tame the state of nature.

Tackling this might be too late for the Israel-Hamas war but not for our totalising information age. We still have the chance to make it what it ought to be. All of this extends far beyond events in Israel; they are just a symptom of a wider malaise. As a journalist covering this conflict, it’s sometimes been hard to see through the fog. The danger is the average voter just stops trying and that truth, somewhere in the thick mist, dies. Any hope of a functioning public square will go with it.

[See also: The Cloud of Unreason]

This article was amended on 27 October to say that the BBC had, like the “New York Times”, admitted it was wrong to speculate on who was behind the hospital blast.

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