October 27, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

How pernicious misinformation is shaping the Israel-Hamas war

That “hospital explosion” wasn’t really a hospital explosion.

Screenshot via PBS.
Screenshot via PBS.

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Editor’s note: Thank you for reading to the Editorial Board, your place for politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. This humble newsletter is how I make a living. It’s how I pay for my daughter’s piano lessons and nature programs and all those things. Some have asked how they can support the EB without committing to a subscription. Here’s the tip jar! In any case, many thanks for reading the EB! –JS

I wanted to interview Nicholas Grossman regarding the role of misinformation in the Israel-Hamas war. I hoped to ask the professor of international relations at the University of Illinois, and senior editor of Arc Digital, about misinformation that arose from American reporting on an explosion at a hospital in Gaza. 

You know what? I ended up repeating a bit of misinformation! 

I asked him to lay out the facts about a “hospital explosion” that “killed hundreds,” and he said nuh-uh (not his words). In fact, Professor Grossman said, “there never were hundreds killed by an explosion at that hospital. Media reported that the hospital was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike killing 500, but that was based on something a Hamas-controlled agency said and was never supported by evidence.” 

“This instance wasn’t normal. While there’s often partial and false info coming out of wars, it is not normal for major media outlets, such as the Times, to publish false information. But this time, many did.”

Professor Grossman went on to say “what apparently did happen is something hit a nearby parking lot and caused a smaller explosion, most likely a rocket fired from Gaza towards Israel that fell short (ie, not an Israeli projectile). People were camping in the parking lot, and the explosion killed some of them, but far less than the originally reported number. The estimates I’ve seen range from 10 to 50.”

My point isn’t to draw attention to my error, but to highlight the pernicious influence of misinformation on everyone, even those, like me, who are at least aware of that pernicious influence, and who are taking the time to ask knowledgeable people about it in times of war.  

Now imagine the pernicious influence of misinformation on people who have no such awareness, or more importantly, on governments that are invested in misinformation being taken as fact. Scaled big enough, that misinformation could affect choices leaders make. As you will see in the rest of my interview, the misinformation that arose from American reporting on the “hospital explosion” could end up shaping the war.

JS: The Gaza hospital explosion story produced a lot of misinformation very quickly. Some say that was an inflection point in a potential widening of the conflict. But isn’t misinformation kinda normal? 

NG: Misinformation is pretty normal, especially in war. Combatants try to spin news in their favor, and sometimes lie. They have trouble seeing through the chaos — known as the “fog of war” — to know exactly what’s happening, and it’s even harder for outside observers.

But this instance wasn’t normal. While there’s often partial and false info coming out of wars, it is not normal for major media outlets, such as the Times, to publish false information. But this time, many did. Politicians in various countries treated it as fact. Protestors surrounded US embassies. The King of Jordan canceled a planned meeting with President Biden. The news media error was big enough that the Times put out a long editor’s note explaining and apologizing.

JS: What challenge does Biden face given this misinformation? Just by stating the facts as known, he risks his “honest broker” position, no?

NG: If anyone still believes the false story, even though it’s been corrected, they would likely see that the president saying that it’s false as bias towards Israel. Some who acknowledge that it’s false still say that, because while Israel didn’t bomb that hospital or kill those people, they’re bombing many targets in Gaza and killing many people.

But those crowds are probably impossible to satisfy, and Biden isn’t about to say that false stories are true in an attempt to satisfy them.

Where it creates a serious challenge is in reactions from major players. If Hezbollah, Syria, Iran and others sympathetic to Hamas’ side believe that the hospital attack happened — or even if the leaders know it’s false but a lot of their people still believe it — they could become more likely to intervene and widen the war. If Arab leaders believe it, or feel a need to placate a public that believes it, they will be less likely to support diplomacy or work with the US to manage the crisis.

JS: Hussein Ibish has said the key to ending this is to stop dehumanizing both sides, in this case Israelis and Palestinians, and start “rehumanizing” them. I trust Hussein means well, but revenge has a powerful pull on the psyche. What can leaders of good faith do?

NG: There’s a lot of well-meaning commentary that offers hope and a vision for the future, but doesn’t give anyone anything actionable to do now. “Rehumanizing both sides” sounds wonderful, but I don’t know how to do it in the short-term, and it doesn’t answer questions like “how can Israel avoid a repeat of the deadly Hamas attacks?”

The best leaders may be able to do is frequently remind Israel that thinking strategically yields better outcomes than lashing out in vengeance. That’s apparently been a focus for the Biden administration, as they’ve held up post-9/11 America as a cautionary tale, stressed that if Israel is going to overthrow Hamas they need to plan for what comes after, and pushed Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

JS: Relatedly, what is the president doing right? Wrong? Some say he’s giving a free pass to Israel. Others say his left flank is going to be a problem for him. Others still are calling him a war president by proxy.

NG: It’s a really hard situation and I think he’s handled it well under the circumstances. In particular, supporting Israel in public has given him more leverage with the Israelis behind the scenes, which he’s used to delay an Israeli ground invasion, get humanitarian supplies into Gaza, and more. He’s also sent clear signals to Iran that the US does not want the war to widen, but is prepared to, which functions as deterrence.

As for something Biden did wrong? I thought his speech overdid the links between Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas, miscasting Israel as Ukraine and Russia as Hamas. The wars, the combatants, and the overall situations are too different in too many ways. Russia-Ukraine is pretty straightforward. Israel-Palestine is anything but.

On “free pass to Israel,” I’d say it’s clear that Biden is supporting Israel after the October 7 Hamas attacks, but not simply going along with whatever Israel wants. Some Americans (and others) want Biden to be more critical of Israel, to stop US military aid, to make America’s priority stopping the Israeli military, or take other steps. But “free pass” is more political hyperbole than objective analysis.

Regarding Biden’s “left flank,” it’s hard to say. For one, it’s impossible to know now what American voters will have at the front of their minds when voting in November 2024. Some criticism of Biden about Israel from the left is a genuine criticism by Biden voters, and some is by activists, commentators, podcasters, etc., who’d never vote Biden, and who guaranteed that Biden would lose in 2020 and Democrats would lose the 2022 midterms. How, or if, US policy towards today’s events in Israel and Gaza impacts the next American election — I don’t know. 

And I don’t think others really know either.

“War president by proxy”  is ridiculous. A lot of things happen in the world that are outside America’s control. Hamas killing 1,400 people in Israel was one of them, and Israel responding to that militarily is another. As a global leader, the US president plays a role in managing various crises. Israel and Hamas have fought many times, across many presidencies, and the US has been giving Israel aid throughout.

JS: Some say Trump’s “isolationist” tendencies are better than Biden’s “internationalist” tendencies. Is this a real debate or false binary?

NG: In general, it’s a false binary. There are degrees of isolationism and interventionism, and circumstances can change views. George W. Bush ran in 2000 as an anti-interventionist, and after Sept. 11 became the opposite. Specifically, it’s wrong. Trump deployed more US troops to Syria, authorized drone strikes, ordered the assassination of an Iranian general — the first foreign military commander targeted and killed by the US since World War II — and quite a bit more. Biden withdrew forces from Afghanistan and curtailed the drone program, then did a lot to help Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. It’s not cut and dry.

On Israel-Palestine, Trump wasn’t isolationist, taking various actions to shift US policy in favor of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That didn’t cause the violence we’re seeing, but it did worsen the situation in ways that made violence more likely.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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