By Prachi Arya
The news of the alleged beheading of Jewish babies and children by the fighters of Gaza administrator Hamas in the latest flare-up between Israel and Palestine spread like wildfire and has had a worldwide impact. However, more recent expositions have sought to establish the falsity of videos of Hamas beheading Israeli babies and using people, including children, as shields.
In another instance, a viral video from 2016, of a Syrian rebel group beheading a boy in Aleppo, was posted on Twitter and linked to the current crisis. Upon fact-checking, similar other visuals from 2016, unrelated to the current flare-up, were also found to be falsely linked to the recent violence.
A quick search on the artificial intelligence supported platform Chat GPT indicates that reports of minors being targeted by Hamas are unverified and probably false. A recent Al Jazeera article underlines the fact that most anti-Palestine disinformation originated from India. It also highlights the rise of online disinformation spread by far-right accounts in India. The article mentions that accounts allegedly linked to the infamous Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ‘IT cell’ have been actively spreading disinformation on the Israel–Palestine conflict.
‘BJP IT cell’ is a broad-based term used to describe the social media and online communication wing of the Hindu right-wing party which is currently the ruling regime in India. The party’s IT cell plays a significant role in shaping its online presence, disseminating information, and engaging with supporters and critics alike.
The Indian disinformation campaign includes false claims of Hamas kidnapping a Jewish baby and a video falsely depicting Palestinians kidnapping people to be made sex slaves. The Al Jazeera article finds that many of the accounts sharing these false videos also engaged in posting anti-Muslim comments on social media platforms. Such narratives only serve to flame hatred and disseminate Islamophobia and hate speech online.
When global crises and emergencies occur, whether it is the Covid pandemic or warring countries, technology is often co-opted to serve the narrative of powerful stakeholders. In such situations, online sources that usually connect people around the world and provide access to critical information become a tool to manipulate public sentiment.
Accusations of people, including children, being used as shields in both Israel and Palestine are not new. In fact, the long-drawn conflict between Israel and Palestine has been marred by accusations and counter-accusations regarding the use of human shields, particularly involving children. Both sides have made such claims against each other, including in 2018 and 2007.
Israeli forces deliberately place civilians, including children, in harm’s way to deter attacks or to gain a tactical advantage, as observed by Amnesty International and the United Nations, who have documented cases where Palestinians were allegedly coerced or forced to act as human shields. On the other hand, Israel has accused Hamas of deliberately using Israelis and Palestinians, including children, as human shields.
The highly polarised nature of the conflict often leads to conflicting narratives and interpretations of events. Further, investigations into these allegations are often hindered by limited access to conflict zones and lack of cooperation from both sides.
It is important to note that while the pervasive use of digital technologies exacerbates disinformation, it is by no means a product of information technology. False news predates the rise of the internet and the widespread use of digital platforms for news.
For instance, the news of Hamas harming babies is strikingly similar to the Gulf War reportage claiming that Iraqi soldiers had removed babies from incubators in Kuwait hospitals and left them to die. This story was widely reported and influenced public opinion, but it was later revealed to be a fabrication— part of a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign aimed at justifying military intervention.
In the digital age, the menace of false information is pervasive and has become a pressing concern. False information, referred to as disinformation when intentional and misinformation when unintentional, has far-reaching consequences. It does not just shape public opinion and influence events such as elections but may also incite violence.
The 2018 ‘WhatsAppLynchings’, where messages circulated on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp spread canards about child kidnappers operating in various parts of the country and led to a wave of panic and fear among the public, perfectly illustrate this phenomenon. Tragically, multiple people lost their lives as a result of mob attacks following the false rumours.
Such disinformation can include doctored images, videos and text messages, which may be designed to manipulate emotions and provoke a sense of urgency that leads to the rapid spread of false information.
In the WhatsApp lynching case, the lack of verification and critical thinking, combined with the rapid spread of these messages, led to a dangerous situation where innocent lives were lost due to the dissemination of false information.
Arguably, the perniciousness of fake news reached its zenith during the Covid pandemic, leading to an ‘infodemic’ due to the abundance of misinformation. Among other things, this included false claims about unproven treatments or cures, as well as dangerous misleading information on self-medication.
Even when lives are not at stake, the psychological impact of fake news can cause profound damage. Fake news often employs emotional manipulation techniques, such as using compelling narratives or evocative imagery, to elicit strong emotional responses.
When individuals come across alarming or distressing headlines, it can trigger emotional responses such as fear, anger or anxiety, contributing to heightened stress levels that negatively impact mental health. As individuals struggle to discern what is true and what is false, the constant exposure to misinformation can lead to a state of heightened vigilance and mistrust, contributing to a general sense of unease and anxiety in an already tense situation.
In India, fake news is regulated through a complex legal framework that covers cable TV, newspapers, online platforms and films that are used to handle cases such as the 2018 WhatsApp lynching incident.
To illustrate, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Tehseen S. Poonawalla versus Union of India prescribed certain guidelines to state governments, including the registration of a first information report (FIR) “under Section 153A of the IPC and/or other relevant provisions of law, against persons who disseminate irresponsible and explosive messages and videos having content which is likely to incite mob violence and lynching of any kind.”
The Indian Penal Code (IPC) contains provisions that can be applied to cases involving fake news and misinformation. Sections such as 153 (provocation with intent to cause riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, etc.), and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief) can be invoked to address instances where fake news leads to violence, communal disharmony or public disorder.
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 provides the legal framework for investigating and prosecuting criminal offences in India. It includes provisions that can be applied to cases involving fake news, such as the power to conduct searches, seize evidence and arrest individuals involved in disseminating false information. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: The Leaflet