Yesterday evening around 7 pm local time, an explosion rocked the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City. Within minutes, information about what had happened was distorted by partisan narratives, disinformation, and a rush to be first to post about the blast. Add in mainstream media outlets parroting official statements without verifying their veracity, and the result was a chaotic information environment in which no one was sure what had happened or how.
“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,” Kolina Koltai, a senior researcher at open source intelligence (OSINT) news outlet Bellingcat, tells WIRED.
Moments after the explosion was reported, Gaza’s health ministry claimed the blast was caused by an Israeli rocket attack and that hundreds of people had died, marking what would be among the deadliest attacks of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza. News organizations such as The New York Times and Reuters ran with the claim, pushing notification alerts to people’s phones with the news that Israeli rockets had killed Palestinians sheltering in a hospital in Gaza. “Breaking news: Israeli strike on hospitals kill hundreds, Palestinian officials say,” The New York Times alert read.
Soon after those push notifications went out, the Israeli military said its intelligence officers had tracked rockets fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an armed militant group in Gaza that is aligned with Hamas against Israel but often acts independently. Israeli military officials said they observed Islamic Jihad rockets passing the hospital at the time of the strike, adding that it was these projectiles—not an Israeli rocket—that hit the facility’s parking lot.
News organizations quickly changed their headlines to reflect the counterclaim from Israel and pushed out more notifications to their audiences. The updated headline from The New York Times read: “At least 500 dead in blast at Gaza hospital, Palestinians say.”
This was only the beginning of the confusion.
In the hours after the attack, @Israel, the official Israeli account on X (formerly Twitter), posted a video it claimed was proof that the explosion was the result of a misguided rocket launched by Islamic Jihad militants. But within minutes, Aric Toler, a former Bellingcat researcher who now works for The New York Times, pointed out that the time stamp on the video showed 8 pm local time, a full hour after the explosion took place.
“When you see people in such a capacity putting out a claim, walking it back, putting out a video, deleting the video, it makes it tough, not just for us to do our job, but even for the public to find out what’s going on,” Koltai says.
The post on Israel’s official account was subsequently edited to remove the video while maintaining its claim that the attack was not the result of an Israeli strike.
Meanwhile, social media was flooded with videos and images that claimed to provide proof of the origin of the attacks, with many accounts making definitive judgments about those they claimed were responsible for the attack, all without any actual proof.
For experts in the OSINT community who have spent years working on incidents just like this, the confusion and misinformation were frustrating. Figuring out what happened takes time, and the deluge of misinformation only made that work more difficult. [Continue reading…]