peace protesters demand a Gaza cease-fire outside the White House

Peace protesters demand a Gaza cease-fire outside the White House.

(Photo: IfNotNow)

Pro-Palestinian Voices Are Not Disinformation

Young people and foreign nations calling for an end to Israel’s brutality are breaking through the U.S. bipartisan effort to maintain Israel’s legitimacy, causing officials and the media to lash out with flimsy evidence.

As the bombardment of Gaza by the Israeli government continues, with over 10,000 killed, including thousands of children, the U.S. and other nations backing the violence are struggling to maintain widespread legitimacy. Protests continue, cease-fire statements by high-profile individuals and organizations continue, and international calls for an end to the madness continue. Yet U.S. politicians and supportive media corporations also continue to deny that they are wrong, manufacturing new lies to justify their complicity in horrific crimes.

One of the most recent attempts at denying the growing consensus in support of Palestine in the U.S. is to call it a result of people on social media (particularly young people) being tricked by foreign propaganda. A bipartisan group of politicians, media pundits, and think tanks have begun arguing that support for Palestine is built on fake news and disinformation; that millions are being manipulated by China, Russia, Iran, or Hamas.

In reality, their expert sources claiming to have identified disinformation campaigns are relying on flawed analyses. Their claims of disinformation are simply cases of speech they do not like because it points out hypocrisy, legacies of violence, and morally corrupt politics. As has been the case before, “disinformation” is being weaponized to cover actual manipulation—that of mainstream media and U.S. government officials justifying genocide.

Manipulation of the Youth

To a large degree, the main target of these manipulations is said to be young people—particularly those on college campuses. Media pundits across the political spectrum are trying to explain why a growing majority of young people are pro-Palestine, with varying levels of scorn for advocates. From liberal media, MSNBC’s Joy Reid featured experts explaining that young people are morally outraged over Palestine’s destruction. Nicole Wallace, also from MSNBC, took a different tact, featuring Jewish college students who penned an op-ed in TheNew York Times condemning their campuses’ pro-Palestinian attitudes as hateful extremism. Right-wing media has been concerned about college protests since the conflict began, having argued for surveilling campuses for fears of a “day of jihad.”

These same media outlets are then explaining this inexplicable behavior by arguing that young people are being manipulated by foreign nations on social media, most notably TikTok. Morning Joe on MSNBC recently featured Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.) issuing a lengthy diatribe claiming that “on social media, our kids and us are being manipulated by psy-ops by China and Russia; feeding us all sorts of pictures and imagery and fake propaganda on what’s going on there.” Former Ambassador to the U.N. and current Republican presidential candidate, Nikki Haley, also claimed on Fox News, “You want to know where all this pro-Hamas information is coming from? It is coming from foreign actors that are sowing chaos and division.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Ark.) are also raising alarms about Chinese Communist pro-Hamas propaganda on TikTok.

Even if the premise is entertained, the evidence provided for the supposed mass manipulation of young people through social media is shoddy at best.

Targeting and devaluing dissenting voices in universities as “radicals” and “Marxists” has been a staple of many far-right political campaigns, as Jason Stanley makes clear in his work How Fascism Works. But this also mixes with a feature of modern disinformation rhetoric: that the disinformed are irrational, crazy, or stupid. Students are being framed as uninformed radicals, cognitively underdeveloped, and manipulated online, in contrast to the rational, realistic adults who support Israel. This division then allows dismissal of student voices, as they are deprived empathy and written off as foolish and manipulated.

Flooding Social Media With Bots

Even if the premise is entertained, the evidence provided for the supposed mass manipulation of young people through social media is shoddy at best. Several politicians and organization are saying that bots on social media are proliferating pro-Hamas content. Nikki Haley, in the same Fox interview, condemned “Russian bots, the Iranian bots and the Chinese bots,” and so did The New York Times, in an article that quoted an analysis from Israeli security company Cyabra claiming that it detected 40,000 bots online since October 7. The researchers at Cyabra also claimed that “Hamas has employed a broad, sophisticated media strategy, inspired by groups like the Islamic State.”

Blaming bots for inconvenient changes in public opinion is not without precedent, as it was a common refrain as Democratic politicians tried to explain Donald Trump’s election in 2016. In a careful and thorough analysis of propaganda on social media in that period, Benkler, Faris, and Roberts, in their book Network Propaganda, provided detailed evidence that bots were not nearly as influential as mainstream media in shaping opinion. Crucially, they argue, the presence of manipulation campaigns, including social media bots, did not guarantee their efficacy.

Moreover, Benkler, Faris, and Roberts detail how difficult it is to detect bots in the first place, as algorithms often rely on categorizing accounts based on “inauthentic” behavior—a measure that is incredibly difficult to motivate and inevitably plagued by bias. Cyabra’s 40,000 bots are not rigorously described, nor are their detection algorithms detailed, casting doubt on the number, let alone the actual effects of their activity. A much higher burden of proof must be put on anyone arguing that bots are present in the first place and leading to widespread manipulation on top of that.

An Information War With Authoritarians

But claims of social media influence go beyond bot campaigns, as The New York Times quoted a U.S. State Department official’s claim that the U.S. is generally in “an undeclared information war with authoritarian countries.” The authors cite the Institute for Strategic Dialogue as an independent expert who has verified this information war. A recent report of theirs analyzed posts on X (Twitter) from Iranian, Russian, and Chinese diplomats and state media accounts, and claimed that “social media platforms [are] becoming flooded with violent content, false and unverified claims, and emotionally charged rhetoric designed to drive engagement.”

But the evidence they provide does not support this claim at all. Their evidence includes several cases of Iran condemning colonialism, saying the October 7 attack was a result of repression of Palestinians, shows images of killed civilians, and points out U.S. hypocrisy in supporting Ukraine but not Palestine. They document Russia calling this a Western military failure, supporting a peace process, and pointing out U.S. hypocrisy. They screenshot China calling for a cease-fire, calling out hypocrisy, claiming the U.S. will profit from the war, and critiquing claims to Israel’s right to self-defense.

“Disinformation” is being weaponized to explain away the fact that much of the public thinks the government’s actions are illegitimate.

None of these messages are disinformation, they are simply viewpoints that believe Palestine is being wrongly destroyed by Israel, or that contextualize this conflict in the long history of Israeli violence towards Palestinians. Disagreement is not disinformation, nor is providing a counter-narrative to the dominant view. Blaming U.S. failures on Russia, China, or Iran has become a consistent strategy of the U.S. government at this point. But just as previous invocations of the threat of authoritarian information manipulations have been built on flimsy evidence, so too is this.

Weaponizing ‘Disinformation’ to Hide Disinformation

Young people and foreign nations calling for an end to Israel’s brutality are breaking through the U.S. bipartisan effort to maintain Israel’s legitimacy, which is causing officials and their media supporters to desperately lash out with flimsy evidence. As with Trump’s election in 2016, the political apparatus cannot explain how they are losing control, and thus blaming social media and its manipulation by bots and foreign powers.

“Disinformation” is being weaponized to explain away the fact that much of the public thinks the government’s actions are illegitimate. But these claims, in a sense, are more true to how disinformation and propaganda work: constructing out-groups in students and social media users; removing empathy for them by saying they are foolish, hateful, and manipulated; and pinning it all on typical out-group enemies in Russia, China, and Iran.

This narrative cannot be allowed to spread uncritically, as it is built on shoddy evidence. Disinformation is occurring, but more so from the mainstream, bipartisan consensus condoning explicit genocide. We should continue to critique the increasingly desperate attempts to justify extreme violence against Palestinians. The consensus is gradually fracturing, as the courageous truth-telling of young people, Palestinians through social media, and other nations is hammering away at the facade.

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