Why people should avoid relying on social media as a source for information in the Israel Gaza conflict - Jayne Dowle

Almost a week after Hamas infiltrated the Israeli border from Palestine and began its murderous rampage, my son came into the living room and told me to stay off X (formerly Twitter).

At 21, Jack is turning into a kind of policeman for things on social media he thinks his mother might find disturbing or upsetting. I told him that I try to avoid X whenever possible except for necessary work purposes. He advised me to avoid searching for anything to do with Israel, because images of decapitated and burned babies would appear before my eyes and I wouldn’t be able to get them out of my mind.

I looked at Jack, all 6ft 3in of him, with his beard and his responsible job in a care home for disabled adults, and I thought, not for the first time, that this is how it begins. The tiny child you once sheltered from all that was evil and dangerous in the world gradually becomes the protective caretaker of the parent.

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I have to say, we have some fairly robust discussions about where to draw the line. But on this occasion, I listened carefully and took on board his concern. Call me old-fashioned, but as the conflict endures another gruesome week, I’m taking my information only from highly-verified news sources; respected newspapers, including this one, either BBC or Channel 4 news, and radio news programmes, including BBC Radio 4 and Times Radio.

People take part in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Piccadilly Circus, London. PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA WirePeople take part in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Piccadilly Circus, London. PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire
People take part in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign demonstration in Piccadilly Circus, London. PIC: Jordan Pettitt/PA Wire

Newspapers are not only able to offer space to air all sides of what is obviously a very complex religious and political situation, they also give pages over to frontline coverage from courageous war reporters and photographers.

TV news programmes, constantly treading the line of balance - challenged hugely by the furore over the BBC’s refusal to describe Hamas as ‘terrorists’ – can be almost anodyne as a result of these scales, but do have the ability to put politicians on the spot with live interviews.

Radio is perhaps the calmest way to keep up to date; there are no images, obviously, and it’s the visual impact of the horrors of the Hamas/Israeli conflict that is so visceral.

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Last week, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the extraordinary step of actually releasing ghastly photographs of defenceless murdered babies. The rationale, explained a spokesperson, was simple: “So that the world will see just a fraction of the horrors that Hamas carried out.”

The official Israel Twitter account chose to share the largely unblurred images with its 1.2 million followers, but most media organisations have opted to obscure close-ups of the terrible detail.

These, and other images of girls and young women being raped and tortured, were the ones that my son was warning me about.

The decision of the Israeli government to share these extremely disturbing images, it’s reported, came after critical public figures cast doubt on some of its claims about the atrocities carried out by Hamas as the organisation’s militants infiltrated towns in the southern part of the country.

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So here is the debate; Israel wants the world to see such horrific images because it wants us all to know what is going on. However, by looking at them are we not only in danger of traumatising ourselves, but becoming party to a highly inflammatory situation and forced to take sides?

And, we have to ask, does this mean we are being manipulated, and in the most cynical of ways, by being presented with the most innocent of victims? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, but important to consider.

I would argue that if you’re non-aligned with either the Israeli or Palestinian cause, the only sensible course to steer is a middle one. I’m not alone in finding myself shocked at the strength of feeling on both sides here in the UK, seeing the protests and demonstrations, and the way that young people in particular have taken up the batons.

Whilst many protestors will have long-established community ties, I’m hearing of others who are joining either side inflamed by what they are seeing on social media. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but the last thing we need in a world already riven with strife is yet another polarising situation.

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And we have to avoid knee-jerk reactions. Whilst it is important to keep media free and democratic, it is also vital to have a system of checks and balances that keeps nuanced information, including AI-generated content and recycled old footage, at bay.

It can be difficult in what is known as the ‘fog of war’ to differentiate verified facts – and images – from those which are designed to engineer opinion and garner support.