Amid Israel-Hamas conflict, 'information war' plays out on social media, experts say

"Online, what speaks powerfully is images," one expert said.

November 24, 2023, 5:10 AM

In the wake of Hamas' unprecedented surprise attack inside Israel, a battle is being waged on the streets of Gaza, with guns and tanks following Israel's retaliatory bombing campaign. But at the same time, another clash is happening -- one using tweets and shares.

TikTokers, Instagram users and others posting online from both sides of the war -- including those witnessing the conflict up close in Gaza -- are battling it out to win the social media war and influence public opinion worldwide, experts told ABC News.

"It's particularly relevant in this instance. The military battle with Hamas and Israel is predetermined; Hamas can't defeat the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and [the] IDF can't obliterate Hamas. So, you have a wider battle, let's call it an information war," David Patrikarakos, a war correspondent and author of the book "War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Shaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century," told ABC News.

Citing a disparity between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian social media posts, Max Boot, a military historian and a foreign policy analyst, told ABC News he believes, "Israel is losing the information war because it's the battle of victimhood."

A recent study by The Washington Post found that the number of pro-Palestinian hashtags used on the TikTok, Instagram and Facebook platforms has dwarfed pro-Israeli hashtags since the Hamas terror group attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Though, TikTok said those hashtag numbers lacked context, since many social media users come from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. On Facebook, The Washington Post found that the #freepalestine hashtag was used 39 times more than the #standwithisrael hashtag and 26 times more on Instagram.

More than 1,200 people have been killed and over 6,900 others injured in Israel, according to Israeli officials, and Hamas is believed to be holding more than 230 people hostage. Israel retaliated with missile strikes and a ground incursion that have left more than 14,000 dead in Gaza and 35,000 others injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

The terrorist attack in Israel on Oct. 7 was swift and brutal and horrified the world. But with ongoing Israeli retaliatory attacks in Gaza being played out on social media since then, day after day -- in videos that often can't be verified -- the narrative has changed, according to experts.

"... The sympathy of a lot people in the world has shifted away from Israelis," Boot said, adding that the IDF holding press conferences is very different than seeing the aftermath of the attacks in Gaza.

"It's more visceral to show suffering and to express outrage over suffering rather than listen to someone at a press conference," Boot said of the social media disparity. "Israel can just go and say whatever it wants in a press conference, but basically, if you are explaining, you are losing. Online, what speaks powerfully is images."

"Emotional power" of social media

On the Israeli side, the IDF has daily press conferences where officials lay out the news from the front to international journalists, their spokespeople do interviews across news networks, and the foreign ministry pushes out an infographic campaign on social media platforms. Meanwhile, flyers of kidnapped Israelis believed to be held hostage by Hamas are plastered on walls of cities around the world.

For its part, Hamas holds weekly press conferences on the fourth floor of an office building in Beirut, Lebanon. A Hamas spokesperson delivers talking points mostly to an audience of international journalists, even sometimes giving answers in English to the Western press.

But while Israel and Hamas are conducting dueling press conferences at podiums inside conference rooms, some of the citizens of Gaza and Israel are using a different method to get their voices heard: TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, dispatching to the world some of the most visceral and engaging content from the frontlines, Patrikarakos told ABC News.

"It has huge emotional power," Patrikarakos said, referring to social media posts from Gazan journalists. "On one side, you have this young girl telling a deeply personal story, and on other the side, you have a middle-aged man in a uniform at a podium giving statistics, and it's not going to compete."

"The sky no longer gives me hope"

Daily video diaries by social media users about life in a war zone are flooding social media feeds. These accounts have some of the most harrowing descriptions of war and also some of the more mundane, detailing everyday aspects of living in an area under siege.

One Gaza-based journalist, Plestia Alaqad, recently posted to her 3.6 million Instagram followers a video of the blue sky above her filling with smoke from a dropped bomb.

Plestia Alaqad asks the world to see Gaza through her eyes as she posts about her life in the war zone to her 3.4 million followers.
Plestia Alaqad

"The sky always gives me hope," the 22-year-old wrote in the post, which garnered more than 200,000 likes. "I love watching the clouds and their shapes, and I enjoy watching sunsets and sunrises as well ... but now when I look at the sky all I can see is smoke and darkness ... the sky no longer gives me hope."

Alaqad often posts firsthand accounts of the war along with videos showing the aftermath of bombings, some shot from the balcony of her apartment in Gaza. In another recent post on TikTok, the sounds of loud explosions could be heard outside her apartment.

"We're inside the house right now and literally we can't breathe," Alaqad said in the post. She then went to her balcony and recorded the thick smoke filling the sky. "No view. You can't see anything," she said.

When ABC News attempted to reach Alaqad for an interview, she did not respond. In one of her recent posts, she said, her videos speak for themselves.

A "messenger" who says he's debunking misinformation

On the Israeli side, Adiel Cohen -- a social media content creator and influencer, and an enlisted IDF reservist currently on the frontlines on Israel's northern border -- told ABC News his number of followers has doubled since the war began.

"When it comes to views, likes and engagement and even the amount of pieces of content put out there, we are largely outnumbered," the 25-year-old Cohen said, referring to pro-Israel and pro-Jewish content compared to pro-Palestinian social media content.

Adiel Cohen, 25, pictured in this undated photo is a pro-Israel social media influencer and content creator who is also a soldier for the Israel Defense Forces on the front lines in northern Israel.

Cohen recently posted an emotional video from inside Kfar Aza in southern Israel, where numerous residents were killed on Oct. 7 when Hamas terrorists stormed through a security fence at the edge of the kibbutz, shooting indiscriminately at residents, setting fire to homes and killing entire families.

In the video, a tearful Cohen described how one woman was in a bomb shelter that was set on fire by the terrorists to force her out.

Cohen -- a college student who boasts more than 51,000 followers on Instagram, 65,000 on TikTok and more than 12,000 on X -- said he sees himself as a pro-Israeli "messenger" debunking misinformation that goes around on social media.

"I'm not here to read out messages put out by the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs or something, or the IDF spokespeople," Cohen said. "I'm here to speak of my experience as an Israeli Jew living here through the conflict, suffering from terror, suffering from rocket attacks for years, telling my story as much as I can, as much as the security allows me to as a soldier, as a student who left everything behind and was drafted to a war that was imposed on me."

Cohen said he also believes Israel is losing the social media information war.

"It's just that there are a lot less of us [Israelis] and there are a lot more of those who claim to be pro-Palestine, and the images from Gaza to the regular person who doesn't understand the context of what's going on are a lot more horrifying," Cohen said. "It also has to do with the popular narrative nowadays that Israel has the upper hand and Palestinians are the underdog in this conflict. And for a lot of people, it's almost impossible when they live abroad, when they live in America, to understand the nuance, that it's not about Israel versus the Palestinians because the war is not against Palestinians, it's against Hamas."

The unfiltered social media posts from inside Gaza have become a vital source of information for the world as Egypt and Israel control entry into the Gaza Strip, not allowing many foreign reporters to enter independently. The battlefield inside Gaza is mostly off-limits to major international news organizations. An ABC News crew was recently allowed into Gaza while embedded with an IDF unit.

Inside Gaza, citizen journalists, filmmakers, mothers, poets, writers, students and photographers posting on social media say they've seen their engagement exponentially grow as the fighting rages on.

"The impact is huge. That's the power of the iPhone, arming people to be media outlets for the democratization of information," Valerie Wirtschafter, a fellow from the Brookings Institute studying the impact of emerging technologies, told ABC News. "At its core, to be able to document and share is really, really important, especially in places that journalists don't have access to because everyday citizens are living there. The challenge is that there is such a high volume of information now that the footage gets muddled with other videos and it's leading to an overarching sense of mistrust."

"Endless violence"

Motaz Azaiza chronicles his close encounter with a bomb that landed close to where he says his grandmother lives.
Motaz Azaiza

Gaza photojournalist Motaz Azaiza recently posted to his more than 14.8 million Instagram followers a photo of two Palestinian children lying on a hospital gurney, their heads and limbs bandaged and their faces bloodied. "Children in Gaza have been witnessing endless violence by the Israeli forces," Azaiza wrote in the post, which garnered more than 840,000 likes. "These children do not deserve what they are currently experiencing."

In another recent post, Azaiza is seen running through the dust of a recently bombed Gaza neighborhood, horns blaring in the background. "It was closer to my grandma's house, an airstrike near here!" he wrote in the post, which was viewed more than 700,000 times.

Hind Khoudary, a Palestinian journalist inside Gaza, has more than 825,000 followers on Instagram, gaining thousands of them after the war started, and that number continues to grow. In a recent post on Instagram that generated more than 100,000 likes, she appealed for assistance in getting flak jackets and protective clothing so she can continue reporting in the region. In a Nov. 8 post, she showed a home reduced to a pile of rubble, saying as she panned the camera over the destruction, "There are still 24 family members who are buried under this rubble."

Hind Khourday, Gaza Based journalist who has gained 100 000s followers since the October 7th attack.

Patrikarakos said that under Hamas, Gaza has been a "hugely patriarchal society."

"If you were to pick someone who should be the most powerless person in that society, it would be a young female civilian. But now, because of the power of her posts, she [Khoudary] became an incredibly powerful voice for the Palestinian point of view," Patrikarakos said.

But as Patrikarakos pointed out, there is a greater context to these posts, saying the ultimate tragedy of this war is that the suffering of the citizens of Gaza is being used by Hamas to set their narrative to the world.

"Hamas needs influencers to highlight the suffering of its own people because Hamas doesn't have an Air Force. So, it needs the influencers," Patrikarakos said. "You see the more Israel destroys Gaza, the more battlefield victories it has, the less the sympathy of the world because Hamas has a strategy to brandish its own people's bodies to the world. It's the goal. They can't defeat Israel with airpower, so they stack the media with images of dead Gazans and hope that the world sees."

Since its Oct. 7 attack, Hamas has said in multiple statements it was expecting retaliation by Israel, but that it would be the price the group is willing to pay for change for the Palestinian people. "Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it," Ghazi Hamad, a member of the Hamas politburo, told Beirut's LBCI Lebanon News TV station in an interview that aired Oct. 24. "We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs."

The impact of this narrative could have consequences for how the war plays out eventually and the international pressure on Israel, Boot told ABC News.

"Israel doesn't want to alienate the Western world," Boot said. "I think this is something Hamas understands. I think Hamas has made a judgment that creating more Palestinian casualties will lead to its own benefit."

Ben Jensen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said it's important for the public to use a skeptical eye when taking a close look at all the aspects that go into shaping a narrative of the war on both sides -- including social media posts, the videos and the press conferences.

"Take a close look at those emotionally laden stories. You can't just accept it, you should ask, is that really true? What's the other side? What is their perspective?" said Jensen, who authored the book "Information at War: Military Innovation, Battle Networks, and the Future of Artificial Intelligence."

"It's important that we do it because if we don't do it soon, we are literally going to be tearing ourselves apart jacked up on emotion. TikTok is the ultimate emotional drug," Jensen added.

ABC News' Bruno Roeber and Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.