Fake news and Israel
By Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Aish Hatorah Resources
No headline seems too far-fetched when it comes to spreading false news stories about Israel.
Fake news about Israel went mainstream recently when a member of Britain’s House of Lords re-posted a “news” item on her Facebook page that came from an extremist, conspiracy website.
Baroness Jenny Tonge has a long history of hostility to the Jewish state. On January 21, 2017, she posted an article with the shocking “revelation”: the President of Israel called his own country “sick” said that Israel was waging a “Holocaust” against Palestinians, and termed Israelis “worse” than Nazis. Above a picture of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the Baroness wrote “this article shows that there are people, very important people, in Israel who are appalled by the Zionist policies and actions. All power to them” and linked to the article.
Her link was shared by scores of people, spreading its poison even more widely. One commentator wrote that she’d heard this post was fake and Baroness Tonge dismissed that concern, insisting “Well that comment s (sic) just too silly. Perhaps someone can find the actua (sic) article the piece was based on.”
The Baroness is wrong. This damaging article is entirely false, churned out by a bizarre Dubai-based site called AWD News (the initials stand for “Another Western Dawn”). The internet fact-checking website Snopes describes AWD News as a site that “doesn’t have more than a nodding acquaintance with facts, instead playing on nationalistic fantasy and conspiracy theory to create alarming (and thus clickable and shareable) stories”. Recent AWD News articles have claimed “Israelis orchestrated Ukraine’s unrest” (June 6, 2016), “Israeli intelligence is (aiding) ISIS to capture... Baghdad” (August 30, 2016) and “Mossad has close ties with ISIS” (August 31, 2016).
On December 20, 2016, AWD posted a completely fabricated story, “reporting” that Israel’s Defense Minister (they even got his name wrong, citing the previous Defense Minister instead) supposedly threatened to bomb Pakistan with nuclear missiles if Pakistan joined the fight against ISIS in Syria. The fabricated report soon had real-world consequences.
Instead of checking out the false report (or even noticing the name of his Israeli equivalent was incorrect) Pakistan’s Defense Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted a combative message about the fake story: “Israeli (defense minister) threatens nuclear retaliation presuming (Pakistan) role in Syria against Daesh (ISIS). Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear State too.” It was only after Israel’s Government pointed out the story was “totally fictitious” that Minister Asif backed down, acknowledging the story was false, and issuing a more peaceable tweet instead, assuring Israelis “We desire to coexist in peace, both in our region and beyond.”
Fake news about the Jewish state has a long history. One of the most pernicious lies is that Israel, not Arab terrorists, was behind the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. In 2011, the ADL wrote “In the ten years since the... attacks... conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks have become an entrenched propaganda industry.”
Also in 2011 a Pew Poll noted that the vast majority to respondents in majority-Muslim nations they surveyed believed in the conspiracy theories blaming Israel for the attack. Fewer than a third believed that Arab terrorists conducted the assault, and the number of people inclined to believe conspiracy theories, often blaming Jews and Israel, had grown in the previous five years.
Other bizarre fake stories about Israel have flourished online in Muslim countries. In 2011, when a series of deadly shark attacks off Egypt’s coast left one woman dead and several injured, South Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha suggested Israel might be behind the attacks, in order to harm Egyptian tourism. A few months later, Saudi officials caught a vulture that was tagged with a leg bracelet identifying it as part of a Tel Aviv University study of bird migration patterns. Saudi officials refused to release the vulture; local media speculated the tracking bracelet might be part of a “Zionist plot”.
In Arab and other Middle Eastern media, Israel in recent years has been accused of orchestrating the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, of poisoning wells, of plotting to divide up Egypt, of helping to found ISIS. In 2013 The Economist magazine noted “conspiracy theorists have grown ever more strident since the coup” in Egypt in July of that year.
It’s unclear if Americans and Europeans are better equipped than consumers of news in the Muslim world to tell real news from fake stories when it comes to Israel. One 2016 study by Stanford University found that three quarters of American high schoolers were unable to distinguish between real and fake news posts on Facebook. Over 30% of students argued that high-quality graphics meant an article was likely to be true. In 2015, the European Union felt the need to establish a “disinformation task force” which scours the internet for fake news and distributes regular newsletters debunking fake stories. In early January 2017, the European Parliament voted to increase its funding.
With the proliferation of fake news, it’s up to all of us to be extra vigilant in insisting on responsible reporting, especially when it comes to Israel, the object of so many false stories. Insist on fact checking. Don’t assume that unfamiliar websites are reliable. Keep in mind that professional-looking graphics don’t mean a story is reliable. Double-check news items and encourage others to do the same.
With countless media sources dedicated to denigrating the Jewish state, we’re all on the front line in the battle to ensure reliable coverage.
Yvette Alt Miller earned her B.A. at Harvard University. She completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, and has a Ph.D. In International Relations from the London School of Economics. She lives with her family in Chicago, and has lectured internationally on Jewish topics.