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Shortly after a Gaza hospital was hit, disinformation spread across social media

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're still putting together a full picture of just what caused that deadly explosion Tuesday at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. But what we do know is that in the minutes and hours after the blast, unverified information, old videos and bogus eyewitness accounts were spreading across social media, creating confusion and making it even harder to understand what happened. NPR's Shannon Bond reports on misinformation and disinformation, and she's with us now to tell us more about this. Shannon, good morning.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what did we see happen in the immediate aftermath of the explosion?

BOND: Well, almost right away, several media outlets initially reported it as being caused by an Israeli airstrike. And they attributed that to the Palestinian Health Ministry. But quickly, Israel's military denied that claim and said it was instead caused by a rocket launched by a Palestinian militant group. And yesterday, U.S. officials came out and said their assessment was Israel was not responsible based on analysis of information they've not made public.

On Tuesday, amid these competing claims, videos purporting to show the attack started circulating online, but some of them turned out to not actually show the attack at all. But, you know, even before evidence was fully available or had been, you know, really fully assessed, on social media, many people immediately jumped to the conclusion that either Hamas or Israel was responsible. We also saw people taking advantage of this chaos to push their own narratives, especially on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

MARTIN: Now, I think people - a lot of people know that there have been a lot of changes to X under Elon Musk's ownership. Is there something about that platform that makes it particularly vulnerable to this, especially after these changes?

BOND: Well, it has become harder under his leadership to identify reliable information and credible sources. So for one example, there was an account that claimed to be an Al Jazeera journalist. And it claimed to have seen eyewitness evidence the hospital was hit by a Hamas rocket. But it turned out this account was not a journalist at all. And actually, until recently, it had been posting about Pakistani cricket players.

This account was taken down, but not before it had been amplified by accounts on X with large followings and many that carried these, you know, verified check marks. And all that means now is this account has paid $8 a month for the subscription. They can get their posts boosted and even monetized on the platform while, meanwhile, many real journalists and news organizations don't have that signal of verification. And that's just one of the things that's making it very hard to vet the quality of information on the platform.

MARTIN: So I mean, I think it's fair to say that that's not the only platform where it's hard to verify information. But what I think I hear you saying is that these changes under Musk have made it even harder. And it was hard before Musk took it over.

BOND: That's right. It was never - Twitter was never, you know, perfect in that sort of way. All the experts I've talked to - it's become a lot more difficult to seek out credible sources and to get a better lens on what's going on.

MARTIN: Do we know any more now about what happened to the hospital?

BOND: Well, researchers and media organizations, including here at NPR, colleagues are analyzing video and images. But some I spoke to say that work itself is harder because of this flood of misleading and false content on social media. And this kind of work takes time, right? We want answers immediately, and social media platforms are designed to deliver that even when there aren't yet answers to be had. And these things, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who want to shape the narrative, as well as to unintentionally sharing bad information.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Shannon Bond. Shannon, thank you.

BOND: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBLAB AND AZALEH'S "ARCANUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.