Israel-Hamas War: How Elon Musk Helped Spread Disinformation After Hamas Attack

A cesspool, a mess, chaos

Israel-Hamas War: How Elon Musk Helped Spread Disinformation After Hamas Attack

A cesspool, a mess, chaos. There are no words to describe the discord on

Like Donald Trump's son, who broadcast to his 10.5 million subscribers a bloody video presented as coming from Israel, although it has been circulating since 2015. Donald Trump Jr's message did not not been moderated. Even more embarrassing, because of its blue sticker, which before the Musk era meant that it was a certified source and which now only indicates that its user paid to have it, it was even put in before by messaging algorithms. This is just one example among many. “For many reasons, this is the worst crisis I have had to cover here,” complained, Sunday October 8, Justin Peden, American online investigative and verification journalist (Open Source Intelligence).

The development in relation to the war in Ukraine is obvious. In February 2022, when Russian troops were crowding the Ukrainian border, many accounts from meticulous observers using open access sources, whether professional (like the media Bellingcat) or amateurs (like the Little Think Tank collective) . Their audience had increased tenfold as they established themselves as valuable secondary sources for following the conflict despite the misinformation of the belligerents. And this despite failures, such as the accidental temporary suspension of some of them or the inexhaustible competition from the Kremlin's propaganda relays.

“Community Ratings” as a Safeguard

Twenty months later, the landscape has changed dramatically. Meanwhile, Elon Musk bought Twitter in October 2022, and each of his decisions has weakened an already precarious information balance. One of his first decisions was to overturn the information hierarchy. No more highlighting certified accounts – celebrities, media, states, journalists, supposed to be accountable for their word. The revolution of “Blue” accounts, a subscription ensuring better visibility, now sees the algorithm promoting accounts driven by the search for an audience or influence, with their cohort of sensationalist, misleading and hateful posts, such as that of Donald Trump Jr.

At the same time, the platform has cut its staff and now clings to “community notes”, responses supposed to provide context to an erroneous tweet, to moderate debates. But the number of participants does not always compensate for the amateurism, some context notes being themselves poorly sourced or erroneous. When they exist. X was pleased that 500 of them had been written since October 7. But they are insufficient to catch the quantity of misleading content. According to an NBC News count, of 120 posts repeating the rumor that Joe Biden had voted for $8 million in aid to Israel, only 8% were accompanied by corrective text.

At the beginning of October, Elon Musk also approved a modification to the interface preventing the display of the title of press articles that are shared on messaging. The logic is economic – faced with the continued flight of active users, the boss of Tesla is seeking to make the bridges with the rest of the Web less visible. But the effect on the veracity of the information is disastrous: the verification articles posted online on the old Twitter no longer appear in the form of a simple photo without any text, and thus lose their corrective character, less click on it. Taken together, these measures have created the perfect ecosystem for hyped, hasty and manipulative content to thrive.

Exodus of active users

To make matters worse, the disinformation comes from the highest levels of X. Officially, Elon Musk does not defend this one. “As always, try to stay as close to the truth as possible, even for things you don’t like,” he asked on the first day of the Israeli response. But the multi-billionaire himself promoted manipulative accounts. “To follow the war in real time, @WarMonitors and @sentdefender are good,” he tweeted on October 8, before deleting his message. The first shares anti-Zionist and conspiracy messages – for example, he gives credence to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a famous anti-Masonic and anti-Semitic forgery from the early 20th century. The second bombards its hundreds of thousands of subscribers with short, unsourced assertions.

Faced with the deluge of rumors, journalists and observers are now unofficially assuming the role of moderation that Elon Musk has never appreciated and no longer has the means to pay for. For Internet users who wish to protect themselves against misleading content, the wisest course today seems, as Slate invites, to simply leave the platform. This is what many climatologists did in the summer, exhausted by climate skeptic stories.

Every day, the number of defectors from X to BlueSky, an alternative created by Twitter veterans, increases a little more. In September, the platform bought by the Tesla boss fell below 400 million active users, its lowest level in a decade, far from Facebook's three billion. At the beginning of October, according to official figures from X, there were only 245 million.