The conflict between Israel and Hamas is quickly becoming an online global war.
Iran, Russia and, to a lesser extent, China have used state media and the world’s major social media platforms to support Hamas and undermine Israel, while denigrating Israel’s main ally, the UNITED STATES.
Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq have also joined the fight online, alongside extremist groups, like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, that were previously at odds with Hamas.
The deluge of propaganda and disinformation online is greater than anything seen before, according to government officials and independent researchers – a reflection of the world’s geopolitical division.
“This is seen by millions, hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said Rafi Mendelsohn, vice president of Cyabra, a social media intelligence company in Tel Aviv, “and it has an impact on war in a way that is probably just as important. effective like any other tactic on the ground. Cyabra has documented at least 40,000 bots or inauthentic accounts online since Hamas attacked Israel from Gaza on October 7.
The content – visceral, emotionally charged, politically oriented and often false – has stoked anger and even violence far beyond Gaza, raising fears it could inflame a wider conflict. Iran, although it has denied involvement in the Hamas attack, has threatened to do so, with its foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, warning of retaliation on “multiple fronts” if the forces Israeli forces persisted in Gaza.
“It feels like everyone is involved,” said Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The institute, a non-profit research organization based in London, last week detailed influence campaigns carried out by Iran, Russia and China.
The campaigns do not appear to be coordinated, U.S. and other government officials and experts said, although they did not rule out cooperation.
Although Iran, Russia and China each have different motivations for supporting Hamas against Israel, they have advocated the same themes since the start of the war. They not only provide moral support, officials and experts said, but also organize overt and covert information campaigns to amplify each other and expand the global reach of their views across multiple platforms and in several languages.
The Spanish branch of RT, the Russian global television channel, for example, recently republished a statement by the Iranian president calling the explosion of the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza on October 17 an Israeli war crime, even though the Western and independent intelligence agencies Analysts have since said that a misfire from Gaza was a more likely cause of the explosion.
Another Russian foreign media outlet, Sputnik India, cited a “military expert” claiming, without evidence, that the United States provided the bomb that destroyed the hospital. Posts like these have garnered tens of thousands of views.
“We are engaged in an undeclared information war against authoritarian countries,” James P. Rubin, director of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, said in a recent interview.
From the first hours of its attack, Hamas employed a broad and sophisticated media strategy, inspired by groups like the Islamic State. Its operatives spread graphic images through bot accounts from countries including Pakistan, circumventing Hamas’s bans on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to Cyabra researchers.
A profile on One article featured a cartoon claiming that there were double standards: Palestinian resistance to Israel was called terrorism while Ukraine’s fight against Russia was self-defense.
Officials and experts who track disinformation and extremism have been struck by how quickly and widely Hamas’s message has spread online. This feat was certainly fueled by the emotional intensity of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the graphic images of the violence, captured in near real time by cameras worn by Hamas gunmen. It was also bolstered by vast botnets and, soon after, official accounts belonging to governments and state media in Iran, Russia and China – amplified by social media platforms.