23/07/2014 10:48 BST | Updated 21/09/2014 06:59 BST

Social Media's Propaganda War

Last October, in the wake of Lou Reed's untimely passing, one Guy Woodward tweeted the following:


It succinctly highlighted the banality of token condolences, while also demonstrating how gullible people can be when words are juxtaposed with relevant images. Lou Reed said nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, Woodward's handiwork was retweeted more than 400 times, by some who were in on the joke but by many who were being entirely sincere.

That number of retweets pales in comparison to the 9,000+ garnered by Salma Yaqoob for imploring her followers to 'ask @BBCNews why they haven't covered 100,000 #Gaza demo in London'. A photo of protesters at said demo lent authenticity, and indeed, it does seem the rally wasn't being covered by the BBC News website at the time of her tweeting. 16 minutes later, however, she was informed the situation had changed. The BBC was now on board. Yaqoob did not respond. She did not delete the tweet nor alert her followers to the development. The retweets continued to rack up.


Trawling through the source code of the BBC report indicates it was published at 17:15. Yaqoob's tweet was true for all of 11 minutes. 9,000 retweets. Presumably nobody propagating the misinformation could be bothered to confirm it remained correct. Even Yaqoob, when erroneously told she'd beaten the BBC by more than two hours, didn't check to see if she had. "Thank you" was her reply. A tacit accusation of propaganda had itself spiralled into a campaign to mislead in which thousands were complicit.

Are we not better than this? It wasn't something that required much investigation to verify (as opposed to, for example, the claim that a photo by Abdul Aziz al Otaibi showed a Syrian child lying between the graves of his war-victim parents); a solitary visit to the BBC News website would have sufficed. The validation of opinion, though, appears to have surpassed the pursuit of truth as a priority. Conversation recedes when up against the allure of wilfully ignorant point-scoring. How rich of us to hope for a diplomatic resolution in the Middle East.

Against the backdrop of lost lives, perhaps it it isn't important. No words will ever match that tragedy. Yet the consequences of those words can still be very real. Last April, Reddit users identified several men as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. Lazy journalists aided in spreading their names across Twitter, and the source became an afterthought. Subsequently, one of the 'suspects' - Salah Barhoun - told ABC News that he feared for his life, while the family of another - Sunil Tripathi - were already dealing with the anguish of him disappearing a month earlier (his body was later found in a Rhode Island river) when press attention turned to them.

On that occasion, the intentions of the people involved were entirely innocent, so imagine the damage we potentially allow to be done by endorsing those with more duplicitous aims. The Israel Defense Forces and Hamas's military wing are engaged in a social media battle to parallel the physical conflict. Clearly they believe voices have power. We should use ours responsibly. As the debate becomes increasingly shorn of historical, political and cultural context, we owe it to each other to at least get the facts right.