On Saturday, the Israel-Palestine conflict reached a new fever point after militant group Hamas launched an attack out of the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli military then launched a counterattack. Over 1,100 lives have been lost since Saturday. To learn more, many immediately checked the app X, formerly known as Twitter, which over the past decade has become a source for news from citizen journalists and news aggregators regarding international conflict.
Unfortunately, the platform is running rampant with viral, sensationalized, and inaccurately described videos of explosions, screams, and collapsing buildings. In one video that accumulated over 12.7 million views, alt-right influencer Ian Miles Cheong shared a video with the caption, “Hamas is going from house to house, butchering the people inside” — when in fact the video he shared showed Israeli officers entering a house.
Another account with over 19K followers even falsely claimed that Israel had “authorized a tactical nuclear strike,” which garnered over 109K views and resulted in the comment: “Wow…is this a real thing?” Another misinformation video claiming that it showed para-trooping Hamas soldiers entering Israel — when it was actually filmed in Cairo and posted all the way back in September — was viewed over 600,000 times before the account was suspended for violating X rules.
Unfortunately, besides the para-trooping example, most of these accounts and posts spreading misinformation remain unremoved at the time of this article’s publication. Though all of these posts do have some form of community note attached to them sharing more accurate information, it’s still hard to discern fact from fiction. Misinformation on Twitter isn’t anything new, but under Elon’s rebranding of X, it suddenly has become encouraged and monetizable.
Musk Stirs the Pot
Musk, the head honcho of X’s collapsing ship, chimed in to add more fuel to the misinformation fire. On Sunday, in a now-deleted tweet, he suggested his followers go to @WarMonitors and @sentdefender (two accounts known for spreading misinformation) for real-time updates on the Israel-Hamas conflict. According to journalist Matt Binder, in May both of these accounts posted a fake AI image, falsely claiming there was an explosion at the Pentagon. @Warmonitors has also shared antisemitic sentiment in the past, including that “the overwhelming majority of people in the media and banks are Zionists.”
“As always, please try to stay as close to the truth as possible, even for stuff you don’t like,” Musk tweeted on Oct. 8.
Musk has labeled himself a “free speech absolutist” who has a strong disdain for content moderation, suing the state of California earlier this week over a new law that would force social media companies to publish their policies for removing problematic content. He’s made it clear that “citizen journalism is the path to better future” and that the mainstream media can’t be trusted.
Certainly, Twitter was once the go-to place for finding out the truth about overseas conflict, especially in the Middle East. The Arab Spring was a series of Democratic protests in 2010 and 2011 that challenged and toppled authoritarian regimes, which many scholars and experts believe was successful because of the ability to share information through Twitter. Citizen journalists, using their wit and resources, managed to gather information and spread it properly in ways that mainstream media never could.
But these new accounts on X aren’t actually citizen journalists — they’re people miles and miles away from the conflict, who pull whatever inflammatory videos they can from the web in hopes that it gains viral traction. There’s no care to detail or need to focus on the facts. Just fuel added to an already combusting fire.
In the past, there wasn’t a real financial incentive to share misinformation on Twitter — beyond the incentive to try to go viral for virality’s sake, or pushing propaganda for political purposes. Earlier this year though, Musk and his social media conquest rolled out Twitter Blue monetization, which allowed users who pay a monthly fee the ability to earn money from engagement. All you need is an account that’s at least three months old, has 500 followers, and can pay $8 a month to start earning from the ad revenue on viral post replies.
“I’ve been fact-checking on Twitter for years, and there’s always plenty of misinformation during major events,” BBC disinformation reporter Shayan Sardarizadeh wrote on X. “But the deluge of false posts in the last two days, many boosted via Twitter Blue, is something else.”
Because of the monetary incentives — paired with a lack of resources behind content moderation and overall culture of “free speech absolutism” — accounts are rewarded by using the most bombastic and large-scale rhetoric possible to pull in a crowd. Even if a post is wrong, there’s still money on inciting controversy, garnering extremist followers, and even getting dunked on in the replies. That ecosystem creates a space where bad actors run amok and conflict reigns supreme.
And furthermore, there is no concrete transparency about the revenue-sharing program, only anecdotes from many influencers (in particular, right-wing ones) saying they’re getting a chunk of cash.
But even bad actors can’t bank on this paycheck of fake news forever, since their content is driving away advertisers in droves. Now, your brand-friendly post has a larger chance than it did five years ago to appear alongside a fear monger posing as a “citizen journalist” posting a blatantly wrong clip designed to outrage and engage.
Many mainstream advertisers have pulled back this year amid “uncertainty” about Musk’s new content moderation philosophy, as civil rights groups called for Twitter to end its gutting of content moderation resources. On Oct. 4, Reuters reported X’s U.S. ad revenue has steadily declined since Musk’s takeover in 2022, with a 60% year-over-year decline as of August 2023.
While CEO Linda Yaccarino did allege at The Verge’s Code conference on Sept. 28 that 90 percent of advertisers have come back to Twitter since the beginnings of the platform’s advertising woes last year, the rather confusing and seemingly tense interview left many onlookers with a lot of lingering questions. It’s unclear what advertising ecosystem will even be left if the platform continues on its current course. It may be why the company is so insistent on shifting towards a subscription revenue model for the platform.
Those trying to make a buck off fake news may soon need to find a real job.