War Reporting Is Susceptible to Disinformation. Here’s How to Guard Against It.

(Photo illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Misinformation and disinformation have engulfed social media in the weeks since the Hamas terror attacks killed over 1,300 people in Israel on Oct. 7.

The most widely circulated lies include the inaccurate report that a top Israeli commander was among the scores of people kidnapped by the attackers, a fake BBC News article saying Ukraine sent weapons to Hamas, and a doctored White House news release announcing an $8 billion aid package to Israel. Then there were the misinterpreted claims of a “global day of jihad” on Oct. 13, which far-right users weaponized to unleash slurs and threats against Muslims on pro-Trump message boards and social media. A day later, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy in Illinois was stabbed to death, allegedly by his landlord whose wife said her husband was worried about “a day of jihad” and had been listening to conservative talk radio, according to authorities.

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War reporting, graphic by nature and now often buoyed by citizen journalists, can be particularly susceptible to the disinformation contagion. Russia’s war on Ukraine, for example, has generated innumerable lies, deep fakes and conspiracies about war crimes, refugees and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

Below, disinformation experts share tips on how to choose credible war sources, distinguish between doctored and authentic content, and minimize harm in what is shared and reported. 

Go through a credibility checklist

RumorGuard, News Literacy Project’s fact-checking arm, uses five factors to evaluate the credibility of information: 

  • authenticity — determine whether the material is genuine or manipulated
  • source  — verify that the information came from a credible person or news platform
  • evidence — confirm that the source used data and reliable research to support claims
  • context — cross-check date and place of the original post
  • reasoning — use logic to check if claims are designed to reinforce biases

“You can look for these [factors] in every post you come across,” said Dan Evon, who as senior manager of education design at the News Literacy Project has analyzed viral false claims about the war. “They’re something to get people thinking: Is there evidence backing up this claim? Is [this claim] based on solid reasoning? Giving yourself that pause is really critical: Think about it a little more, and share it with others.”

Using the five-factor checklist, a widely circulated Oct. 8 Facebook video falsely depicting Palestinians shooting down Israeli fighter jets would not make it past the “authenticity” mark. The Facebook user’s caption read, “Is.ra.el Air Force F-16 Shot Down Ha.ma.s Su-57 Fighter,” but looking further, the activity description next to the user’s name makes it clear the video is from the game “Armas 3.” Cross-checked, one can see that the footage comes from the video game.

Ask what the source has to gain from this information spreading

NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny, who covers disinformation, said war reporters must confront propaganda from governments and individual actors “motivated by politics, profits or attention.” 

For example, Hamas’ claim on Oct. 17 that Israel had deliberately bombed the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, reportedly killing hundreds of Palestinians, was immediately reported by international media. The reports helped set off anti-Israel demonstrations in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere. Israel later claimed that the deadly explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket, and American intelligence supported that finding. Verification of who is responsible for the hospital explosion is particularly difficult because it’s not possible for outside experts to enter Gaza.

“In conjunction with the actual war, we’re all being pulled into an information war,” she said. “We must constantly ask ourselves who benefits from the story as we’re reporting it and weigh the risk of amplifying propaganda.”

Zadrozny said NBC’s social news gathering team detects doctored or miscontextualized photos and videos by using satellite imagery and cross-referencing with already verified content. Users who want to self-verify photos and videos should perform reverse image searches on Google, Bing or TinEye, she said. 

To remind herself of the importance of fact-checking her own reporting, Zadrozny said she stuck a Post-it on her desk that reads: “Is it true? How do I know? What if I’m wrong?”

Follow credible sources on social media

Zadrozny said X, formerly Twitter, is no longer a credible source of information due to the breakdown of guardrails and content moderation as well as Elon Musk’s new incentives to boost misleading information, such as compensating high-engagement creators with ad revenue.

Before Musk acquired the platform, Zadrozny said, teams of content moderators and trending news curators elevated factual information and verified accounts during breaking-news situations. But Musk has replaced the verification system with an $8 monthly subscription service, wiping out the credibility of the blue checkmark once given to verified journalists, public figures and news organizations. 

Guardrails against false and abusive content have also deteriorated on other social platforms, Zadrozny said. Facebook owner Meta has eliminated many content moderation teams and scaled back on its commitment to the news. Telegram, an enormously helpful organizing tool for political dissidents from Hong Kong to Ukraine, is often awash in hate speech and graphic content. TikTok has more effectively curbed the spread of misinformation by conducting a human review of posts before they go viral, according to Zadrozny. 

“Social media is a minefield right now,” she said. “The strength of news organizations at this moment is as documentarians and first-hand witnesses, and no one is doing a better job than our people on the ground.”

Aside from following journalists from reputable outlets reporting in Israel and Gaza, Zarozny recommends following reporters like BBC’s Shayan Sardarizadeh, who flags inaccurate reports.

Evon said following credible sources and cross-checking claims from different reports is a crucial first step of being a diligent news consumer. It should come before the news verification process.

“There are literally hundreds of falsehoods going around,” Evon said. “So one of the things that people have to keep in mind, especially during these breaking-news events is making sure they know where they’re getting their information from.”

Check the context of images

Evon said real but miscontextualized imagery, like photos with misleading captions to boost engagement, is the most common and convincing form of disinformation. For AI or manipulated imagery, RumorGuard educates viewers on certain tropes associated with different types of news. A fake photo of a shark swimming on the freeway, for example, has become a staple hoax during hurricane coverage. When there’s an international conflict, Evon said, chances are a video game clip will be circulated with false claims of an actual event. Social media users should try to find the person who posted the images first to figure out their actual date and context, he said.

RumorGuard researchers used these techniques to debunk many viral videos about the Israel-Hamas war. One clip purportedly showing a “Hamas terrorist” making fun of an abducted Jewish baby girl was published in September — a month before the conflict erupted. 

“For sourcing, I think of it as twofold,” he said. “You want to consider who’s providing the information. A lot of times you’ll get an idea of biases from other posts this person is sharing.”