X marks the spot where Israel-Hamas disinformation wars are being fought

The tragedies unfolding in Israel and Gaza are putting the social media platform X to the test – a test that X keeps failing. X, formerly known as Twitter, has elevated disinformation alongside fact-based reports on the conflict that range from graphic images created through AI, video game footage, and a plethora of recycled clips from Syria’s decade-long conflict.

Yet X’s disinformation overload should have been expected. Since Elon Musk’s acquisition of the platform, it has undergone a series of algorithmic and “aesthetic” changes that upended the credibility of the content. Instead of boosting posts from experts and on-the-ground reporting, X’s algorithm promotes Twitter Blue subscriptions, accounts which pay for a verification checkmark. This “pay to play” method has served to boost accounts of bots and propagandists, and has enabled disinformation to go viral in a short amount of time.

Musk’s favourite sycophants are being rewarded for their click-baiting methods amid the violence in Israel and on the Gaza Strip. Mario Nawfal – an obscure businessman who gained a following on X from his endorsements by Musk – posted a 2020 YouTube video showing Turkish missiles fired in northern Syria. Nawfal misstated: “Salvo of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip towards Israel” alongside the video.

His message was tagged with a “community note” – an X fact-check system implemented through crowd-sourcing. But the post remained up, highly visible because of X’s algorithm. As of this writing, the post had more than two million views.

Musk’s own attention-seeking posts amid the violence demonstrate that. “All Tesla superchargers in Israel are free,” Musk posted. But his gesture was not all about altruism. There was a caveat. The post was restricted to replies from paid subscribers only.

Of greater concern is the platform’s role and influence in spreading distortion and disinformation. Musk bought Twitter for his own ideological reasons, and has viewed himself at war with “woke” values, which he argues erodes the foundations of democracy. Through his own personal crusades he has aligned himself with far-right ideologues and authoritarian leaders. And in turn he has garnered their loyalty.

Musk has made other changes on X that also have had a profound impact on how facts are represented. Earlier this month, X removed media-composed headlines from news articles. Musk argued the change was to “greatly improve the aesthetics” of the platform. But now users are shown images without context, allowing for bots, propagandists and even meme accounts to fill in the blanks with unsubstantiated claims. The result has created an alternative reality where conspiracies reign over fact.

As Twitter, the platform was a digital democratiser that gave voice to ordinary citizens beyond the confines of traditional media. In times of political upheaval or natural disaster, Twitter had a reputation for delivering on-the-ground reporting and firsthand accounts in real time.

Now it is Musk’s personal megaphone promoting his political views and business interests.

X’s representation of the events in Israel and Gaza reveal that the platform’s strengths for truth-telling are eroded and all but gone. Will we heed the warnings by Twitter’s demise or even realise the impact X now has on how we see the world?

Is X really a bastion of free expression?

A new row between the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, sees both sides claiming to be working in the interest of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

In one corner, the CCDH claims that X is not moving quickly enough to tackle online hatred that finds a home on the social media platform. They claim to highlight examples where hatred goes unchallenged and then in turn encourage X’s advertisers to use their commercial clout to bring about change on the platform, including through the use of boycotts and removing their accounts.

In the other corner is X who refute all the claims made by CCDH but rather than engage with CCDH to disprove their claims are now suing CCDH, asserting they have violated X’s terms and conditions.

X has accused CCDH of trying to silence those they disagree with, CCDH claims X is trying to silence them through legal action because they are exposing X’s failures and X claims to be standing up for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

But while this argument between CCDH and X is being dressed up as a battle for the principle of freedom of speech, I’m not completely convinced that this really is X’s position – rather it looks to me as if they are seeking to protect their own commercial position. However what is clear is that these two organisations have a very different view of what the digital universe should look like.

CCDH is not immune from having their own research criticised and robustly reviewed. This is the same threshold applied to any academic work that presents its findings as fact. And debate of research is a key element of freedom of expression.

Likewise, it would be churlish not to acknowledge that hate speech exists on X. Those who have followed my own experiences with social media will know I am no stranger to online hate and have often made clear that free speech does not excuse hate speech.

And while CCDH are now subject to a lawsuit, they retain their ability to speak about the failings of X and do so on X. However, the legal action could encourage them to step away,  deterring them from making further criticism of X.

Using the law to scare into silence those who you disagree with is a clear affront to freedom of speech and is something Index has campaigned against for decades.

If X wanted to be the bastion of freedom of expression they claim to aspire to be, then they should welcome their site being home to those who are critical of them.

The question is now for X and their leadership and it is simple. Can you really claim to be standing up for freedom of speech while taking action to silence dissent?  Do you want to champion freedom of speech or do you simply want to wield it as a tool to silence those you disagree with? You can’t do both.