Hamas propaganda strategy: the worse the better

20.11.2023

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has flared up again, has often been called the mother of all conflicts; all the great powers of the world are involved in it in one way or another, and at the same time, this confrontation, which has acquired a global dimension today, began even before the First World War. One important player in this war is the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States and member states of the European Union.

The leaders of Hamas have understood very well that militarily it will be difficult for them to achieve success against a technologically more powerful opponent, but in the information field, the military success of the Jewish state can be very successfully used against them. Hamas has built a powerful and well-functioning propaganda apparatus, which we will try to look into.

A versatile propaganda machine

Hamas is using propaganda to intimidate its enemies, mobilize its supporters, recruit new ones, and generate sympathy. Their strategy in the conflict with Israel can be summed up in the words, “the worse, the better”. On the one hand, at the beginning of the recent conflict, Hamas directly reported the killing of more than 1,400 Israelis on social media, thus demonstrating its military capabilities and ideological fanaticism to supporters (and pointing the finger at rival Fatah), on the other hand, Hamas-affiliated channels disseminate footage of people suffering in Gaza as a result of Israeli counter-strikes. Both highly emotionally charged narratives work – for different audiences.

The group has adopted a comprehensive media strategy to shape public opinion in its favor, using both traditional media channels such as Filastin newspaper, Al-Aqsa TV and radio station, as well as various social media platforms.

The Al-Aqsa Media Network is named after the mosque complex on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and a TV station of the same name began operating in Gaza in 2006, after Hamas came to power there. Its programming consists mainly of pro-Hamas news and propaganda, but also children’s programs (such as the animated series of Tomorrow’s Pioneers, which features a Mickey Mouse-like character who promotes martyrdom and jihad) and religious entertainment.

The Hamas TV and radio channel is produced by a company called Al-Ribat Communications and Artistic Productions, which is headed by Fathi Hamad, head of Hamas public affairs, who is also a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. According to Reporters Without Borders, the Al-Aqsa media network also includes the Shehab news agency.

War on social media

Hamas has employed various propaganda techniques during previous wars as well as in more peaceful times, which have been effective mainly because the media often have a limited understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further confusing the picture is the fact that, according to the NYT, Iran, Russia and, to some extent, China have used state media and the world’s major social media platforms to support Hamas and influence Israel, while smearing Israel’s main ally, the United States.

Social media plays an even more important role than traditional media channels in spreading Hamas messages, which are often skillfully used to influence traditional media as well. The Hamas propaganda machine’s previous successes include the song “Strike a Blow at Tel Aviv”, which quickly went viral on YouTube and later on TikTok ten years ago.

Since the October 7 attack by Hamas this year, various social media platforms have begun to more forcefully censor posts covering the conflict, but for example, Platform X, formerly known as Twitter, only recently identified dozens of accounts spreading a coordinated disinformation campaign about the war, and a study by the Technology Transparency Project found that Hamas have also used X platform premium accounts to distribute propaganda videos. The hashtag #GazaUnderAttack garnered millions of tweets and retweets.

Authors, activists, journalists, filmmakers and regular users around the world have said posts containing hashtags like “FreePalestine” and “IStandWithPalestine” as well as messages expressing support for civilian Palestinians killed by Israeli forces are being hidden by platforms like Facebook, Instagram, X, YouTube and TikTok.

Especially in the conditions of a fast-developing and high-attention conflict, journalists often try to satisfy their hunger for news even on the basis of information spread on social media with little credibility, and Hamas has been adept at exploiting this.

Example of Al-Ahli Hospital

In the current conflict, an example of such behaviour was the coverage of the Al-Ahli hospital explosion on October 17 this year. First, Al Jazeera’s live camera recordings of the explosion in the Al-Ahli hospital area in Gaza began to spread on social media, and the Palestinian Ministry of Health was the first to comment on it, reporting at least 500 casualties in the Israeli attack on the hospital.

In the absence of a better one, reliable news channels such as the BBC and the NYT picked up this information and began to spread it. Israeli intelligence announced a few hours later that it was a faulty Islamic Jihad rocket that exploded in the hospital parking lot, but by then the information about 500 deaths had already spread all over the world, including in Estonian-language quality media. The final truth about what happened will probably be revealed only when the hot phase of the conflict ends.

Some tips to recognize a fake

Bellingcat’s researchers have identified the most important techniques currently being used to spread fake photos and videos:

  • the use of past bombing photos – both in Palestine, including the Gaza Strip, as well as in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere;
  • the use of old footage not taken in conflict situations – for example, one of the videos purported to show Hamas fighters landing at a music festival was actually shot in Egypt and posted on TikTok in September this year; and the video of the girl allegedly burned alive at the festival was filmed in Guatemala in 2015;
  • the spreading of complete false information – for example, that the Church of St. Porphyry in Gaza was bombed – representatives of the church have confirmed that this is not true and that the church was not damaged;
  • distribution of fake documents – such as the US approving $8 billion in military aid to Israel.

Most misinformation is spread through photos and videos. To find out if the image attached to the news button is actually taken where the source claims, you can try to find out if it has been published before. For this, reverse image search technology is used. The most useful tools for this are:

Note that often the exact date the photo was taken is not necessary, but it is sufficient to understand that the photo was taken no earlier or later than some point in time. For example, even if we didn’t know that the video of the children in the cage was posted by their relative and that it was a prank video, thanks to this technology we would at least know that the video was released before Hamas militants invaded Israel.

It is important to consider that Yandex Images and Google Lens may not initially offer the image you are looking for, but a similar one.

The same tools are suitable for finding the original video. It is necessary to extract some characteristic frames from the video and perform a reverse search.

It is not always possible to find the original video or photo immediately, especially if the fake has been published several times, but very often it is still possible. Bellingcat has published a practical guide to checking social media posts in both Russian and English. We recommend that you check it out!

Most of the fake news about Israel’s war would not have spread if social media users and journalists had made some effort to fact-check before spreading the information. Most often, false information spreads not because it is difficult to verify, but because no one tries to do so.

If there is anything to be learned from this quick overview of the Hamas propaganda machine, it could be the realization that one should not let one’s decisions be influenced by primary emotions. Often, the information coming from the conflict center is either influenced or completely falsified by one or the other party to the conflict and can confuse even professional news wolves. It is worthwhile to keep a cool head, compare different coverage critically, and give the truth time to get its pants on. Unfortunately, the lie is always faster than the truth.