Tweets of misleading photos feed Israeli-Palestinian feud

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 14, 2012 

JERUSALEM — Photographs posted on opposite sides of the Twitter divide are reigniting online tensions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists, even as the recent spate of violence has calmed.

The shaky truce established by Israel and the Hamas authority that controls Gaza gave hope to many that the latest round of violence between the groups may have ended for the time being. But online, activists on either side are raging as accusations fly over allegations of propaganda used to curry favor and sympathy with audiences on the Web.

The two most widely circulated photographs are strikingly similar. In one, a stunned father in Gaza carries his bleeding daughter in a hospital. Another shows a mother in southern Israel sprawled on the pavement, her arm thrown across her two children in protection.

The images appeal to the viewer's sympathy, showing families and civilians caught in the conflict that rages around them. While the photographs are real, they're both used out of context, and were taken several years ago.

The habit of re-purposing old photographs and videos for current-day events is widely used and abused across social media. Few people stop to check the veracity of a photograph or video before spreading it to their friends, especially if they believe it originated with official spokesmen or political officials.

"I guess some people just thought it was a good video that got across the point and they didn't care if it wasn't actually from that day of fighting," said Keren Sharon, a 23-year-old student in Tel Aviv who re-tweeted a video of a barrage of rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel. She first saw the tweet on the official account of military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich, the head of the foreign desk for Israel's military.

"I saw it on her account and figured it was safe to think it was real, considering this was the head of the Israeli military. But it turns out it wasn't," Sharon told McClatchy.

It emerged that the Israel Defense Forces first uploaded the video to YouTube last October.

Responding to the photo posted to her account, Leibovich said in a statement to the news media that she thought there was nothing misleading in the post.

"Launching a rocket does not differ whether it happened in November, July or now," she said. "These organizations posted these clips themselves, maybe to recruit new people or boost moral, I don't know, but I never claimed that the events took place in the last few days."

A few hours earlier, Leibovich and other pro-Israeli bloggers had seized on a misleading photograph that United Nations information officer Khulood Badawi had posted on Twitter.

The photograph of the man holding his bloodied and limp daughter in a hospital included a caption that said the girl had been injured that morning in an Israeli airstrike.

But Avi Mayer, an Israeli Twitter user, quickly pointed out that a Reuters photographer had taken the picture on Aug. 9, 2006. The image, Mayer said, showed a girl who'd been injured falling off a swing set and later died.

"Khulood Badawi is in her right to engage in whatever political activity she wishes. But as a U.N. employee I find this tweet irresponsible and tremendously inappropriate," Mayer told McClatchy. "I think Israel is often unfairly criticized for actions it undertakes. I feel that as an Israeli it's my responsibility to get the truth out there."

He said he didn't think there was a moral equivalent between what the Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman did, which he called a "minor sin of omission," and what Badawi and others did, which he called "completely fabricated information."

Badawi hasn't responded to the complaints over her photograph or to the barrage of criticism over her decision to tweet pro-Palestinian messages in her capacity as a U.N. officer.

Diana Alzeer, one of the pro-Palestinian activists who re-tweeted the photo, wrote a lengthy message on her blog apologizing for her error in circulating it.

"Warning/Apology: Photo I tweeted earlier which has been circulated over FB turns out to be old photo of Raja Abu Sha'ban killed in Gaza 2006," she tweeted to her followers on Facebook and Twitter.

Alzeer went on to describe how she felt that she was the victim of the "Israeli propaganda machine." She gave a sample of what she called "hate mail" targeting Badawi and her that included, "You are a mouth piece of Satan and a pathetic liar" and in Hebrew, "Your mother is garbage you ugly Arab-ushi."

Sharon said she hadn't seen Alzeer's blog post but that she'd noticed some of the "nasty remarks" going around Twitter.

"So both sides had some problems with their information, and what we should learn from this is that not everything on Twitter is true — even if it's from the horse's mouth," Sharon said.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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