Russia, China and Iran are backing Hamas online – report

Experts tell NY Times that propaganda and disinformation against Israel and US are stronger than ever; mass campaigns suggest ‘involvement of nations or large nonstate actors’

Iranian demonstrators wave Iranian and Palestinian flags during a pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian demonstrators wave Iranian and Palestinian flags during a pro-Palestinian rally in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran, Russia, and China are reportedly using state media and social media to undercut Israel and the US and support Hamas.

Officials and researchers told The New York Times in a Friday report that the volume of disinformation and online propaganda is reaching unprecedented levels, largely due to networks of bots and fake accounts.

“In a single day after the conflict began, roughly one in four accounts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and X posting about the conflict appeared to be fake,” the report said. “In the 24 hours after the blast at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, more than one in three accounts posting about it on X were [fake].”

A large explosion took place on October 17 at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, which Hamas officials were quick to blame on an Israeli airstrike. But evidence provided by Israel and the US, as well as by various news agencies, showed that the actual culprit was a misfired Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket that the terror group had aimed at Israel.

While the US officials and experts quoted in the report said that the various online campaigns spreading disinformation about Israel did not appear coordinated, they were all working to “amplify one another and expand the global reach of their views across multiple platforms in multiple languages.”

The so-called “axis” made up of Iran, Russia and China is aligned in opposition of US involvement in the Ukraine-Russia war, as well as in the Middle East.

According to the report, Hamas has “employed a broad, sophisticated media strategy inspired by groups like the Islamic State” since the first hours of its deadly attack on October 7.

War erupted after Hamas’s massacre in the south of Israel, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and seizing over 240 hostages, including babies and octogenarians. The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians.

Palestinians take a kidnapped Israeli civilian, center, from the Kfar Aza kibbutz into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

Bots and fake accounts have been central to online campaigns in support of Hamas, the report said, with operatives spreading graphic photos and videos on platforms such as Telegram in an effort to incite further violence. Bans on Hamas content are already in place on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to experts cited in the report.

The article gave examples of such propaganda accounts, including “a profile on X that bore the characteristics of an inauthentic account — @RebelTaha — posted 616 times in the first two days of the conflict, though it had previously featured content mostly about cricket.”

Accounts used in disinformation campaigns often follow this pattern, according to the experts cited, posting unrelated content up until October 7 and then abruptly switching to spreading propaganda and incitement against Israel.

Much of the grisly content being circulated online — and shown by Israeli authorities to foreign journalists and Knesset members — was captured by bodycams worn by the Hamas terrorists who infiltrated into Israel on October 7.

The report cited information released by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on Iranian accounts on Facebook and X, which it found to “have been spreading particularly harmful content that includes glorification of war crimes and violence against Israeli civilians and encouraging further attacks against Israel.

But it’s not just bots, according to the report. A social media intelligence company in Tel Aviv, Cyabra, was quoted as saying that it had “identified six coordinated campaigns on a scale so large… that it suggested the involvement of nations or large nonstate actors.”

The report painted Israel as “unexpectedly on the defensive” in this cyberwar, though it cited unnamed Israeli officials reporting that Israel was tracking bot activity and that it was larger than any past campaign.

According to the report, Russia and China are seeking to undermine the US, as well as Israel. Former White House and Pentagon official Michael Doran, currently the director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at the Hudson Institute, told the Times, “They’re in a conflict, a geostrategic competition, with the United States… and they recognize that when Israel, the US’s primary ally in the Middle East, is wrapped up in a war like this, it weakens the United States.”

Russia’s United Nations Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya addresses the UN Security Council before a vote on a resolution over the conflict between Israel and Hamas, October 25, 2023, at UN headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

While China has stayed relatively quiet in the past month of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Russian officials have questioned Israel’s right to self-defense.

On Thursday, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya told the world body that Israel does not have the right to self-defense under international law in its fight against Hamas because it is an “occupying state.”

“I also cannot leave unmentioned the hypocrisy of the US and its allies, who in other, completely different situations call for compliance with humanitarian law, establish investigative commissions, impose sanctions against those who use force only as an extreme measure to stop the years-long violence,” TASS quoted Nebenzya as telling a UN General Assembly special session on the conflict.

He added that while Russia recognizes Israel’s right to ensure its security, “it could be fully guaranteed only in case of a fair resolution of the Palestinian problem based on recognized UN Security Council resolutions.”

Similarly, Russia’s defense minister last week accused the United States of fueling geopolitical tensions to uphold its “global dominance by any means” and warned of the risk of confrontation between nuclear-armed countries.

Speaking at a defense forum in Beijing, Sergei Shoigu added that the US and its Western allies are threatening Russia through NATO’s expansion “to the east.” Shoigu also reiterated Moscow’s stance that Russia was open to negotiations about the war in Ukraine under what he described as the right conditions.

Shoigu’s speech followed that of Zhang Youxia, China’s second-ranking military official and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Zhang said China was “willing to develop military ties with the US on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.” He also urged for “an immediate ceasefire” in the Israel-Hamas war, and called for a “resumption of peace talks” between Israel and the Palestinians.

China claims to be neutral in Russia’s war on Ukraine but maintains close ties with Russia, with frequent state visits and joint military drills between the two nations. It has similarly sought to project a mediator role in the Israel-Hamas war, though experts say Beijing’s influence in the conflict is limited.

Iran, which supports and funds Hamas, has labeled the Israeli offensive in Gaza “genocide” and has allegedly directed a number of attacks against Israel via proxy groups in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

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