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IN FOCUS: How fake news on Israel-Hamas stokes outrage, hatred and ‘potential for violence’ on Southeast Asian TikTok

SINGAPORE: Mr Mohamed Aliff Tusliman is on a mission to find unfiltered, unbiased and “more real-life content” on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war.

The Singaporean’s compass of choice? TikTok.

The dominant social media app provides information “recorded live or posted by individuals who are actually on the ground”, said Mr Aliff.

For him, it’s where “there are individuals, on their own accord, giving context on what’s happening, and these are independent people not related to any news agencies”.

Yet the 38-year-old, who works in a digital marketing agency, doesn’t believe everything he sees on TikTok.

His main “For You” page, fuelled by the platform’s engagement-driven algorithm, recently fed him a video of footage from the Middle East conflict, showing bloodied and injured children being pulled from rubble. 

The clip’s caption, in Hebrew, said Palestinian militant group Hamas was to blame, and contained the hashtag #freeisrael.

Mr Aliff was sceptical. The scale of devastation displayed in the video seemed unlikely to have unfolded in Israel, which has retaliated to an Oct 7 Hamas blitzkrieg by unleashing relentless strikes on the Gaza Strip. Medical authorities in the Palestinian territory have put the death toll at over 8,000 people, including more than 3,000 minors.

Mr Aliff suspected that the victims in the video were actually Palestinians – and true enough, he found identical footage posted by the Eye On Palestine Instagram page, a prominent, verified account sharing experiences of people weathering Israeli attacks in Gaza.

On the other hand, he has also seen misinformation on TikTok supporting pro-Palestinian narratives, such as a video claiming to show widespread destruction in Gaza when it was actually a scene from an earthquake in Afghanistan.

“For me, a general rule of thumb is to never 100 per cent believe anything on social media regardless of the platform, especially with all the artificial intelligence tools (around),” said Mr Aliff.

A week-long CNA experiment, on top of reports from TikTok users and misinformation experts in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, has identified a steady stream of inaccurate content on the Israel-Hamas war spreading on the platform.

While the proliferation of fake news online during geopolitical tensions is not new – an issue which also surfaced during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war – analysts said the Israel-Hamas conflict takes on a different, perhaps more pernicious dimension in Southeast Asia.

Large Muslim populations in the region might identify more with the Palestinian plight and feel compelled to raise awareness and elicit sympathy, observers noted – and in the process, unwittingly share falsehoods.

Their intentions might start off benign, but experts warned it could lead to real-world consequences such as the rousing of emotionally charged sentiments and flashpoints among religiously diverse groups.

And while social media platforms are making efforts to combat the deluge of lies and deception, significant challenges remain – not least accusations of “shadowbanning” as a means of censorship, as well as algorithms that encourage “hot takes” and fuel polarisation.

Related:

Social media platforms face increased scrutiny for content related to Israel-Hamas war

TIKTOK IN THE SPOTLIGHT

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ surprise attack in early October, over 40,000 fake profiles took part in the conversation on platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and X, according to scans by Israel-based social media threat intelligence company Cyabra.

Content created by these fake profiles received more than 371,000 engagements and potentially reached 531 million profiles in just two days.

While just one of several social networks where misinformation has circulated, TikTok is of particular interest for its increasing prominence as a news source in Southeast Asia, as well as its growing role as a search engine for Gen Z youths.  

An annual report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that nearly a quarter of Malaysians turn to TikTok for news, up nine percentage points from the previous year; while 22 per cent of Indonesians do so, in an increase of six percentage points.

While the proportion was smaller in Singapore (12 per cent), this was after a spike of five percentage points from last year, the biggest increase among most-used platforms in the country. 

Narrow it down to 18- to 24-year-olds in Singapore and the figure swells to 22 per cent using TikTok for news.

This popularity with younger folks is widespread, and growing: Around the world, a fifth of 18- to 24-year-olds use it to access news, a five percentage point rise from before.

Meanwhile, the proportions of people in the three countries using services like Facebook and Twitter – before it changed its name to X – for news have been declining.

Related:

Fewer people trust traditional media, more turn to TikTok for news, report says

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Mr Harris Zainul, deputy director of research at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), said the shift towards TikTok for news speaks to a larger change in media consumption habits.

“Short-form videos that are algorithmically determined to suit your preferences can be more engaging than the long-form text or video favoured by mainstream media,” he added. 

“Information from social media users can also be perceived to be more authentic, especially compared to traditional media which has been criticised to be biased in their reporting.”

For this article, a CNA journalist in Singapore created a TikTok account and used it just to watch and “like” content related to the Israel-Hamas war. Search terms like “Palestine”, “Israel” and “Israel-Hamas war updates” were used, and initially yielded videos from established media outlets like CNN and Sky News.

But in the week that followed, the journalist started seeing clips on her For You feed that clearly contained misinformation. They often featured legitimate footage from past military conflicts or tragedies – but paired with misleading captions. 

Video game visuals, digitally manipulated natural disasters and even pseudo supernatural events also popped up periodically. Some of these clips were posted by accounts launched just days after the conflict began.

In one video posted on Wednesday (Nov 1), footage of an “update” from Israel turned out to be that of a severe earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. It still garnered 5.5 million views, 106,000 likes and more than 12,000 shares. 

WHO IS SPREADING FAKE NEWS?

It’s not easy to tell who might be behind social media accounts putting out or sharing falsehoods to sway public opinion, said a spokesperson for Singapore-based Black Dot Research, which runs a self-funded fact-checking outfit.

“From our observations, misinformation and disinformation on the conflict largely originates from outside Singapore,” the spokesperson said. “In Singapore, we have observed that members of the public are often only reposting content related to the conflict, rather than creating it.”

Misinformation refers to any kind of wrong or false information, while disinformation refers to misinformation that is knowingly or intentionally spread.

A day after the Hamas attack, a Singapore-based TikTok account with almost 60,000 followers posted a video on how Palestinians were apparently gaining an edge in the conflict with Israel.

CNA’s checks online showed the account, under the handle @ryanle.ee, belongs to a 16-year-old Singaporean who regularly puts up pro-Palestinian content.

The video he posted included a screenshot of an X post claiming a top Israeli general had been captured by Hamas. But this was debunked by news agency Associated Press, which reported that the general had been spotted in both a photo and video of top Israeli military officials in discussion.

The Singaporean did not respond to a direct message on TikTok requesting comment.

Malaysia-based TikTok accounts have also shared inaccurate information on the Israel-Hamas war. One of them, @adamofficial64, posted on Oct 15 a video purporting that Malaysia was sending troops to Palestinian territory.

Malaysia’s military and government fact-checking website have debunked the video and clarified that the footage was from a United Nations (UN) mission to Lebanon in 2022. The video was then taken down.

@adamofficial64 also did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.

Indonesian Maula Hudaya, 26, estimated that about 30 per cent of TikTok videos he’s seen on the Israel-Hamas war appeared to contain inaccurate content.

He pointed CNA to a video by an Indonesia-based account, showing Indonesian troops sharing tearful goodbyes with loved ones, even though the footage clearly depicts an unrelated UN mission. None of the comments on the video, which was layered with visuals of Islamic religious elements, seemed to question its authenticity.

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