Hamas is Isis

"This is probably the first AI war"

Bot armies that anyone can activate on WhatsApp, software to easily hack photos, and chatbots that generate news that didn't happen: media expert Dr. Alex Gekker explains how the decline of Twitter and the rise of artificial intelligence changed everything in the battle of advocacy

Dr. Alex Gekker is a senior lecturer for digital research methods at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), who specializes in the relationship between digital platforms, society and culture, and the economy of attention. Born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, he immigrated to Israel at the age of 5, grew up in Bat Yam, and currently lives in Leiden, Holland. He has degrees in interactive media, new media and digital culture. He also served in the IDF's spokesperson unit and was a news desk editor of the Walla website. In 2010 he co-founded the Games For Health Europe association, which promoted the use of computer games as medical and mental therapy.
"The war in Ukraine has been called the 'first TikTok war,' and I think Operation Iron Swords will be the first AI war," says Gekker. "Because suddenly there is a very easy and accessible ability to produce and distribute visual and textual content through dedicated WhatsApp groups that work with bots, for example. On the one hand, this contributes to the advocacy effort, and on the other hand, it can also significantly harm the public discourse surrounding the war."
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מוסף שבועי 19.10.23 כתבת AI החמאס הוא דעש
מוסף שבועי 19.10.23 כתבת AI החמאס הוא דעש
Hamas is Isis
(Photo credit: X)
Gekker is referring to WhatsApp groups to which you can send Facebook/X posts, etc. and mark whether they are for or against Israel. If they are in favor of Israel, an army of bots will generate positive reactions, likes and shares for them, and if they are against it - the bots will report them (but will not respond, so as not to generate unwanted traffic for them). But the AI arena does not end there: this week, many users shared a photo of an IDF soldier supposedly rescuing two babies kidnapped by Hamas and hidden in a closet in Gaza - but the photo was created by artificial intelligence, as evidenced by the soldier's third hand, and the incorrect use of the Israeli flag.
And the confusion between truth and falsehood is not the property of laypeople only. Google's Bard and Microsoft's Bing chatbots, for example, claimed last Wednesday that Israel and Hamas had reached a ceasefire. Although Google and Microsoft warn that their tools are experimental and not yet accurate, they are already incorporating AI content into their search results, so the effort to know what is really real becomes even more never-ending.
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ד"ר אלכס גקר
ד"ר אלכס גקר
Dr. Alex Gekker.
(Photo: Rotterdam University)
How do the upheavals X (formerly Twitter) is going through in the era of Elon Musk affect the battle for the truth?
"X's image as a home for reliable information has completely collapsed this year. Musk canceled the verified accounts and opened up the possibility for anyone to purchase a blue checkmark; he also promoted the ad sharing program, which offers revenue based on exposure, similar to the programs of YouTube and TikTok. This means that if in the past only entities such as Israel, the Palestinians and their ideological supporters created content on the subject of the conflict to promote their narrative, now this option is also open to unrelated third parties - commercial entities that have a financial interest in producing viral content, even if it is completely fake.
"Take for example the tweets that were uploaded with content from the hyper-realistic computer game Arma 3 — trolls pumped them up as real documentation from the war, and this content became viral. Another video, of an IDF helicopter being shot down by a Hamas shoulder-fired missile, received 2.5 million views before being deleted. Another similar video received almost 10 million views.
"To this we should add the crisis of moderation in social networks (referring to the employees of the social networks whose job is to go through the sea of content on the networks, and to remove inappropriate content from them, such as incitement to violence, in order to delete them). Moderation on the networks has always been insufficient, and it was only exacerbated with the crisis in high-tech - because the moderators were the first to receive dismissal letters, which further eroded, perhaps even collapsed, the way we know something is true. You see it now, when every time you see a picture of someone you have to count the fingers or hands they have to make sure it's not a fake."
And adding to the mess of unverified information we have the bots.
"It's true, when people are encouraged to become part of the attack with one click of a button - 'Share us and hundreds of bots will pump up your post' - there is a danger that once the fakes are discovered, the neutral and reasonable person will become completely apathetic to the problem they are trying to shed light on, and will dismiss all the information floating on the net as propaganda. What does that say about the technology ecosystem in general? If we have to check everything we come across on the net 30,000 times to understand if it was created by concerned citizens or bots and artificial intelligence - who will have time to delve deeper and try to understand what is really happening in the world?"
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מוסף שבועי 19.10.23 כתבת AI החייל עם התינוקות
מוסף שבועי 19.10.23 כתבת AI החייל עם התינוקות
Soldier with babies
(Photo: Facebook screeshot)
In times like this, when fake news is going wild, what does work?
"At the moment, there seems to be a boom in YouTubers from the longform genre - long videos that last 20 minutes or more. Through long and in-depth investigations, content creators, who have already built a name and audience on YouTube, are building themselves up as a serious and reliable source of information. Take YouTuber Folding Ideas for example (Dan Olson), who uploaded a video two weeks ago that shows what happened to the people who fell in the GameStop pump in the last two years - this is a two and a half hour video that has already gained about 2 million views."
Similarly, the travel blogger Oren Cahanovitc (@Travelingisraelinfo), who usually publishes recommendations for tourists in Israel, this week published a long, historical and detailed video about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("Free Palestine? No thanks!"), which in a few days reached about 2.5 million views.
And they say that people today don't have an attention span for anything.
"True. For years we have been told that young people nowadays want everything shorter, they don't have time to read, they don't have the attention span, and they don't have the patience. And in this case, there are many people who watched two hours of a filmed podcast. Admittedly, many times they do it in the background, while they do something else, but they still listen to people who create successful explanatory content on important topics. Another example is Curiosity Stream, a platform that is less known in Israel but is gaining momentum abroad; It's a collaboration between YouTube and Patreon, where informative videos are produced only for people willing to pay to sign up, and I think it's a very interesting direction for modern media."
It seems that in the current war, Israeli propaganda is accomplishing unprecedented achievements in mobilizing global public opinion, with the hashtag #HamasIsIsis, photos of the abductees in stories of Hollywood actors, and more.
"What works in advocacy, as we have seen it work in previous cases, is that well-known people, who already have an established following, start to upload content that is more related to the war. We saw this when the Russians invaded Ukraine, and Ukrainian female influencers from the beauty or fitness fields suddenly started talking about the war, and because the followers already know them and their content, this helped to break through the cynical barrier of 'everything is fake anyway and everything is a narrative'. This is a very well-known phenomenon in psychology, that familiarity is very similar to credibility in our minds, and when something is familiar we feel as if it is true, even if it is not justified."
What about Ella Kenan (@EllaTravels), owner of a digital marketing agency and content creator in the field of travel, who conceived the "Hamas is Isis" campaign?
"Ella Kenan is the perfect example of what we are talking about. If she didn't have the social capital and the attention she earned on the professional side, her followers would not give her the credit to tell her story and would specifically listen to her and not to anyone else. #HamasIsIsis is actually brilliant because for the people in Israel it's very easy to connect it to their personal stories, to their loved ones who were murdered and kidnapped, to concrete examples. It's not #StandWithIsrael — which is a very patriotic tag, but also very abstract and very tribal, which basically says 'divide into your standard camps, who is for and who is against.'"
Where is our advocacy less effective?
"In TikTok, because there things work according to trends, the medium is based more on a central idea and less on personas - many TikTok influencers are constantly reinventing themselves, in contrast to YouTube and Instagram influencers, who make sure to cultivate a consistent brand. Beyond that, in much of the younger media, and it applies mainly for TikTok, but also for Instagram, the accepted practice is to be in favor of issues of social justice. If the old Instagram was dedicated to photos of food and selfies at sunset, then the new generation very much promotes the hot social issues and is oriented towards liberal values such as anti-racism, anti-discrimination, and feminism. And historically, the Palestinian struggle was on the right side of this equation, so no matter what the situation is, that is the direction in which they lean."
How should the pro-Israel struggle be promoted on TikTok?
"It is very easy to create content on TikTok, and it has a set of tools that make it very easy to make content viral, even if you don't have a large following. Features such as filters and smart use of sound differentiate TikTok from other platforms in the classic distribution of messages. I saw today, for example, someone made a filter called "Free Palestine", which paints your face in the colors of the Palestinian flag and adds a caption in Arabic, but the caption in Arabic actually says 'Hamas is ISIS.' Those who do not speak Arabic will not know this. It's a clever trolling technique, making smart use of TikTok's tools."