As the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza intensifies, misinformation and conspiracy theories about the conflict are increasingly circulating on social media. At least that’s what I found in an analysis of nearly 12,000 comments posted on Telegram channels shortly after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel. Not surprisingly, I also found that comments about the war were more likely to be threatening or hateful than those used in comments on other topics. Many comments on Telegram also linked the Israel-Hamas conflict to dangerous, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories related to the war between Russia and Ukraine hundreds of kilometers away on another continent. For example, I found that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was portrayed by these conspiracy theorists as a justified resistance against the Khazarian mafia (so-called fake Jews), who allegedly ruled Ukraine either as Nazis or like them. We do.
Commenters on Telegram described Hamas’ October 7 attack in similar terms. Both conflicts were also portrayed as conspiracies by the New World Order. Proponents of these conspiracies believe that powerful elites (often known as Jews) are secretly trying to establish a totalitarian world government or other forms of global oppression. This view was summarized in a comment on one channel, which argued that these globalists are rogues launching a second psychological campaign after the Ukraine failure. Other comments linked the two conflicts by calling Ukraine’s Western supporters hypocrites for condemning Hamas’s actions. As one user argued: Western weapons were sent to Hamas for attacks in Ukraine.
Majority and Conspiracy Many of these conspiracies are not new in themselves. However, what is unique about this situation is the way people have linked two largely unrelated conflicts through conspiracy theories. Research has shown that overlapping crises (often known as multiple crises) can accelerate the spread of conspiracies, possibly due to the psychological effect it has on people constantly adapting to rapid change. When crises such as war and global pandemics overlap, it can also amplify the effects of conspiracies. For example, the amount of prejudice and bigotry seen online may increase. In extreme cases, individuals may even act on their beliefs.
Although these conspiracies appear to be on the margins of social media, it is important to understand how this type of rhetoric can develop and how it can be harmful if it spreads into mainstream media or politics. How I did my research I’ve been following several public Australian Telegram channels as part of a broader project examining the intersection of conspiracy theories and security. For the latest phase of this research, which has yet to be peer reviewed, I analyzed 12,000 comments posted on three of these channels between October 8 and October 11. To analyze so many messages, I used a topic modeling approach.
It is a statistical model that can identify frequently occurring topics within large amounts of text-based data. Essentially, topic modeling is similar to highlighting sections of a book that contain related topics. There are many approaches to topic modeling. I used Bartopic, which generates topics by clustering messages with similar characteristics like words, sentences, and other parts of the context. In total, 40 distinct themes were identified in the comments I analyzed. I then divided these topics into conflict and non-conflict groups to analyze the sentiment behind them. To do this I used Google’s Perspective API algorithm, as it can score text on a scale of zero to one for hateful or threatening.
The results showed that conflict topics were more likely to include threatening and hate speech. A major reason for this is the anti-Semitic nature of the most common conflict topic group (key words: Israel, Jews, Hamas, Palestinians). For example, a representative comment from this group called for the elimination of Israel as a state. I also found Islamophobic messages in this topic group. For example, some comments suggested that Hamas’s actions reflected Islamic beliefs or demonstrated the threat posed by Muslims in general. The second largest topic (key words: Ukraine, Russia, Putin, war, Islam, propaganda) captured discussions linking Hamas attacks to the Russia–Ukraine war.
The messages did this by justifying both conflicts on similar grounds (the fight against alleged Nazis and Jews) or by linking them to global conspiracies. And I found variations of the New World Order global conspiracy theory in other topics. For example, the fourth largest topic (key words: video, clown, fake, movie, staged) included comments accusing Israel and other common conspirators of carrying out Hamas attacks. This closely matches the themes of my broader project on the Russia-Ukraine war. One of the most discussed topics (key words: Putin, war, Nazi, Ukraine, Jews) presents Ukraine’s defensive efforts as a sinister conspiracy, usually involving Jewish figures such as the President of Ukraine.
How to combat the spread of conspiracy theories As mentioned, the conspiracy-friendly nature of social media, in addition to overlapping multiple crimes, can increase people’s levels of prejudice and radicalization. Australian security agencies have already warned about this danger in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas. ASIO director general Mike Burgess has warned of spontaneous violence arising from instigators of tensions. Research has also shown a strong link between conspiracies and anti-Semitism, which presents a clear risk to Jewish people. Indeed, anti-Semitism in the US reached unprecedented levels in 2021 and 2022, likely due to the series of overlapping crises the world was experiencing at the time.
Countering online conspiracy theories is therefore an important, but challenging task. Effective counter-strategies involve a mix of preventive and responsive approaches targeting both suppliers and consumers of conspiracies. This includes increasing our investments in education, reducing social inequality, and carefully rejecting conspiracy theories when they arise. Awareness of the dynamics and spread of conspiracy stories is an essential first step.
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