Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Thousands of FakeReporter volunteers sort through disinformation on social media


Since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel, images depicting the conflict have been all over social media. Some are real, showing the brutality of the war's impact on both Israelis and Palestinians. But there are also a lot of manipulated or misleading images and videos spreading online, and there are groups in many countries trying to fight all that disinformation. NPR's Bobby Allyn spoke to one man who leads an Israel-based group known as FakeReporter.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Achiya Schatz walked into the kitchen and saw his mother-in-law standing there in tears. He was at his in-laws' house outside of Tel Aviv, where his family fled the violence of the war.

ACHIYA SCHATZ: I saw the mother of my partner. She was in the kitchen, like, all of a sudden crying. And I ask her what happened. And she said, I just saw a horrible video of babies in cages of Hamas.

ALLYN: Not only did Schatz know that it was bogus footage, the organization he runs, FakeReporter, was the first to show that the video depicted something else entirely and had been posted online well before the war. In the kitchen, Schatz turned to his mother-in-law and said...

SCHATZ: This is a video that we refuted. It's a lie. It's fake.

ALLYN: It's a lie, it's a fake is something Schatz's group has been saying a lot since Hamas attacked Israel, unleashing an information war online. While plenty of authentic photos and videos have portrayed the barbaric violence of the war, there has been an undercurrent of misinformation too. FakeReporter is trying to tackle it head on. Its more than 3,000 volunteers have access to software where images and videos suspected of being fake or misleading are flagged to trained experts who, through some internet sleuthing, figure out whether something is real or fake. They then report it to social media companies, and their reports are helping to get harmful content removed. Schatz is overseeing it all from what he calls a situation room in the front yard of his in-laws' house.

SCHATZ: The house became like a war room for our team, for FakeReporter. Half my team came and we sat together, and it was also not just a house, a shelter, but also really, like, a situation room to deal with the situation.

ALLYN: Photos from past conflicts being passed off as live footage from Gaza, fake orders from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, inflammatory messages purporting to be from the Israel Defense Forces. Social media companies have teams dedicated to catching this kind of stuff, too, but Schatz says, too often, their response time is too slow. A video could reach millions before it's removed. Schatz says in the meantime, fake content is adding another layer of fog to the war.

SCHATZ: There is a sense that you can't believe anyone. It's something that actually crumbles society.

ALLYN: At first, Schatz says the day-to-day work was made more complicated because social media companies, especially X, formerly Twitter, had almost no open lines of communication after owner Elon Musk gutted the company's trust and safety team. And Meta, Google and other tech companies also reduced safety divisions. Schatz says recently, X and all the other platforms have gotten more responsive to what FakeReporter is finding. The group was founded almost three years ago. Before the war, it was focused on trying to help people who were targeted with online harassment for speaking out against corruption. Schatz says the social media companies were not always the best partners.

SCHATZ: We don't need to wait for war to understand that people are under attack and are - need to be protected in the online world - on X, on Meta, on Google, on any platforms.

ALLYN: Back in the kitchen, talking to his mother-in-law about the phony kids-in-the-cage video really made Schatz understand the importance of fighting against the spread of disinformation online. He says it's not just about separating fact from fiction, but about changing how people respond emotionally to a conflict.

SCHATZ: And you can see by, for example, my mother-in-law - really broke her down. The same is happening to millions of people around the world, seeing such horrific videos online that not necessarily are true.

ALLYN: And when the next fake horrific video starts spreading online, he says he hopes FakeReporter can stop it in its tracks before it goes viral. Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.