Monday, June 7, 2010

Anatomy of a Rumor

Internet rumors are an important tool for understanding how we in the American Jewish community evaluate information regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Without an understanding of the region or its complex politics, the slightly informed reader will default back to the credibility of their network contact rather than the source of the information itself. In the rhetoric and emotionalism of the current crisis over Israel's raid of the Mavi Marmara, misinformation (or disinformation) spreads through pro-Israel networks like fire through a dry forest.

Consider the video of the Mavi Marmara's cargo, which included grenades and katyusha rockets. Its earliest appearance on the internet appears to be June 3rd, on a blog called "Bruce Speaks." The blog author credits the tip-off on the video to Fred Leder, a pro-Israel retired oil company executive in Westport, CT. Other bloggers, including Daniel Sieradski of JTA News trace back to an article posted on Israpundit by Israeli author Naomi Ragen entitled "Heavy Weapons Found on Mavi Marmara." While the article has been removed from the site, a simple Google search confirms that the Israpundit article did exist, with the first part of the first sentence reading, "This video shows that during the unloading of the Marmara boat in the port of Ashdod..."

The full text, as reposted on blogs, is: "This video shows that during the unloading of the Marmara boat in the port of Ashdod, behind the bags of flour were boxes of heavy weapons and ammunition: mortars, artillery shells, bazookas, without counting a trunk where more than one million euros was found intended for Hamas. This video should be widely distributed as evidence of why the IDF Naval commandos were dispatched to intercept the six vessels including the M/S Mavi Marmara. One wonders what is aboard the Irish vessel, the M/S. Rachel Corrie, that Israel will intercept sometime today when it approaches the Naval blockade line off the coast of Gaza. Clearly the Turkish AKP Islamist government is complicit in permitting this military cargo to be loaded on the ‘peaceful’ Free Gaza Flotilla. Please distribute this video widely. If you had any doubt about what was on the flotilla, here is the video."

Except that the video is dated November 4, 2009. The Mavi Marmara raid was May 31, 2010.

The video is also on Flix, not Youtube (which the IDF has been using to post videos all week). The Flix account to which the video is posted hasn't had a new video added to it since November 5th. The channel appears to be a legitimate outlet of the IDF, but the video is of a ship called "Francop." Here is the IDF's own press release on the incident from November 2009.

Furthermore, any Middle East analyst can tell you that the weapons in the video highly likely originated in Iran, which is a rival of Turkey and its "AKP Islamist government." Turkey would have no interest in delegitimizing the "peaceful civilians" about the boat. And the weapons shown in the video are used regularly against U.S. forces in Iraq and by groups funded by Iran.

Which makes sense because the "Francop" was an arms shipment to Hizbullah, which is heavily supported by Iran.

This video is not an anomaly in the storm of misinformation surrounding the flotilla raid. E-mails alleging that the IDF Youtube channel was in danger of being shut down due to a lack of hits, and a "testimony" of one of the IDF soldiers, emailed out by his father, have also circulated. Yet there is no minimum number of hits required to maintain a Youtube channel. And any IDF father would know better than to release information about the raid which had not yet been released by the government of Israel for security reasons...assuming his son would also violate Israeli security by telling his father in the first place.

And while a moment of critical thinking casts doubt onto the validity of these messages, they have spread within the pro-Israel community. Who can fault a grandparent in Boca Raton for not knowing the rules of a Youtube account, or an American in Iowa for not knowing about the Israeli security mentality? When the content of the message conforms to our preconceived assumptions, there is little thought given to questioning it.

However, such misinformation delegitimizes the valid information about the raid, Israel's general adherence to the rules of engagement, and the vicious assault the IDF commandos suffered at the hands of some of the ship's passengers wielding knives, clubs, and pepper spray. Informed opinion leaders across the pro-Israel spectrum must carefully monitor such misinformation for their own good and the good of the general public. Efforts to combat misinformation must involve educating individuals to not make assumptions and carefully evaluate all information, regardless of how much they trust the source itself.

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