Deconstructing the ‘beheaded babies’ misinformation in Israel’s war on Gaza


Smoke and flames billow after Israeli forces struck a high-rise tower in Gaza City, October 2023. Photo by Ali Hamad via Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

In an era where news media wields significant influence in democratic societies, the alarming consequences of misinformation are evident, particularly in the context of recent events in Gaza. This misinformation profoundly impacts global public opinion and action, igniting extreme harm and violence against the people of Gaza.

In 2021, a Pew Research Center report noted an increase in perceived media influence and trust compared to the previous year. This is further underscored by a 2015 paper in the American Journal of Political Science, which examined the intricate link between news and politics, highlighting the media's role in shaping political decision-making and its impact on the democratic process.

When trusted media outlets, relied upon by billions for verified, fact-checked information, perpetuate unsubstantiated claims, two scenarios emerge. In one, readers continue to internalize false information even after corrections. Alternatively, eroding public trust in the news may drive individuals to seek alternative sources, fostering confusion and dubious claims.

This scenario is unfolding in the media coverage of Gaza following the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, which resulted in the killing of 1,400 Israelis, injuring over 5,400, and the taking of 220 hostages. Subsequently, Israel declared war, leading to the flattening of parts of Gaza, the killing of over 7,000 Palestinians, and injuries to over 16,000 others. This escalation of violence also affected Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel, leading to an additional 1,100 Palestinian fatalities.

During times of conflict and unrest, a rapid influx of information from various sources can become difficult to assess and verify. Additionally, disinformation may increase, posing unique threats to civilians and marginalized groups. In the evolving news about Palestine and Israel, many falsehoods have inundated information platforms, including claims about Iran's black flag, Turkey's intervention, Ukraine's weaponry support, the Israeli general, Egyptian parachute jumpers, and Putin's warning, among others.

The case of “decapitated babies” 

One of the most egregious cases of misinformation since October 7 concerns false information about beheaded babies. Misinformation about beheaded babies began with Nicole Zedek, a correspondent for the privately-owned Israeli i24News, who reported “that Israeli soldiers told her they’d found babies, their heads cut off.” However, Israeli Forces spokesperson, Doron Spielman could not confirm this report, as per NBC News.

While 28 Israeli children have been confirmed as casualties, there is no photographic or verifiably documented evidence supporting the allegation of decapitated babies.

The Daily Mail subsequently published an article that further perpetuated the rumor, but failed to exercise due diligence in terms of fact-checking or seeking verifiable sources. The claim was presented in the headline and reiterated throughout the piece, lacking supporting evidence or eyewitness statements.

Between October 10 and October 11, the claim went viral across numerous major media outlets and news agencies worldwide, including BBC, CNN, CBS, Sky News, Metro News, Fox News, and Business Insider. Notably, it remained unsubstantiated, unverified, and unchecked during this time. 

Screenshot of CNN homepage on 11 October at 07:27, accessed via the Internet Archive. Fair use.

On October 11, during a White House press conference, President Biden perpetuated the claim, implying he had seen evidence, although he hadn’t. He stated: “I mean, I — I’ve been doing this a long time. I never really thought that I would see and have confirmed pictures of terrorists beheading children. I never thought I’d ever — anyway.”

Following the press conference, CNN issued a clarification, stating “After President Biden’s remarks earlier today, an administration official told CNN neither Biden nor the administration have seen pictures or confirmed reports of children or infants beheaded by Hamas.” 

The National Endowment for Democracy  reported in 2020 that information evoking emotions like fear, disgust, awe, and anger tends to go viral, even when entirely fabricated. Those spreading unsubstantiated claims about the 40 beheaded babies may have garnered attention, clicks, likes, and shares, but they also collectively disregarded journalistic due diligence by sharing heinous claims without verification. 

Sign at a peaceful pro-Palestinian protest in Berlin. October 21, 2023. Photo by Wael Eskandar. Used with permission.

The harm is done

The consequences of spreading such misinformation can be dangerous, as per the Intercept, “reports of Hamas crimes against civilians fueled rage among the public, elected officials, and policymakers.”

Marwa Fatafta, a regional policy manager for the nonprofit digital human rights group Access Now, told Washington Post that:

There’s a lot of information being shared that is not verified, a lot of calls to violence and dehumanization. And all this is fanning the flames for further massacres [of Palestinians].

One such case is the Illinois incident, where a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume was fatally stabbed by his 75-year-old landlord, leaving his mother critically injured. The assailant shouted, “You Muslims have to die! You are killing our kids in Israel. You Palestinians don’t deserve to live.”  

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention pointed to the use of genocidal language in this case and held the Biden administration and US media accountable for “fanning the flames of anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim sentiment in the USA during the first week of this horrific crisis in Israel/Palestine.”

This single incident exemplifies the real-life consequences of disseminating misinformation like the beheaded babies’ story. It has fueled islamophobia, dehumanized Palestinians, and exploited anti-Muslim tropes, particularly against Muslim men, while highlighting the dangerous conflation of Muslims with terrorists

When assessing the potential consequences of mis/disinformation using the Digital Enquirer Kit, a tool for investigators, it's practical to gauge the scale of harm from “low” to “high.” In this context, “low” pertains to misleading information that may be confusing, whereas “high” harm signifies “long-term, severe, or irreversible physical damage or psychological distress.” The latter is unfolding in Gaza due to misinformation.

Moreover, when false information is released into the public sphere, whether online or through media, the damage is often irreversible. Even if swift retractions or corrections are issued, they frequently garner less attention, and there is uncertainty about whether people will remember or internalize the accurate information. 

Basic cognitive psychology and the process of memory recall also play a role in this, as highlighted by First Draft News: 

There is consensus that once you’ve been exposed to misinformation it is very, very difficult to dislodge from your brain. Corrections often fail because the misinformation, even when explained in the context of a debunk, can later be recalled as a fact.

The situation in Gaza

According to statistics by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on October 26, over just two weeks, 7,028 Palestinians were killed and 18,482 others were injured in Gaza. A staggering 68 percent of Palestinian casualties are children and women. Compounding this tragedy, more than 1,550 people in Gaza, of which 56 percent are children, are missing and feared to be trapped under the rubble. 

OCHA’s report also reveals that 45 percent of Gaza's housing units have been destroyed or damaged, with 1.4 million internally displaced people, highlighting the severity of the humanitarian crisis. Critical shortages of fuel, water, shelter, sanitation, and food add to the gravity of the dire situation. 

Alongside the devastation in Gaza, the West Bank has witnessed casualties, injuries, imprisonment, and the destruction of Palestinian property in the past two weeks, as reported by OCHA. Amnesty International documented Israeli war crimes, including the obliteration of entire families in Gaza. Moreover, Human Rights Watch confirmed Israel's use of white phosphorus in Gaza and Lebanon, a clear violation of international lawUN Chief Guterres condemned the collective punishment. 

In an interview with media critic Sana Saeed, conducted by The Intercept on October 11, addressing issues of misinformation and violence, she remarked: 

It’s been about four days since this incredible and tragic escalation of violence and the level of misinformation — even disinformation — seems near unprecedented […] We have seen journalists, in particular, spread unverified information that is being used to justify Israeli and even American calls and actions to annihilate an entire population.


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