Twitter, Hamas and the Three Boys

Instant social media and agenda-driven journalism combine to create a distorted story about Hamas innocence.

“It turns out Hamas didn’t kidnap and kill the 3 Israeli teens after all” • Fascinating, major, breaking news courtesy of New York Magazine and Katie Zavadski  • Since the kidnapping of Naftali Fraenkel,  Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah in the West bank on June 12th the guiding assumption has been that Hamas was behind it •  Now Zavadski was turning that on its head •  One problem:  It was all based on misinformation, manipulation and bad journalism • A sad example of the pitfalls of “Twitter journalism”


The Tweet heard – and distorted – around the world. Screencap of Jon Donisson’s original Hamas Tweet.

The present round of hostilities in Gaza has seen an explosion in the use of social media, especially facebook and twitter, to advance either a pro-Israel or pro-Hamas agenda. Activists on either side upload pictures, infographics and videos, each arguing for their side. Many journalists have joined in the fight, often latching onto bits and pieces of information without properly checking them or placing them in context. The story presently making the rounds that Israel “admitted” Hamas was not responsible for the infamous kidnapping of the three hitchhikers is a case in point.

The ‘Hamas is not responsible’ story is important is because it sheds light on how journalists work today with new media.  It shows how errant ‘tweets’ and other social media in the fast moving world of “get your story out first” can do disastrous harm to the facts.  It also shows how journalists with an agenda can push that agenda into their writing by slightly tweaking information.  All this can have disastrous results, not just because it can tarnish the image of people or countries, but because it feeds a disinformation campaign, and probably even aids Hamas.  Journalists are not activists; they must be held accountable for shoddy reporting or failure to differentiate fact from rumor, no matter how tantalizing.

A little white lie snowballs into a huge one

The saga began with a tweet by Buzzfeed writer Sheera Frenkel, claiming that “After Israel’s top leadership blamed Hamas kidnap for 3 teens, they’ve now admitted killers were acting as ‘lone cell.’”  Frenkel sought to highlight her own article about the issue that had appeared at Buzzfeed on June 15 that had asked “who was behind the kidnapping of three Israeli teens.”

In her piece she relied on interview with experts and activists such as Gershon Baskin to provide different theories about the kidnapping.  Frenkel’s initial piece was not the problem.  But on July 25 she made a serious error in how she presented the “information.”  She had relied on a tweet by Jon Donnison, the BBC Sydney Correspondent covering Australia, but who formerly covered the West Bank and was now back covering it during the war with Hamas.

From Hamas-affiliated to lone wolves. Sheera Frenkel's Tweet on Donnison's findings. Screencap.
From Hamas-affiliated to lone wolves. Sheera Frenkel’s Tweet on Donnison’s findings. Screencap.

At 2:28 pm on July 25, he tweeted “Israeli police Mickey Rosenfeld [sic] tells me men who killed 3 Israeli teens def lone cell, hamas affiliated but not operating under leadership.”  Frenkel had picked this up two hours later at 5:40am; but notice how she changed the wording around to claim “Israel’s top leadership…now they’ve admitted killers were acting as ‘lone cell.’”

Except that is not what Donnison had tweeted at all. He had done a good job relaying accurate information from the Israel Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld about the investigation focusing on the Hamas cell of the Qawasmeh clan; Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha.  The Hebron area based clan or large extended family has produced numerous Hamas members over the years, including the bomber of Jerusalem bus 2 massacre in 2003.

Sheera Frenkel effectively forced her report to fit her own preconceived notions, arguing in a “recap” that Israel had arrested hundreds of Palestinians, leading to the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the Gaza conflict, all based on a mistaken presumption.  The narrative she implied was that since Hamas was not involved that the resulting conflict was a terrible outcome.  But the distortions did not stop there.

If the facts fit the narrative…

The Zavadski piece in New York Magazine was a major manipulation based on disinformation and changed the entire nature of the original Police spokesman’s utterance.  Other publications also got into the manipulation.  The Daily Dot ran a headline by Dell Cameron on July 25 shouting “Israel police official refutes claim that Hamas kidnapped Israeli teens.”  It shows an ugly off-color photo of Benjamin Netanyahu in the background.  And as we already saw, the tweet by Donnison did not “refute the claim” that Hamas had kidnapped the teens.

Cameron, like Zavadski, added his own editorializing, “If the reported findings of the Israeli Police hold up and Hamas is officially cleared of any wrongdoing in the case of the three kidnapped Israeli teens, Netanyahu and the Israeli government may have to explain why a massive military operation, with an 80 percent rate of civilian casualties, was instigated under a false premise. And if violence in the West Bank continues to spread, the IDF may find itself divided on two fronts.”  But recall, no one had said Hamas was going to be “cleared of wrongdoing”. Quite the opposite: it was Hamas members who did the kidnapping, it was just unclear as to their organizational responsibility and how orders were relayed.


The chance to smear Bibi as an evil schemer was to good to pass up. Photo: Wikimedia
The chance to smear Bibi as a blood-stained evil schemer was too good to pass up. Photo: Wikimedia

These two articles spawned a third piece in the Lebanese Daily Star on July 26 claiming “Hamas not complicit in teens kidnap: Israeli police.” The ‘Star’ report claimed that “Rosenfeld appears to have falsified the Israeli government’s claim.”  Within another day the ball was rolling, with Daily Kos out with a headline “Israel admits Hamas didn’t kidnap 3 Israeli teens”. and others have since jumped on the bandwagon.

The agenda of making Hamas innocent in the kidnapping feeds a view that has been gaining steam in recent days.  On July 22nd ‘Democracy Now’ published an interview with Middle East analyst Nathan Thrall claiming “How the West chose war in Gaza: Crises tied to Israeli-US effort to isolate Hamas and keep the siege.”  The idea is that this was a “war of choice” for Israel, and that Israel purposely used the kidnapping a pretext for war.  It feeds the common conspiracy theories in the Middle East that the Israelis were killed before the “kidnapping” in a car accident, or that they were murdered by other Israelis in some personal feud – all part of a macabre “conspiracy” for Israel to “undermine” Hamas.

Professional responsibility must come first

When I first noticed the false reporting by New York Magazine on July 25, I contacted Frenkel and Donnison.  Donnison didn’t reply, but Frenkel told me to “learn twitter” and claimed I had misrepresented her tweet.  I emailed New York Magazine my concerns and did not receive a reply, but the article by Zavadski was updated soon after to reflect the Donnison tweets.  Now the article contains the contradiction of “officials admit the kidnappings were not Hamas’s handiwork after all” when the Donnison tweet clearly says that Hamas was involved and that only one official told him this.

Easy to spot, easy to double-check. Micky Rosenfeld's clarification to the author. Screencap.
Easy to report, but also easy to double-check. Micky Rosenfeld’s clarification to the author. Screencap.

The Israel Security Service (Shin Bet) spokesman and the Prime Minister’s Office have not confirmed or changed their view that Hamas is responsible. Meanwhile, Mickey Rosenfeld told me on Sunday “I said and confirmed what is known already, that the kidnapping and the murder of the teens was carried out by Hamas terrorists from Hebron area and the security organizations are continuing to search for the murderers.”  New York Magazine continues to carry its falsified headline and continues to provide claims about non-existent “officials.”

In the age of instant social media, the temptation to run with minimal and even distorted information for the sake of a “scoop” or to serve a cause is easier than ever, and the damage caused is far greater and faster than ever before. Especially in as emotive and controversial a field as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, professional journalists and analysts have a responsibility not to succumb to this temptation. Let this story be a cautionary tale for all who enter this minefield.

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1 comments on the article

  1. Right. Good to see someone who still respects the basics of accuracy in journalism. How nice.