Is it true or not? Israeli group FakeReporter fact checks while seeking shelter

Achiya Schatz runs an organization in Israel called FakeReporter that authenticates images and videos that appear online in order to combat fake news. The group was founded 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.

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Achiya Schatz runs an organization in Israel called FakeReporter that authenticates images and videos that appear online in order to combat fake news. The group was founded 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.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Achiya Schatz walked into the kitchen and saw his mother-in-law standing there in tears.

Schatz, his pregnant partner, their toddler daughter, and two other Israeli families had fled the violence of the war, putting eleven under one roof at the home of his in-laws outside of Tel Aviv.

The house became a cacophony of screaming children, frantic phone calls and emergency Zoom meetings. Sometimes all three families seek shelter together from the rockets.

Yet what most rattled his mother-in-law were the unsettling images of children in cages.

“I asked her, ‘what happened?’ And she said I just saw a horrible video of babies in cages,” Schatz said.

Not only did he immediately know that she was referring to deceptive footage, but the organization he runs, FakeReporter, was the first to show that the video portrayed something else entirely. The clip had been posted online months before Hamas attacked Israel, though the footage’s exact origins remain the subject of online debate.

“This is a video that we refuted, ” he told his mother-in-law. “It’s a lie. It’s fake.”

Those words — “It’s a lie. It’s a fake”— are uttered quite a bit these days by Schatz and his associates ever since the Hamas-Israel war broke out, unleashing an informational war online.

From West Bank combat soldier to war fact-checker

FakeReporter was founded about three years ago. Prior to the war, it was focused on assisting people targeted with online harassment for speaking out against government corruption.

Before FakeReporter, Schatz, 38, was the spokesman for an organization called Breaking the Silence, which published anonymous testimonies of Israeli soldiers who claimed they witnessed ethical misconduct during their service in West Bank and Gaza.

It was called “perhaps Israel’s most hated NGO,” by the magazine Jerusalem Report since the group highlights “the dark underbelly of the Palestinian occupation.” It also drew public criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The group’s material was banned from schools and army bases for “delegitimizing the State of Israel.” Lawmakers, in 2017, even introduced a bill in the Knesset to outlaw the group completely.

Schatz, himself once stationed in the West Bank when he was a combat solider for the Israel Defense Forces, saw just how toxic the online attacks against Breaking the Silence became. It made him realize that there needs to be an organization that both shields outspoken activists in Israel from online harassment and calls out false claims.

“What should be an open conversation in our society became very hostile and violent, and the No. 1 place where the violence and hostility was being carried out was online,” Schatz said. “When you don’t see one another and there’s no filters, it becomes a tool of attack.”

Which led to the creation of FakeReporter, said Schatz, who as CEO of the non-profit leads a team of about 15 full-time people, in addition to thousands of volunteers.

For the past three weeks, plenty of real photos and videos have spread portraying grisly and barbaric violence in the Israel-Hamas war, but fake images have also inundated online platforms.

Schatz oversees more than 3,000 volunteers who flag images and videos that are suspected to be fake.

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Schatz oversees more than 3,000 volunteers who flag images and videos that are suspected to be fake.

Claire Harbage/NPR

FakeReporter is part of a loose yet growing coalition of individuals and groups around the world attempting to push back against the torrent of bogus material about the war circulating online.

Since the war started, the group has assembled more than 3,000 volunteers, mostly in Israel, who have access to software where images and videos suspected of being fake or misleading are flagged.

From there, the posts are sent to trained experts, who, through some internet sleuthing and forensic analysis, figure out whether something is real or fake. They then share the conclusion of their findings across their social media accounts and report the posts to tech companies, and their reports are helping to get harmful content removed.

“We’re seeing violence and lies taken down and disinformation being refuted because of our reports,” he said.

Schatz is overseeing it all from his in-laws’ house.

“The house became like a war room for our team,” he said. “Half of my team came, and we sat together, and it became not just a house shelter, but also like a situation room to deal with the situation.”

Examples of fabrications from the war are legion: Photos from past conflicts being passed off as live footage from Gaza; fake orders from Netanyahu; inflammatory messages purporting to be from the IDF.

Social media companies have teams dedicated to catching misleading material, yet action can take time. A video could reach millions before it is removed. Meanwhile, fake content online is contributing another dimension of chaos to a conflict that is politically fraught and where facts are difficult to parse from hour to hour.

“There’s a sense that you can’t believe anyone. It’s something that actually crumbles society,” he said.

Social media companies have teams dedicated to catching fake media, but Schatz says, too often, their response time is too slow.

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Social media companies have teams dedicated to catching fake media, but Schatz says, too often, their response time is too slow.

Claire Harbage/NPR

At the start of the war, Schatz said the day-to-day work was especially challenging because social media companies had almost no open lines of communication, especially X, (formerly Twitter) since owner Elon Musk had gutted the company’s trust and safety team.

Recently, X, and all the other platforms, have become more responsive to what Fake Reporter is finding, according to Schatz.

“Platforms seems to be finally understanding the situation,” he said. “But why did we have to wait for a war to understand that people need to be protected in the online world?”

Stopping fake viral posts before they unsettle millions

That conversation with his mother-in-law in the kitchen about the misleading kids-in-cages video helped Schatz understand the importance of fighting the spread of disinformation online. It became personal. It became visceral. It became something more than broadcasting on social media that a widely-seen photo is in fact phony. Persuading even his own family, he learned, is not as easy as pointing out a fact.

“It barely touched her,” he said of her reaction when he informed her the footage was not real. “She was still just very shocked from it.”

Truth-squadding the lies of war is not just about separating fact from fiction, he said. It’s also about changing how people respond emotionally to a conflict.

“And you can see, for example, my mother-in-law, it really broke her down, the same is happening for millions of people around the world, seeing such horrific videos online, but they aren’t necessarily true.”

And when the next fake horrific video starts spreading online, he hopes the Fake Reporter team can stop it in its tracks before it goes viral.

“It’s nonstop. There are no mornings or nights anymore,” he said. “We are really working in one endless day.”

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