Capitalising on crisis: Russia, China and Iran use X to exploit Israel-Hamas information chaos

25 October 2023

 _________________________________________________________________________________   

The Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza have led to a surge in misinformation, hate speech and violent content online. It is said that misinformation thrives in a vacuum and rapidly changing conflict situations often provide just that. As it has become increasingly difficult for social media users to access verifiable information about the events on the ground over the past week, a number of state actors have also added their voices to the din. Russia, China and Iran, among other actors, appear to be exploiting the crisis to advance their own geopolitical agendas by glorifying violence and spreading false and unverified claims about the events in Israel and Gaza.

As the crisis in the Middle East continues to unfold, ISD has been monitoring state-affiliated accounts of Iran, Russia and China. Though there are other notable state actors involved in the online conversation around Israel and Gaza, these actors were selected for further analysis on the basis of their established track-records of deploying information operations around key geopolitical events.

The following briefing summarises the main narratives spread by these three states and highlights examples of disinformation, violent rhetoric and hate speech within content posted by their network since the Hamas attack on 7 October.

Key Findings

  • Iranian state-affiliated accounts have been glorifying the Hamas attack on 7 October as a strategic blow against Israel and accusing the US of being responsible for Palestinian suffering. Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei have been portrayed as leading a ‘pan-Islamic resistance’ against ‘neo-colonial’ Western powers and Israel.
  • Iranian accounts have also glorified and excused war crimes against Israeli civilians and used dehumanising language which describes ‘the enemy’ as singularly evil.
  • Russian state-affiliated accounts have been instrumentalising the current conflict to corroborate their usual set of anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian narratives. Russian state-affiliated accounts accused the West of “double standards” and blamed Western nations for the escalation.
  • Russian state media spread false and unverified information, including claims that Ukraine had supplied weapons to Hamas, and that the Gaza City hospital destroyed on 17 October was hit by a bomb supplied to Israel by the US.
  • The response to the war from Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated networks varies considerably across accounts and platforms. While posts on Facebook tried to remain neutral, insisting on condemning all acts that harm civilians, responses on X were markedly more polarised, with vehement attacks against Western political figures and Western media.
  • On X, Chinese state media accounts denounced the US for supposedly seeking economic advantage from the escalation. These same accounts called out Western politicians and mainstream media for turning ‘a blind eye’ to the victims in Gaza.

Methodology

The analysis is based on a qualitative assessment of posts from Facebook and X accounts belonging to Iranian, Russian and Chinese officials, diplomatic representations and state media, from between 7 and 18 October. This list of state actors consisted of a total 294 Iranian, 623 Russian, and 369 Chinese accounts.

The state-affiliated accounts on X originate with the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard, compiled by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, and were independently verified by ISD for relevance. An additional list of Facebook accounts belonging to state officials, ministries, embassies and overt state-funded media targeting international audiences was also used. These lists were supplemented by manual content searches on platforms such as Telegram. The content posted by these users was analysed via both Brandwatch and CrowdTangle dashboards.

Iran

Dominant Narratives

  • Since the Hamas attack on 7 October, Iranian state-affiliated accounts have glorified it as a strategic blow against Israel. These accounts are also capitalising on the Israeli assault on Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis and civilian casualties, particularly emphasising that the US is allied with Israel and therefore shares responsibility for Palestinian suffering and Israeli war crimes. They primarily promote tweets from accounts representing Ayatollah Khamenei.
  • The Iranian accounts centre the narrative that Iran and Ayatollah Khamenei are leading a ‘pan-Islamic resistance’ against neo-colonial, Western powers and Israel. Despite pledging support for Palestinians, Khamenei denies Iranian involvement in Hamas’ attack.

While official Iran sources have denied involvement in the planning or execution of Hamas’ multi-pronged assault on Israeli civilians on 7 October, Iranian state-affiliated accounts fit the attack into the ‘Resistance Axis’ narrative, which situates Iran and other Muslim nations against Israel and the United States. It is cast as a decisive strategic blow against Israel which will lead to Israel’s defeat; and has been excused by diplomatic accounts as a “natural&legitimate (sic) reaction to the radical & criminal acts of the Zionist regime”, in the words of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Foreign Minister.

Image 1: ‘The Imam Khamenei’ Telegram Channel: “AlAqsa Storm will lead to the complete victory of the Palestinians.”

Image 1: ‘The Imam Khamenei’ Telegram Channel: “AlAqsa Storm will lead to the complete victory of the Palestinians.”

 

Image 2: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Ami-Abdollahian calls for an end to the killing of Palestinian civilians, while at the same time referring to the 7 October attack as “a natural&legitimate reaction” [sic]

Image 2: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Ami-Abdollahian calls for an end to the killing of Palestinian civilians, while at the same time referring to the 7 October attack as “a natural&legitimate reaction” [sic]

In one post by state-affiliated news platform Tasnim News Agency, a clip of a speech by Khamenei is shown with the caption: “Leader of the Revolution: America is ultimately responsible for the crimes.” This statement is quickly followed by a video showing injured Palestinians, captioned: “America is the main agent of the crimes of recent days in Gaza.”

Image 3 & 4: X posts from Tasnim News Agency 17 October placing blame with the US for Palestinian suffering

Image 3 & 4: X posts from Tasnim News Agency 17 October placing blame with the US for Palestinian suffering

Accounts attributed to Khamenei share an identical narrative critiquing Western complicity and highlighting Palestinian suffering. The 7 October Hamas attack is again cast as an inevitable response to Israeli injustices. In the below posts on X, the account bearing Khamenei’s name first asserts that Iranian intelligence points to the US being responsible for Israeli policy regarding Gaza.

In a second tweet, the user singles out the US and the UK for their support of Israel, and again accuses Israel of indiscriminate killing (“women, men, children, or the elderly”). Another post adds that this ‘tyranny’ is what caused the 7 October attack (referred to as ‘AlAqsa Storm’), recalling the Foreign Minister’s reference to the assault as a ‘natural’ reaction from Hamas. The attack is further described as “courageous and self-sacrificing” despite the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Image 5 & 6: Posts on X from an English-language account attributed to Ayatollah Khamenei with 1 million followers

Image 5 & 6: Posts on X from an English-language account attributed to Ayatollah Khamenei with 1 million followers

Besides scoring points against the West and Israel for human rights and strategic failures, the Iranian narrative positions Iran as the leader of Islamic nations against Israel and the West. However, the accounts also make clear that while Iran supports Palestinians, they were not involved in the orchestration of the 7 October attack.

Western states are also blamed for hypocrisy in the Palestinian context, with many drawing parallels with widespread support for Ukraine. As state-affiliated media platform IraninArabic reports on American political activist Jackson Hinkle’s post: “If Putin did this to Kyiv, NATO would launch nukes at Moscow.”

Image 7: @Iraninarabic_ir references Jackson Hinkle’s statement accusing the West of double standards between Ukraine and Gaza

Image 7: @Iraninarabic_ir references Jackson Hinkle’s statement accusing the West of double standards between Ukraine and Gaza

The repression of pro-Palestinian protesters has also been seized upon as more evidence of Western hypocrisy, with the framing that Western states espouse the right to free speech, yet do not respect that for Palestinians and Muslims. For example, a French-language Khamenei X account asks: “In the countries where they permit the desecration of the Quran, do they permit insulting symbols of Zionism?”

This post references recent tensions in European countries following incidents of Quran-burning by far-right activists, which has offended Muslim activists but is permitted by governments as protected freedom of speech. In the second image, an Iranian diplomat comments on the video of a pro-Palestinian protest being repressed as a way of questioning Europe’s democratic integrity and suggesting that the protection of freedom of expression is applied unequally. This fits the common narrative that Muslims are unfairly oppressed in the West, as well as in Palestine.

Image 8 & 9: Images of protests in European countries used by Iranian state actors to accuse the West of double standards with regards to freedom of expression

Image 8 & 9: Images of protests in European countries used by Iranian state actors to accuse the West of double standards with regards to freedom of expression

Disinformation, hate speech and violent content

  • Graphic images and videos of dead bodies and injured civilians, particularly children, have been widely shared by Iranian state-affiliated accounts. These visuals are often used to emphasise Israel’s wrongdoing and encourage support for the Palestinian cause, which is conflated with Iran’s pan-Islamic resistance narrative.
  • The accounts often use language which describes ‘the enemy’ as singularly evil, emphasises their killing of civilian women and children, and excuses or even glorifies war crimes against Israeli civilians.

In the post below, a Khamenei account describes Israel as “evil, malicious, brutal and bloodthirsty”. In a video clip titled ‘Storm of Nations’, cinematic music plays alongside footage ostensibly of the 7 October attack, interspersed with scenes of pro-Palestinian protests in various countries. The intent is clearly to glorify the attack and its perpetrators, and to give the impression that populations in Muslim majority countries support it. In a press release from the Iranian Embassy in Australia shared on X, the Israeli military is described as “Baby Killer Israeli forces”.

Image 10: Posts from @khamenei.ir between 10 and 15 October

Image 10: Posts from @khamenei.ir between 10 and 15 October

Image 11: An excerpt of a statement from the Iranian Embassy in Australia, shared on X

Image 11: An excerpt of a statement from the Iranian Embassy in Australia, shared on X

In another post, Khamenei is quoted as saying Israel is a “terrorist camp” rather than a country, implying that Israeli citizens are all terrorists. This builds on the ’Myth of the Israeli Civilian’ narrative that Israeli civilians are legitimate military targets and justifies the war crimes committed by Hamas during the attack.

State-affiliated accounts have also shared unverified content or disinformation in the past week, such as a video supposedly taken by CNN of the Hamas attack, to which a user added fake audio to make it appear staged.

Image 12: Posts from an Iranian state-affiliated media Telegram channel accusing CNN of “faking an attack from Hamas”

Image 12: Posts from an Iranian state-affiliated media Telegram channel accusing CNN of “faking an attack from Hamas”

Russia

Dominant Narratives

  • Russian state-affiliated accounts have been exploiting the Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli response to advance the Russian geopolitical agenda and use the current events to corroborate traditional anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian narratives.
  • Diplomatic accounts on Facebook and X, as well as state media outlets, have been presenting Russia as an actor contributing to peace in the Middle East and advocating for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Meanwhile the West, and the US in particular, is presented as responsible for the escalation of violence and accused of hindering a potential political solution.
  • Russian state media have spread false and unverified information, including claims that Ukraine supplied weapons to Hamas and that the hospital in Gaza destroyed on 17 October, was hit by a bomb supplied to Israel by the US.

Russian diplomatic accounts on Facebook and X have been amplifying statements by Russian officials who blamed the West for the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas. For example, on 11 October the Russian Embassy in Israel posted quotes from a speech made by their ambassador, who accused Western countries of “completely monopolising the settlement process”. The post also claimed that the recent escalation is a “natural consequence of the destructive, short-sighted and narrowly self-interested policies of a number of countries involved in the Middle East process”.

Anti-Western narratives were repeated by accounts belonging to the Russian Foreign Ministry and diplomatic missions. This included a statement by Vladimir Putin, who called the escalation of violence “a clear example of US failed policy” or a statement of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who accused the US of “destructive policy”, as well as of eroding efforts of other international mediators.

On the contrary, Russia has been presented as a benevolent force supporting the peace process in the Middle East and advocating for the creation of the Palestinian state. A Facebook post by the Russian Embassy in Amman quoted Putin supporting the two-state solution.

After the United Nations Security Council rejected Russia’s resolution on Gaza, which condemned the violence but made no mention of Hamas, Russian diplomatic accounts claimed that it was rejected only because it came from Russia. Further, Russian diplomatic accounts accused Western countries of hypocrisy and double standards for their support for Israel, drawing parallels between their condemnation of Russian violence in Ukraine and alleged failure to condemn Israeli violence in Gaza.

Images 13-16: Posts by Russian diplomatic accounts on X

Images 13-16: Posts by Russian diplomatic accounts on X

Disinformation, hate speech and violent content

After the Hamas attack on Israel, Russian state media and diplomatic accounts pushed the unfounded allegations that Ukraine sold weapons supplied by Western nations in order to defend against Russian aggression to Hamas.

Posts by RT cited Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and current deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, the US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and ex-CIA analyst Larry Johnson, all of whom alleged that the weapons used in the attack on Israel on 7 October might have come from Ukraine. The account of Russian Embassy in Kenya reposted an unverified video showing weapons and claiming that a person speaking Arabic in the background is a Hamas fighter thanking Ukraine for the supply of weapons.

Images 17-20: Posts by Russian state-affiliated accounts alleging that Ukraine supplied weapons to Hamas

Images 17-20: Posts by Russian state-affiliated accounts alleging that Ukraine supplied weapons to Hamas

Explosion in Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza

After the blast in the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza on 17 October, Russian diplomatic accounts amplified statements by Russian officials condemning the incident without blaming a specific side, while Russian state media in different languages published contradicting and unverified messages in the first few hours after the explosion. The X accounts of RT, RT Arabic and Sputnik Arabic called the explosion an “Israeli airstrike” in various posts.

Sputnik India cited a Russian “military expert” who alleged that the hospital was destroyed by a bomb supplied by the US and launched by Israel as part of an airstrike. The post used the hashtags #GazaHospital, #Gaza_under_attack and #IsraelAttack. The Spanish version of RT amplified a statement by the Iranian president Ibrahin Raisi, who accused Israel of an airstrike on the hospital and referred to its destruction as ‘a war crime’.

Images 21-23: Posts by Russian state media claiming that an Israeli airstrike destroyed a hospital in Gaza. The RT en Español post reads: “’No free human being can remain silent before such war crimes’ wrote the Iranian President about the deadly attack on Gaza's Al-Ahli hospital.”

Images 21-23: Posts by Russian state media claiming that an Israeli airstrike destroyed a hospital in Gaza. The RT en Español post reads: “’No free human being can remain silent before such war crimes’ wrote the Iranian President about the deadly attack on Gaza’s Al-Ahli hospital.”

China

Dominant Narratives

  • Chinese state media directly accused the US of being responsible for the escalation and claimed that the country was fuelling the war to seek economic advantage. The US response was compared to the Chinese response, which was allegedly aimed at de-escalating the conflict.
  • A prominent topic of discussion among accounts tied to Chinese diplomats and state media was the absence of Palestinian voices in Western media coverage of the conflict, as well as the alleged biased reporting that primarily highlighted the suffering in Israel.

The Chinese response to the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas thus far has attempted to appear moderate. Chinese state representatives have consistently called for a ceasefire, condemned all actions harming civilians, and opposed any violations of international law. However, the social media response from Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts has shown varying degrees of aggressiveness on different platforms.

While Facebook accounts and pages have largely adhered to the official stance of neutrality, and advocated for de-escalation, discussions on X (formerly Twitter) took a more assertive tone.

Among Chinese journalists and politicians on X, the situation in Gaza was used as an opportunity to level accusations of hypocrisy and double standards at Western politicians, accompanied by a more vehement attack on the Israeli response.

Attacks against the US

The conflict provided an opportunity for China to rekindle its campaign of comparing US international interventions with their own responses. Chinese state media and diplomats have long employed memes and images to contrast the actions of the two countries to an international audience, pointing out alleged attacks resulting from American military interventions and accusing the US of fuelling conflicts abroad.

Following the announcement that the US would be sending multiple military ships to Israel, Chinese state media’s Global Times posted a cartoon in which China symbolically released a dove representing peace, while the US grasped and injured the dove. The post includes “it is clear who the warmonger and disruptor of regional peace is.”

A second post by Global Times blamed the US for the conflict, stating that its onset was the consequence of the US “strategic failure in the Middle East.”

Image 24 & 25: Posts by Global Times accuses the US of causing and escalating the conflict

Image 24 & 25: Posts by Global Times accuses the US of causing and escalating the conflict

On 10 October, a post by China Daily implied that the US might exploit the conflict for economic gain. An accompanying cartoon depicted US military vessels and aircraft heading towards the region, with a caricature of a man representing the US exclaiming, “There’s business!”

Image 26: A cartoon by China Daily suggests US business groups want to take economic advantage of the current conflict.

Image 26: A cartoon by China Daily suggests US business groups want to take economic advantage of the current conflict.

Criticism of Western media

Highly engaged posts by accounts affiliated with Chinese diplomats and state media featured vehement attacks against Western media coverage of the situation. Multiple posts specifically criticised CNN’s coverage, linking to news segments that included interviews with people in Israel but lacked Palestinian voices.

Zhang Heqing, a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, who is often labelled one of China’s leading ‘wolf warriors’ for his aggressive rhetoric, also shared a cartoon representing the biased coverage of Western media, which he alleges ignores the suffering in Gaza.

Images 27-29: X posts criticising Western media coverage of the conflict

Images 27-29: X posts criticising Western media coverage of the conflict

Highly interacted-with posts by accounts tied to Chinese state media also referred to the State Department memo discouraging diplomats from using specific phrases as a “gag order”.

Image 30 & 31: Posts by accounts tied to Chinese state media journalists criticising the State Department’s memo urging diplomats to avoid talk of a ceasefire

Image 30 & 31: Posts by accounts tied to Chinese state media journalists criticising the State Department’s memo urging diplomats to avoid talk of a ceasefire

Criticism of Western politicians

Chen Weihua, a prominent Chinese journalist who currently serves as China Daily EU Bureau Chief, was the most active account on X among all Chinese state affiliated accounts in this dataset, mainly due to a spree of replies to famous political figures and news outlets in the West commenting on the war.

Responding to posts by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, where she defended Israel’s right to self defence, Weihua called out “Western leaders” for repeating “the same BS talking points, clearly from their Washington masters” and stated that Western politicians have the “blood of Palestinian children on their hands”. Responding to a post by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Weihua attacked him for not mentioning that hundreds of children were killed.

Weihua also engaged with politicians outside of the EU in a similar vein, including US President Joe Biden who Weihua responded to multiple times, repeatedly reminding him of the Palestinian civilians being killed in Gaza.

Responding to a post by Former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, who in a video called on the Israeli President to “finish them” [referring to Hamas], Weihua asked “is Low IQ Haley calling to murder all Palestinian people?”. Weihua’s posts gained considerable traction on X, garnering thousands of likes and shares.

Images 32-34: Examples of replies to prominent politicians by Weihua Chen

Images 32-34: Examples of replies to prominent politicians by Weihua Chen

Conclusion

The online information environment around the Israel-Hamas conflict has been particularly confusing, with social media platforms becoming flooded with violent content, false and unverified claims and emotionally charged rhetoric designed to drive engagement. These developments are exacerbated by actions taken by state actors to exploit events on the ground for their own ongoing influence efforts. Authoritarian states have been capitalising on the tragedy and civilian suffering in Israel and Gaza to build on their narratives, fuel further violence and spread false and unverified information. Iranian state-affiliated accounts on Facebook and X have been spreading particularly harmful content that includes glorification of war crimes and violence against Israeli civilians and encouraging further attacks against Israel.

Iranian, Russian and Chinese accounts alike have been spreading anti-Western narratives emphasising the complicity of Western states, particularly the US and UK, in Israeli actions involving Palestinian civilians, accusing the West of hypocrisy and “double standards” and hindering the peace settlement.

Russian accounts have instrumentalised the crisis to further push their campaign against Western support for Ukraine and arms supplies in particular. Russian state media and diplomatic accounts have been spreading unfounded claims about Ukraine supplying weapons to Hamas in an attempt to portray Ukraine as corrupt and siding with terrorist organisations.

Anti-Western and anti-Ukrainian narratives travel far beyond Western audiences and have strong potential of resonating in the Global South, where this content echoes anti-colonial grievances. With growing fears that efforts to rally support for Ukraine in the Global South might have been undermined by the current conflict in the Middle East, it is clear that information campaigns by Iran, Russia and China could contribute to polarisation and deepening mistrust towards democratic institutions and the media.

False and unverified claims proliferate online following Trump assassination attempt

Unverified claims about the attempted assassination of former President Donald Trump proliferated across social media in the 24 hours following the incident and continue to spread in the absence of more detailed factual information about the shooter. ISD identified the main false claims being promoted and how they mutated and spread across platforms.