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Blue-Checked, ‘Verified’ Users on X Produce 74 Percent of the Platform’s Most Viral False or Unsubstantiated Claims Relating to the Israel-Hamas War
A NewsGuard analysis found that "verified" accounts on X are superspreaders of misinformation about the conflict, boosting falsehoods while displaying a “verification” blue checkmark that verifies nothing
Nearly three-fourths of the most viral posts on X advancing misinformation about the Israel-Hamas War are being pushed by “verified” X accounts, a NewsGuard analysis has found.
In March 2023, X owner Elon Musk overhauled the platform’s verification system, allowing users to pay a fee of $8 a month to display a blue checkmark on their profile and to have their posts prioritized by the algorithm used by X (previously known as Twitter). This means that they appear higher, with greater prominence, in users’ replies and search results. That decision turned out to be a boon for bad actors sharing misinformation about the Israel-Hamas War. For less than the cost of a movie ticket, they have gained the added credibility associated with the once-prestigious blue checkmark and enabling them to reach a larger audience on the platform.
During the first week of the conflict (Oct. 7-Oct. 14), NewsGuard analyzed the 250 most-engaged posts (likes, reposts, replies, and bookmarks) that promoted one of 10 prominent false or unsubstantiated narratives relating to the war, derived from NewsGuard’s Misinformation Fingerprints, its proprietary database of prominent false narratives. The results revealed that 186 out of these 250 posts — 74 percent — were posted by accounts verified by X.
These are the 10 false or unsubstantiated claims identified by NewsGuard shared by these verified accounts:
- Ukraine sold weapons to Hamas
- Israel has killed 33,000 Palestinian children since 2008
- A video shows Israeli or Palestinian children in cages
- A video shows Israeli senior officials captured by Hamas
- The Saint Porphyrios Orthodox Church in Gaza was destroyed by Israeli bombing
- A video shows Hamas fighters celebrating the abduction of an Israeli toddler
- CNN staged footage of its news crew under attack in Israel
- A White House memo shows that the U.S. approved $8 billion in aid for Israel
- Israel staged footage showing the death of a child killed by a Hamas strike
- The Hamas terrorist attack was a “false flag” carried out by Israel or the West
Collectively, posts advancing these myths received 1,349,979 engagements and were cumulatively viewed by more than 100 million times globally in just one week.
When faced with criticism that his sweeping changes have led to increased misinformation on the platform, Musk often touts his expansion of X’s crowdsourced fact-checking feature, called “Community Notes.” However, NewsGuard found that just 79 of the 250 posts advancing misinformation about the war were flagged by the platform with a Community Note. That means that a note appeared approximately 32 percent of the time on some of the platform’s most prominent and harmful misinformation posts. (More on this below.)
NewsGuard has also identified false or unsubstantiated narratives relating to the war spreading widely on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Telegram, and elsewhere. However, NewsGuard chose to focus on X because it appears to be the only platform that has been public about the reduction in its moderation efforts. NewsGuard also found that most of the false narratives relating to the Israel-Hamas War so far appear to go viral on X before they spread to other platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. In response to NewsGuard’s emailed questions about NewsGuard’s findings and the platform’s vetting of X Premium accounts, X’s press team sent an automated response: “Busy now, please check back later.”
The Basics of X Premium
Prior to Musk’s acquisition of X (then Twitter), users were verified based on “authenticity, notability and activity” — in what is now referred to as “Legacy” verification by the platform.
Now, a user need not be “notable” to receive the certifying “blue check.” To become verified on X, a user simply pays an $8 fee, verifies a phone number, and adds a profile picture (X does not specify that the photo needs to be of the account holder or of a real person). The account must also agree not to “misappropriate the identity of individuals, groups, or organizations” or engage in “spam,” according to X’s Help Center page. X says a blue badge will appear on a user’s profile once the platform’s team “reviews [the user’s] Premium subscribed account and if it meets [the platform’s] requirements.”
X does not disclose any information about how, or whether, it vets requests for blue checks. And it does not require that a real name be posted on the account.
As mentioned above, in addition to the appearance of credibility afforded to premium users by a blue badge, they are algorithmically boosted by the platform. While the exact details of how X boosts and downranks (lowering a post’s position in users’ replies and search results) is undisclosed and therefore unclear, NewsGuard’s analysis suggests that the boost is significant, if not crucial, to claims going viral.
Indeed, X Premium accounts were central to the spread of the most-engaged war-related myths identified by NewsGuard. Of the highest-engaged posts promoting the most-widely shared myth that NewsGuard identified — that Ukraine sold weapons to Hamas — 24 of the 25 posts came from X Premium accounts. And 23 of the 25 accounts advancing the second most-engaged myth – that CNN faked an on-screen attack of a CNN crew – were posted by accounts with X’s blue checkmark.
The Blue Check-Verified Misinformation Superspreaders of the Israel-Hamas War
NewsGuard identified seven accounts that have spread at least two of the most widely shared myths relating to the war. All were verified by X.
For example, X-verified user @Sprinter99800, an anonymous account with more than 361,000 followers on X, shared five different war-related myths, including the claim that a bogus video showed Israeli senior officials captured by Hamas and that CNN staged footage of an attack on one of its news crews. The account was banned from X for unknown reasons in 2022, according to a fact-checking site operated by Voice of America, Polygraph.Info, and was reinstated after Musk acquired X. It became blue-check verified in September 2023, one month before the onset of the Israel-Hamas War.
Collectively, the posts from @Sprinter99800 were cumulatively viewed nearly 3 million times.
“A leaked video from Israel shows the [CNN] editor giving instructions to the journalists and the cameraman where to film, where to lie down, how to breathe, how scared they should be, how to amplify the sound of shelling, etc,” @Sprinter99800 wrote, linking to a video purporting to show CNN staging footage of a rocket attack in Israel. “While there is nothing around them, they pretend that they are in the middle of shelling.” (In fact, a voiceover was added to the video to make it sound as if the crew was being stage-managed.)
The post, which featured a Community Note stating (correctly) that the attached video had its audio manipulated, garnered more than 8,100 engagements and 550,000 views as of Oct. 14.
Before the Israel-Hamas war, this account promoted other false claims as identified by NewsGuard, including that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s security guard started a drunken brawl in New York, and that Ukraine’s Defense Minister asked Canada to mobilize 30,000 Canadians to fight Russia.
Another X-verified user, Laura Loomer, a former Project Veritas reporter who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican congressional candidate in Florida in 2020 and 2022, shared three war-related myths, including that the U.S. sent $8 billion in military aid to Israel. Her Oct. 7 post advancing this falsehood was viewed 360,000 times through Oct. 14.
Blue check verified account @ShadowofEzra, which has previously advanced QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories, including that Ukraine is an “open haven for those who are committed to child sex trafficking,” advanced two war-related myths — along with five of the most widely-shared posts advancing the myth that the attack on Israel was a “false flag.”
On Oct. 11, @ShadowofEzra posted: “False Flag: Hamas is the creation of the Israeli Government and they planned these attacks and allowed them to happen to garner support for a mass genocide and likely leading to World War III.” The post was viewed 292,000 times and garnered 7,350 engagements as of Oct. 14. (“False flag” is an attack that was made to appear that it was perpetrated by another party, not the actor who actually carried out the attack.)
@ShadowofEzra joined Twitter in December 2022 and, like @Sprinter99800, invested $8 to become an X Premium user in September 2023.
It Takes More Than a Village: Community Notes Fail to Debunk Misinformation Almost 70 Percent of the Time
X’s reliance on crowdsourced fact-checking through Community Notes, rather than by professional fact-checkers or other independent journalistic efforts, has been a hallmark of Musk’s time as owner of X. Nevertheless, in the first week of the Israel-Hamas War, NewsGuard’s analysis found that these fact-checks were inconsistently applied to top myths relating to the conflict. Indeed, as mentioned above, they fail to appear on debunked misinformation 68 percent of the time.
In an example of how X’s Community Notes feature can function properly, fact-checks appeared alongside 21 of the top 25 posts identified by NewsGuard as advancing the false claim that a video showed Hamas fighters with a kidnapped Israeli toddler.
However, X attached a Community Note to only one of the top 25 posts advancing the unsubstantiated claim that Israel has killed 33,000 Palestinian children since 2008, and to just four of the top 25 posts promoting the false claim that a White House memo revealed the U.S. was sending $8 billion in military aid to Israel.
And only one (unrelated) Community Note was found on the top 25 posts making the unsubstantiated claim that Hamas’ initial attack on Israel was a “false flag.” One of these posts declared: “BREAKING NEWS: There are now reports of An IDF Intelgence [sic] Soldier Insider Has Claimed That Israel Attack Was ‘False Flag’ To Start ‘Holy War’ and Usher In ‘One World Government.’”
The post attributed this information to GlobalResearch.ca, a site that even before the Israel-Hamas War advanced conspiracy theories and pro-Russia propaganda, and has a NewsGuard Trust Score of 17.5/100.
In October 2023, NewsGuard conducted an analysis of the 25 most-engaged posts on X during the first week of the Israel-Hamas War (Oct. 7-Oct. 14) for each of 10 myths related to the conflict. For this report, NewsGuard defined engagement as the total number of reposts, likes, bookmarks, and replies that each post received. It is important to note that X Premium subscribers have the option to “hide” the checkmark signifying that they are verified. As a result, it is possible that NewsGuard’s analysis of X Premium accounts undercounts the minimum total, as some premium users may have opted to hide their checkmark.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this report stated that posts from X Premium accounts are algorithmically boosted in users’ “feeds,” which NewsGuard defined as posts appearing in successive order on any given X page. After NewsGuard published this report, X contacted NewsGuard and said that posts from X Premium accounts are, in fact, boosted in search results and users’ replies, not users’ homepage “feeds.” Therefore, NewsGuard updated this story to specify that X Premium accounts have their posts boosted in replies and search results.