X, formerly known as Twitter, has, under the ownership of Elon Musk, dismantled its content-moderation staff, throttled the reach of news publications, and allowed any user to buy blue-check verification, turning what was once considered a badge of trustworthiness on the platform into a signal of support for Musk’s regime. Meta’s Facebook has minimized the number of news articles in users’ feeds, following years of controversy over the company’s role in spreading misinformation. And TikTok, under increased scrutiny in the United States for its parent company’s relationship with the Chinese government, is distancing itself from news content. A little over a decade ago, social media was heralded as a tool of transparency on a global scale for its ability to distribute on-the-ground documentation during the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring. Now the same platforms appear to be making conflicts hazier rather than clearer. In the days since Hamas’s attacks, we’ve seen with fresh urgency the perils of relying on our feeds for news updates.
An “algorithmically driven fog of war” is how one journalist described the deluge of disinformation and mislabelled footage on X. Videos from a paragliding accident in South Korea in June of this year, the Syrian civil war in 2014, and a combat video game called Arma 3 have all been falsely labeled as scenes from Israel or Gaza. (Inquiries I sent to X were met with an e-mail reading, “Busy now, please check back later.”) On October 8th, Musk posted a tweet recommending two accounts to follow for information on the conflict, @WarMonitors and @sentdefender, neither of which is a formal media company, but both are paid X subscribers. Later that day, after users pointed out that both accounts regularly post falsities, Musk deleted the recommendation. Where Twitter was once one of the better-moderated digital platforms, X is most trustworthy as a source for finding out what its owner wants you to see.
Facebook used to aggregate content in a “News Feed” and pay media companies to publish stories on its platform. But after years of complicity in disseminating Trumpian lies—about the 2016 election, the COVID pandemic, and the January 6th riots—the company has performed an about-face. Whether because of negative public opinion or because of the threat of regulation, it’s clear that promoting news is no longer the goal of any of Meta’s social media. In recent days, my Facebook feed has been overrun with the same spammy entertainment-industry memes that have proliferated on the platform, as if nothing noteworthy were happening in the world beyond. On Instagram, some pro-Palestine users complained of being “shadowbanned”—seemingly cut off without warning from algorithmic promotion—and shared tips for getting around it. (Meta attributed the problem to a “bug.”)
Our feeds continue to create a feeling of transparency and granularity, while providing fewer of the signposts that we need to chart a clear path through the thicket of content. What remains, perhaps aptly, is an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty as war unfolds daily on our screens.
In July, Meta launched its newest social network, Threads, in an attempt to draw users away from Musk’s embattled X. But, unlike X, Threads has shied away from serving as a real-time news aggregator. Last week, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram and overseer of Threads, announced that the platform was “not going to get in the way of” news content but was “not going go [sic] to amplify” it, either. He continued, “To do so would be too risky given the maturity of the platform, the downsides of over-promising, and the stakes.” I’ve found Threads more useful than X as a source for news about the Israel-Hamas war. The mood is calmer and more deliberate, and my feed tends to highlight posts that have already drawn engagement from authoritative voices. But I’ve also seen plenty of journalists on Threads griping that they were getting too many algorithmic recommendations and insufficient real-time posts. Users of Threads now have the option to switch to a chronologically organized feed. But on the default setting that most people use, there is no guarantee that the platform is showing you the latest information at any given time.