Headlines Matter, the power of (dis) information – making the right call.

By Philip Ingram MBE

On October 17th, the eve of an unprecedented US Presidential visit to Israel and the Middle East, in an attempt to diffuse growing tensions across the region because of the War against Hamas – declared by Israel after the shocking terror attack by Hamas killing 1500 Israelis and taking 199 hostages just over a week beforehand – an explosion occurred at the al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza.

Within an hour of the explosion major media outlets across the globe, including many UK sites, were describing it in their headlines as an Israeli Air strike, immediately putting a level of credibility on what was being reported, as most people believe the press somehow have access to information that the general public doesn’t. Often, they are right, responsible press verify independently where the public generally doesn’t.

Those reports and their associated headlines do more than just inform, they influence. Recognise, then, that it’s not just the main body of the report, but the headlines that matter. They influence public perception and influence their belief as to what happened. Once someone’s mind is made up, even if further information is provided, few change their minds, and they will cherry-pick what comes next to reinforce their decision. It is human nature. So, where there is potential for doubt, it is critical that reporting reinforces that doubt and doesn’t enhance mis or disinformation.

For those that don’t know, misinformation is information that is incorrect but is disseminated accidentally. Disinformation is incorrect information deliberately disseminated for effect. In war, in conflict, disinformation is rife and is an integral part of many military operations. The first report received is often the least accurate even if it fits a perception of what you think may have happened, that is what targeted disinformation is designed to do.

Unfortunately, in a conflict situation, it is not unusual that you receive report of a civilian target being hit. In operational headquarters it often takes hours to get to the truth even though operations are constantly monitored. That is because everything must be checked, rechecked, and checked again. That principle isn’t one used on social media, or by those pushing disinformation and those reposting misinformation.

Very often, the first report received about an incident is wrong. Instead of reacting immediately, the best thing to do is leave some ‘soak time’. Make a cup of tea, and think about the incident, asking some fundamental questions. Who has the capability to do what?

What would a potential perpetrators motivation be, what is their intent? Both sides have the capability but from an intent perspective, then for the Israelis it could only spell disaster, polarising opposition to what they are doing on the international stage even more – and we saw that with many Middle East leaders cancelling their meetings with President Biden.

If it was deliberate from groups in Gaza, then their timing was perfect, as was the immediate (dis)information campaign to undermine Biden’s visit and polarise the region, and world, more towards an anti-Israeli stance. It looks like they may have achieved that by accident, and rapid exploitation of the information domain.

The difficulty, once people’s minds are made up, is that it is almost impossible to change them back. So, when the IDF offered a very comprehensive briefing of the incident, utilising analysis of photographs, structural damage, lack of impact points, with video and thermal analysis of the explosion and fire – they could suggest it was a missile being fired at Israel that dropped short. Radar analysis added further weight to this analysis as did intercepts of phone messages – especially of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group.

Combined with checks on Israeli missile activity that couldn’t have accidentally hit the hospital, then there is overwhelming evidence to say this was a PIJ missile that fell short and tragically killed many innocent Palestinians. That is not a message the PIJ or Hamas would want to put out, so they doubled down on the Israeli attack claim, knowing that many wouldn’t believe the Israelis. President Biden’s backing of the Israeli assessment will have been based on other intelligence as well.  Simple scientific spectral analysis of the explosion and fire will tell what caused it. This type of intelligence analysis is called MASINT or Measurement and Signature Intelligence.

A few key lessons for headline writers and commentators, as headlines matter:

  • Initial reports are likely inaccurate so acknowledge the uncertain nature of what is happening.
  • Patience is a virtue. Have a “soak time” allowing you to question everything. Confirm, confirm, confirm and don’t be afraid to say there isn’t enough information to make a call.
  • Early speculation doesn’t inform, it influences, and once influenced it can rarely be undone. Don’t speculate.
  • Avoid being influenced by others who jump to conclusions quickly – remember people look for information to reinforce their beliefs – this is confirmation bias, ignoring the totality of what is being presented.
  • MI6, in its reports, often put that ‘this source may be trying to influence as much as inform’ – you may be being influenced!