How pro-Israeli trolls created fake news about a child “drowned” by the Israeli army
Issued on: May 28, 2021 – 5:49 pmChanged: 05/31/2021 – 12:44 PM
It’s a textbook case of online misinformation – on May 21, someone tweeted a photo of a young boy who allegedly drowned by the Israeli army. In fact, the photo was of a boy named “petit Grégory” or “little Gregory” who died under mysterious circumstances in France in 1984, in a case that made headlines. It turned out that a pro-Israel group on Facebook was spreading this “fake news”. Our team spoke to a Twitter user who was examining this photo.
On May 21, a Twitter account called @HouriaTah (now deleted but archived here) posted a photo of a child with captions in Arabic and English: “Ismail Ashur, he was drowned by the occupying army, but no Zionist media will be reporting! “
The original tweet claimed that a child named Ismail Ashur was “drowned by the occupation army” and that “no Zionist media” was reporting the incident. The account that first shared the photo has since been deleted. © Ed Chirac
However, a number of French social media users quickly realized that the post couldn’t be true. They recognized the child in the photo as Grégory Villemin, nicknamed “Little Gregory”, a child who drowned under suspicious circumstances in a river in the Vosges Mountains in France in 1984. 37 years after the incident it is still not clear what happened to him.
When people realized that the “Ismail Ashur” photo was actually “Little Gregory,” most social media users responded in one of two ways. Some thought it was “funny”, just a tasteless joke. Others, however, believed it was an attempt by a pro-Palestinian portrayal to spread misinformation by fabricating a story about a child who died during the recent tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas. The post was shared more than 500 times in five days, including by a number of well-known French figures, including lawyer Gilles William Goldnadel, French National Assembly member Meyer Habib, and philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, all of whom claimed to be Hamas -Propaganda.
Among those in the second category is the unmistakable @GWGoldpin, a figure well known to CNews viewers and listeners of the Grandes Gueules on RMC, advocate and defender of the current Israeli government’s policy towards the “Palestinian Authority.” pic.twitter.com/CTpVZIw1S1
– Ed Chirac (@EdChirac) May 26, 2021
In this tweet, Twitter user Ed Chirac shares the tweet from well-known French lawyer Gilles William Goldnadel, who claims that the photo of “little Gregor” is Hamas propaganda.
“The caption had inconsistencies and errors that rang alarm bells for me”
The man who tweeted @EdChirac under the handle was one of the people who had a lot of questions when he came across this post. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team how he was doing the investigation. He asked to remain anonymous.
What surprised me about the post was that it claimed the boy had “drowned”. But if you follow the news from Gaza, you know that children are much more likely to die in air strikes, not drowning, so the story they told was quite a surprise. Most of all, the incredible nature of this post caught my attention as it is a reference to the little Gregory case. It seemed more like a joke with bad taste.
The last thing I suspected was that someone had me translate the Arabic caption [Editor’s note: the post was circulating with a caption in English and in Arabic.] We found that the text was written with a feminine pronoun, which made no sense as it was about a little boy. It appeared to have been translated with Google. All of these caption inconsistencies sparked my suspicions and led me to find out more.
“You should always look at the profile of the person who shared the information.”
@EdChirac then decided to carefully examine the Twitter profile of the user who posted the picture first, @HouriaTah:
The first thing I noticed was that the account was only recently created, in May 2021. The tweet with little Gregory was actually the very first tweet he wrote himself. All of his other tweets were retweets from pro-Palestinian users or media like Al-Jazeera, mostly about violence against Palestinian children. He did all this to make the report appear credible. After all, he only followed 23 people and only had eight followers – it was a tiny account that seemed to come out of nowhere.
On May 26, the @HouriaTah account had only eight followers and followed only 23 other accounts. In total, @HouriaTah had tweeted 14 times and 13 of them were retweets. © Twitter
@EdChirac informed a number of well-known people who shared the tweet that it was likely shared from a fake account. Shortly thereafter, @EdChirac was contacted by another Twitter user who showed him a series of screenshots from a private Facebook group called “Neurchi de Sionisme décomplexé”. This group describes itself as a place for “the uncritical glorification of the State of Israel and the Land of Israel, the eternal home of the Jewish people”.
One of these screenshots shows @HouriaTah’s tweet along with a comment encouraging people to share the post in order to get at least 2,000 retweets.
A screenshot with a tweet from @EdChirac showing how a member of the Facebook group “Neurchi de Sionisme Décomplexé” asked people to share the fake tweet about little Gregory with the aim of collecting 2,000 retweets. © Ed Chirac
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to the person who took these screenshots. He provided us with the original screengrabs that document the attempt to artificially increase the reach of this post. In the last comment someone named “J” claims that he is the one who started spreading this fake information on Twitter.
In that comment, just below the photo, a social media user named “J” claims he created this post and encourages people to share the post enough times that it becomes “trending” on Twitter. © https://twitter.com/EdChirac/status/1397532197788213250/photo/3
We also looked at the content of this Facebook group. As of May 28th, we haven’t seen any signs of this post, which may have been deleted. However, some posts were directly related to the “little Gregory” tweet. Some people congratulated themselves on the fake mail getting the attention of French newspapers like Le Point or Liberation, or fooling social media users with a fake pro-Palestinian account.
Correction: The photo of little #Gégory that was circulated on social networks was a fake
“It appears this is a fake Twitter account that was created to make a joke. We shared this information because it is a process that is common in the event of a conflict. ”Pic.twitter.com/wZGwLXzKCx
– i24NEWS Français (@ i24NEWS_FR) May 26, 2021
An administrator of the Facebook group “Neurchi de Sionisme décomplexé”, contacted by the observers from FRANCE 24, told us:
This post is not from the group or its moderators, but from one of its members. Anyone is free to post to the group as long as it stays within our satirical topics and the guidelines established when we joined the group.
The admin informed us that the post was deleted as soon as its author admitted to posting it on Twitter.
“If you see a post that speaks more to your emotions than your sanity, the alarm bells should be ringing”
For @EdChirac, this type of post is a threat to democracy:
I would call this type of post “half trolling, half dangerous”. This is not the first false story about the deaths of Palestinian children in the recent clashes between Israel and Gaza. A few days ago, many people shared a photo that they said was of a little girl killed in Gaza, but the photo actually shows a little Russian girl.
The story behind it is pretty complex. There is a movement within pro-Israeli groups who are falsely telling that certain pro-Palestinian accounts tell false stories about dead children. Its aim is to make people believe that pro-Palestinian groups are spreading fake propaganda about the deaths of civilians.
The man who runs the @EdChirac account says he is concerned that this type of post may gain prominence and be shared online by influential people, although some people, like French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, apologized for providing incorrect information to have shared.
I think we need to be extra careful with these publications in the run-up to the presidential elections in France next year. Certain groups could easily create fake accounts to spread completely false narratives.
My advice is always to think before tweeting or sharing anything. If you see a post that speaks to your emotions more than your sanity, the alarm bells should be ringing.