Monday, June 24FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA, PALESTINE WILL BE FREE

VISEGRÁD 24: THE POLISH GOVERNMENT-FUNDED FAKE NEWS FACTORY DRIVING THE ONLINE ‘ISRAEL’-PALESTINE NEWS CYCLE

Visegrád 24 and its ultra-viral content have dominated social media platforms since Israel’s war on Gaza began, but who is behind the pro-Israel account helping to shape the narrative on the year’s most controversial topic? MintPress News investigates.

Named by Gizmodo as the most influential source of news on Israel/Palestine on Twitter/X, Visegrád 24 has shot to prominence, amassing more than one million followers across social media platforms. Yet it has consistently shared blatantly false information in an attempt to ramp up support for the state of Israel’s crimes in Gaza. Worse still, the semi-anonymous account pushing a far-right agenda worldwide is known to be funded by the deeply conservative Polish government.

A VIRAL SENSATION

If you have spent any amount of time on social media following the Israeli attack on Gaza, you are sure to have come across Visegrád 24 and its ultra-viral content. The Polish news aggregator is perhaps an unlikely candidate to become a key player in the information war. But in just a few short weeks, it has gained hundreds of thousands of followers across its platforms, especially Twitter/ and TikTok (currently at 843,000 and 183,000 followers, respectively).

A study published by the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, titled “The New Elites of X,” identified Visegrád 24 as the most influential account engaged in Israel/Palestine discourse. One measure of its reach is that, in the first three days following Hamas’ surprise attack, the six traditional media outlets with the most followers on Twitter/X (CNN Breaking News, CNN, the New York Times, BBC Breaking News, BBC World News and Reuters) who collectively have nearly 300 million followers, received 112 million views on Israel/Palestine related content. Visegrád 24, by comparison, received 370 million views over the same period. Since then, its influence has only grown.

Its massive reach has led many to equate it with reliability, and the account is regularly cited in establishment media such as Newsweek or Fox News. But this is far from the case. Indeed, its accounts appear to exist to lionize Israel and its supporters, demonize Palestine and its supporters, fearmonger about refugees, and promote ultra-conservative politics in general.

FAKE NEWS FACTORY

Part of what makes Visegrád 24’s rise problematic is its propensity to publish blatantly fake news. Earlier this month, for example, it posted footage of Israeli satirist Yoni Sharon playing a character mocking Palestinians, telling its audience he was a real Palestinian.

“A Palestinian man thanks Hamas for making sure that all the Palestinian people who used to commute into Israel to work will now be unemployed. He also thanks Hamas for making sure Palestinian kids will no longer receive surgeries in Israel Great job!” it wrote.

Perhaps most shamelessly, however, Visegrád 24 has, on multiple occasions, taken footage from Motaz Azaiza, a Palestinian photographer who has worked with MintPress News and twisted the images of Israeli crimes to present the apartheid state in a good light. Azaiza’s video showing Israeli forces shooting at a large caravan of fleeing refugees was repackaged with the caption, “Hamas terrorists shooting at a large group of Palestinians trying to flee south along the humanitarian corridors set up by Israel.”

Dan Cohen

@dancohen3000

Spooky propaganda accounts @TheMossadIL and @visegrad24 lied and claimed a video of Israeli soldiers opening fire on Palestinian civilians fleeing south actually showed Hamas militants shooting at them. But @azaizamotaz9, the journalist who filmed the shooting, called them out.… Sho

Another time, Visegrád 24 reposted an Azaiza video claiming that it showed a merciful Israeli Air Force dropping leaflets urging Gazans that the area was not safe and asking them to move southwards for their own well-being. “Stop the lies,” Azaiza replied, “I’m the one who filmed this. The leaflets [were] saying if you have any information about the kidnapped [Israelis], call us.”

In addition to this, it has repeated and amplified the beheaded babies hoax, called to defund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, described climate activist Greta Thunberg as a “Hamas propagandist,” and labeled pro-Palestine demonstrators as “thugs” and “mobs.”

It has also not been above sharing racially insensitive content depicting Palestine supporters as clueless liberals who would be executed in a second if they set foot in Gaza or asking highly-charged questions such as “Without Googling, name something that was invented, discovered or created by Muslims over the centuries.” The clear implication in the question is that Muslims have never contributed anything to society, which can perhaps explain why Visegrád 24 spends so much of its energy fearmongering about a wave of Muslim immigrants to Europe.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Visegrád 24 began as a Twitter account in early 2020. But for the longest time, its funding and the identities of its key staff remained shrouded in mystery. The news aggregator does not even have a website; instead, it directs readers to a crowdfunding platform that shows they have received only 723 donations.

For an operation believed to be around 12 people, this is clearly not sufficient to be financially viable. There is another source of confirmed funding, however: the ultra-conservative government of Poland. Last October, the Polish chancellery gave 1.4 million PLN (roughly U.S.$350,000) to Visegrád 24, a decision approved by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. It is not known whether Visegrád 24 has received any subsequent government funding.

Around the same time it was receiving government money, Polish media identified some of the key figures running the operation. One is Adam Starzynski, a Swedish-born Polish journalist who formerly worked at the English-language program Poland Daily, produced by TV Republika. Starzynski has experience in running conservative social media, as he operated the ultra-conservative @BasedPoland Twitter account. @BasedPoland spread nationalistic propaganda and anti-Muslim content, gaining more than 150,000 followers before it was banned.

Starzynski is a key figure in the resurgent Eastern European conservative movement. This “Make Europe Great Again” movement supports far-right populists like Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

A second key figure in what Visegrád 24 calls its group of conservative friends is Stefan Tompson, a Polish-South African PR strategist. Tompson grew up in London and cut his teeth working for the “Leave” campaign during the Brexit referendum, a vote marred by widespread fake news and disinformation. He has his own YouTube channel about Polish history and is a contributor to the Polish government-owned TV channel Telewizja Polska. He is reportedly preparing to launch a brand new media company to capitalize on Visegrád 24’s success.

UKRAINE BRAIN

Visegrád 24 established its brand and built a following, posting content strongly supportive of the Ukrainian military and their attempts to repel the Russian invasion. Poland and the other Eastern European NATO states have been particularly vocal opponents of Russia. While it now focuses on Israel/Palestine content, it continues to post content calling for greater European involvement in the war. For example, last week, it shared a video of a dying Ukrainian soldier and demanded to know “why the West is holding back crucial weapon systems from Ukraine?” and “Why they aren’t allowed to strike Russia?”

Unfortunately, the news aggregator displayed the same propensity to publish incorrect information on Ukraine as it does with Israel. Among the fake stories it has promoted include:

  • Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio donating $10 million to Ukraine
  • Polish politicians supporting a Polish-Ukrainian union
  • PornHub being blocked in Russia.

In their haste to drum up support for the Ukrainian cause, media in the West often overlooked or whitewashed the fascist or Neo-Nazi elements active within the Ukrainian armed forces. Chief among these is the Azov Battalion, a group whose insignia was directly lifted from the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division, a unit responsible for carrying out some of the worst crimes of Hitler’s holocaust. Andriy Biletsky, the Azov Battalion’s founder, said in 2010 that he believes Ukraine’s mission is to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen” – the word Hitler used to describe Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and other peoples he designated for extermination.

“It’s possible to both support Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression and be critical of neo-Nazis elements in Ukraine’s army,” Visegrád 24 once posted on Twitter. Yet analyzing all Visegrád 24 content containing the word “Azov”, it is difficult to find any posts that even take a neutral tone, let alone a critical one.

As such, they often appeared to act like an unofficial press agency for the group. Many posts humanize the soldiers, showing their mothers and wives or presenting them as brave defenders of the motherland. Others are glowing obituaries of heroic Azov fighters who lost their lives.

“Every year, the soldiers of the Azov Regiment gather on the shortest night of the year to honor their fallen brothers-in-arms. This year, especially after [the battle of] Azovstal, they had more men to honor than ever. Through new recruits, the group has grown significantly in size since Azovstal,” they wrote in December.

While the European far-right is consistently and often virulently anti-Semitic, they regularly display strong support for the State of Israel and its policies, seeing the ethnostate Israel is creating as a blueprint for their own designs. Thus, an unlikely alliance now exists between fascist movements in Europe and the state where the descendants of the people those groups failed to kill just 80 years ago now live.

Israel’s Links to Ukraine’s Thriving Neo-Nazi Movement

There is no evidence of an Israeli gov’t link to neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, but there are clearly Israelis that are directly aiding them.

INFORMATION WAR

“Israel is losing the information war,” lamented Visegrád 24’s Stefan Tompson on Twitter. “Social media is dominated by pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, if not overtly pro-Hamas and/or antisemitic content. If things are not turned around, the Hamas lobby will successfully not only appropriate but also redefine the ‘Holocaust,’” he added.

Putting aside the dramatic prediction, Tompson is correct that Israel is experiencing difficulty influencing worldwide public opinion. The genocidal destruction has brought millions of people around the world out into the streets to attend marches, lectures, protests and demonstrations. An estimated one million people filled the streets of London on November 11, despite direct instructions from the government not to do so.

In the United States, too, the situation in Gaza has ignited a massive reaction, with hundreds of large demonstrations taking place across virtually every major city. Pro-Israel demonstrations, meanwhile, have been comparatively poorly attended. President Biden’s support for Israel is a significant reason for his dwindling polling numbers.

The Biden administration continues to back Israel at the United Nations. But it is increasingly isolated. In October, the U.S. voted against a UN resolution calling for a cessation of the violence, one of only a handful of countries to do so.

Israel’s once rock-solid support among Americans is also floundering. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that overall sympathy for Israel has dropped seven points since October to 54% of Americans, with 24% saying they sympathized more with Palestine.

Most concerning for Israel supporters is that they appear to be losing the next generation. The same Quinnipiac poll found a huge generational gap in understanding of the conflict. While older voters stood solidly behind Israel, a majority of Americans aged between 18-34 said their sympathies lay with the Palestinians, while only 29% said they supported Israel.

Much of this chasm can be explained as a result of how the different generations get their news. Older Americans continue to rely on established legacy media, such as cable news and print, which continue to display extraordinary bias in favor of Israel. Younger generations, however, primarily use social media. While hardly free of restrictions, platforms like Twitter or TikTok allow a far more comprehensive range of news and views to circulate, including opinions from ordinary people.

Israel has attempted to game this system, spending heavily on ads targeted at Western audiences. Between October 7 and October 19, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) spent more than $7 million on YouTube advertisements, equating to nearly one billion pairs of eyeballs. The top five countries targeted were France, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States. The MOFA also ran ad campaigns on Instagram, Facebook, mobile games and apps like language trainer Duolingo.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, pro-Israel trolls attempted to hijack the Community Notes function, attaching argumentative notes and warning labels undermining any post showing Israel in a negative light. And several prominent TikTok creators revealed they were offered large sums of money to record simple videos endorsing Israeli actions.

Propaganda War: Pro-Israel Trolls Are Mobbing Twitter’s Community Notes

Israel is losing the battle for public opinion in the West. As Alan Maclead reports, it has taken to Twitter’s Community Notes function, hoping to turn the tide.

Despite this, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for the people of Palestine. On TikTok, for example, between October 23 and October 30, 87,000 posts were using the #StandWithPalestine hashtag, garnering 285 million views. The equivalent pro-Israel #StandWithIsrael hashtag, meanwhile, generated only 9,000 posts and 64 million views.

In response to the news that their citizens are not receiving the preferred message on Israel/Palestine, U.S. government officials are pushing to simply ban TikTok altogether as a solution to the problem. GOP presidential candidates Chris Christie and Nikki Haley have repeatedly called for the total prohibition of the popular app. Senator Marco Rubio (R—FL) demanded that it was “time for TikTok to go,” accusing the company of “downplaying Hamas terrorism.”

Democrats have proven that censorship is a bipartisan issue. Senator Chris Murphy (D—NJ), for example, described TikTok as a Chinese-controlled platform that is “turning America against each other” through its promotion of “virulent pro-Hamas and anti-Semitic material.”

These calls were echoed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who complained that users were being “brainwashed” by pro-Palestine content. TikTok has defended itself, claiming that its algorithms do not take sides and that young people are simply more sympathetic to Palestine.

Unlike TikTok, there have been no official calls to ban Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or other social media sites, perhaps because they are cooperating with authorities to censor dissenting voices. Twitter recently announced it had deleted more than 325,000 tweets relating to the violence and had removed more than 3,000 accounts, many linked to Hamas. It has not deleted any accounts affiliated with the Israeli government. Instagram locked a number of the most prominent pro-Palestine accounts, including Eye On Palestine (with 9.2 million followers).

Meanwhile, the Israeli Attorney General’s Office revealed that approximately 94% of the 9,500 requests it has made to Meta (the parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram) to delete content had been granted.

Asa Winstanley

@AsaWinstanley

Literally all Arab dishes. “Israeli food” doesn’t exist.

Just as important as the troops on the ground is the information war playing out in cyberspace. Israel could not carry out its actions without support from the Western public. On this front, it has found a key ally in Visegrád 24, a news aggregator that has exploded in popularity and influence of late. Unfortunately, the shadowy, Polish government-funded organization not only reports facts from a pro-Israel perspective but also consistently publishes blatantly false or misleading content. This, however, is far from unusual. In war, truth is always the first casualty. Visegrád 24’s rapid rise to prominence is a testament to this.

Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News featuring Visegrád 24 staffers Adam Starzynski and Stephan Tompson

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.

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