As celebrities respond on social media to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, some posts claim to share images of Lionel Messi holding the Israeli or Palestinian flag. This is false; both pictures are altered from sports memorabilia advertisements that predate the latest hostilities in the Middle East.
"Proving yet again that he is the GOAT," says Gad Saad, a marketing professor at Concordia University in Montreal, in an October 31, 2023 Instagram post sharing what appears to be an image of the football icon holding the Israeli flag, using the acronym for "greatest of all time."
The post accumulated more than 1,800 likes. A similar post from him on X, formerly known as Twitter, received more than 8,500 additional likes.
"Messi support Palestine," says the title of an October 24 YouTube Short with more than 2,000 views.
The posts come as Israeli forces continue to bombard and fight ground battles in the Gaza Strip in response to Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack. Fighters associated with the Palestinian Islamist movement killed more than 1,400 people -- mainly civilians -- and took 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials, making it the bloodiest day in the country's 75-year history.
Israel subsequently cut off food, water and electricity to Gaza and began its relentless bombardment campaign, which the Hamas-run health ministry said had killed more than 9,000 people as of November 2. The United Nations has raised alarm bells over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the densely populated territory.
Many celebrities have responded to the war, and posts claiming to show photos of Messi holding the Israeli and Palestinian flags include what appear to be screenshots from his Instagram and Facebook pages.
But the pictures are not on his official accounts -- and a reverse image search reveals the pictures are altered from photos of Messi holding a sign promoting a partnership with the sports memorabilia brand Icons.com.
The image of Messi with the Palestinian flag was misrepresented before, manipulating a May 10, 2021 post on his Instagram page (archived here). Other fact-checking organizations debunked it that year.
As for the image of Messi purportedly holding the Israeli flag, a keyword search led to another photo of him holding an Icons.com sign -- this time shared by the company on its Facebook page on October 3, 2023 (archived here).
While the background of the photo is more neutral, the wall behind Messi matches the one in the altered image. His clothes and the position of his hands are also the same.
After BBC journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh fact-checked Saad of Concordia University on X, the professor said in another post that he did not know if the image was manipulated or not.
"But this one is certainly not fake. I remember it taking place," he said November 1, reposting a photo of Messi at the Western Wall, a sacred site in Jerusalem where Jewish worshippers go to pray.
The picture was taken in 2013 when Messi and the rest of FC Barcelona, his team at the time, embarked on a "peace tour" in the region, meeting with officials from Israel and the Palestinian territories.
More of AFP's reporting on misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war is available here.