How pro-Israel trolls created fake news about a child 'drowned' by the Israeli army

·4-min read

It’s a textbook case of online misinformation – on May 21, someone tweeted a photo of a little boy they claimed had been drowned by the Israeli army. However, the photo was actually of a boy known as “petit Grégory” or “little Gregory,” who died in mysterious circumstances in France in 1984, in a case that made headlines. It turns out that a pro-Israel group on Facebook was spreading this "fake news". Our team spoke to a Twitter user who investigated this photo.

On May 21, a Twitter account called @HouriaTah (since deleted, but archived here) posted a photo of a child with captions in both Arabic and English: "Ismail Ashur, he was drowned by the occupation army, but no Zionist media will relay it!"

However, a number of French social media users quickly realised that the post couldn’t be true. They recognised the child in the photo as Grégory Villemin, nicknamed "little Gregory," a child who drowned in suspicious circumstances in a river in Vosges, France in 1984. Thirty-seven years after the incident, it still isn’t clear what happened to him.

When people realised that the photo of "Ismail Ashur" was actually "little Gregory," most social media users responded in one of two ways. Some found it "funny," simply a joke in bad taste. Others, however, believed it was a pro-Palestinian account's attempt to spread misinformation by inventing a story about a child dying during recent tensions between Israel and the Palestinian group 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, member of the French National Assembly Meyer Habib and philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, who all claimed it was Hamas propaganda.

'The caption had inconsistencies and errors that set off alarm bells for me'

The man who tweets under the handle @EdChirac 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 went about investigating it. He asked to remain anonymous.

What got me wondering about the post was that it claimed that the boy had been “drowned.” But when you follow the news from Gaza, you know that children are much more likely to die in airstrikes, not by drowning, so the story that they were telling was pretty surprising. Above all, the unbelievable nature of this post caught my attention, since it's a reference to the little Gregory case. It seemed more like a joke in bad taste.

The final thing that raised my suspicions is that I had someone translate the Arabic caption for me [Editor’s note: the post was circulating with a caption in English and in Arabic.] We discovered that the text was written using a feminine pronoun, which made no sense as the post was about a little boy. It seemed to be translated using Google. So all of those inconsistencies in the caption raised my suspicions and made me want to find out more.

'You should always take a look at the profile of the person who shared the information'

@EdChirac then decided to carefully examine the Twitter profile of the user who first published the image, @HouriaTah:

The first thing that I noticed was that the account was created very recently, in May 2021. The tweet featuring little Gregory was actually the very first tweet he had written himself. All of his other tweets were retweets of pro-Palestinian users or media outlets like Al-Jazeera, most often about violence towards Palestinian children. He did all of that to make the account seem credible. Lastly, he was following only 23 people and had only eight followers it was a tiny account that seemed to come out of nowhere.

@EdChirac informed a number of well-known people who had shared the tweet that it had likely been shared by a fake account. Soon after, @EdChirac was contacted by another Twitter user who showed him a series of screengrabs from a private Facebook group called "Neurchi de Sionisme décomplexé." This group describes itself as a place for "the non-critical glorification of the state of Israel and the land of Israel, the eternal homeland of the Jewish people".

One of these screengrabs features the tweet from @HouriaTah, along with a comment encouraging people to share the post with the aim of garnering at least 2,000 retweets.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to the person who captured these screengrabs. He provided us with the original screengrabs, which document the attempt to artificially boost 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.

We also took a look at the content of this Facebook group. As of May 28, we didn’t see any sign of this post, which may have been deleted. Some posts, however, did refer directly to the "little Gregory" Tweet. Some people congratulated themselves that the fake post had caught the attention of French newspapers like Le Point or Libération, or that they had fooled social media users with a fake pro-Palestinian account.

An administrator of the "Neurchi de Sionisme décomplexé" Facebook group, contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers told us:

This post did not come from the group or its moderators, but from one of its members. Everyone is free to post in the group as long as it remains within our satirical themes and the guidelines set forth upon entry into the group.

The administrator told us that the post was deleted as soon as its author admitted to having posted it on Twitter.

'If you see a post that speaks to your emotions more than your reason, it should set off alarm bells'

For @EdChirac, this kind of post is a threat to democracy:

I would call this kind of post "half-trolling, half-dangerous." This isn’t the first false narrative to emerge about Palestinian children dying in the recent clashes between Israel and Gaza. A few days ago, lots of people were sharing a photo that they said showed a little girl who had been killed in Gaza but the photo actually showed a little Russian girl.

The story behind this one is pretty complex. There’s a movement within pro-Israel groups to push a false narrative that certain pro-Palestinian accounts are sharing false stories about dead children. Their aim is to get people to believe that pro-Palestinian groups are spreading fake propaganda about civilian deaths.

The man who runs the account @EdChirac says that he is worried that this type of post might gain traction and be shared by influential people online, even though some people, like French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven, apologised for having shared false information.

I think we need to be especially wary of these publications in the run up to next year’s presidential election in France. Certain groups could easily create fake accounts to push totally false narratives.

My advice is to always think before you tweet or share something. If you see a post that speaks to your emotions more than your reason, it should set off alarm bells.