Last night’s actual, courageous gesture of solidarity towards Gaza by Malaysian cyclist Azizulhasni Awang was preceded by a raft of false ones.
The first rumour spread before ‘Operation Protective Edge’ even began, almost as a sinister presage of what was to come: the Algerian football team, just eliminated from the World Cup by Germany, had pledged to donate its player bonuses to the people of Gaza. The story, whose source appeared to be team captain Islam Slimani, was picked up very widely, including by the Independent in the UK and Buzzfeed in the US. A dollar amount was even put on the donation – 9 million – without any of the Western media outlets checking the story with the team or its spokespersons, until a Canadian-based journalist who specialises in North African football, Maher Mezahi, burst the bubble: there was no source for the rumour anywhere close to the team or in the Algerian media. As best as he could work out, the Slimani quote had been made up by a Twitter user and then just spread from there.
Although of course it’s hard to be sure. The story as it ran on Independent was never corrected, while Buzzfeed first updated its own in light of Mezahi’s information, then added, by way of clarification: ‘It appears the story is a hoax, but this has not yet been confirmed.’ It’s a strange thing to demand of our news stories, that they be confirmed as being fabricated before we can write them off altogether. At any rate, if you Google the report and don’t go beyond the first page of results, you will probably come away thinking that the Algerian team really did donate its money to Gaza, which, insofar as the gesture was primarily of a symbolic import, would render it somewhat true.
Once the latest wave of attacks on Gaza officially became an ‘operation’ and acquired a proper name, as well as its own, discrete and still mounting death toll, the football-related rumours intensified. Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was said to have voiced his solidarity with the Palestinian cause by means of a tweet that read ‘#freepalestine #forzabuffon’, while he posed in front of a photographer wearing a keffiyeh. Except if you Google the picture, you’ll find that it was taken last year outside of Glasgow, as Buffon’s club, Juventus, prepared to face the Rangers. Besides, the tweet was clearly the work of somebody else: why would Buffon cheer for himself? At any rate, there is no trace of it in his Twitter timeline.
After the World Cup final, it was the turn of brilliant German striker Mesut Özil to have devolved his World Cup fee to Gaza. Again, the rumour spread widely, but this time the Independent bothered to contact the player – aided, no doubt, by the fact that he plays for Arsenal – and published his denial under the following, intriguing, headline, ‘Mesut Ozil denies giving bonus to children of Gaza but Arsenal star confirms he is funding surgeries for sick Brazilian children’. (These things, you know, aren’t exactly alike.)
Azizulhasni Awang will almost certainly be punished for his display at the Commonwealth Games, and so if Özil seemed a little anxious to quash the rumour about him, it may have something to do with risk of fines and disciplinary sanctions for players and teams who attempt to politicise football in general and the World Cup in particular. This in spite of the fact that the game is, of course, always political. But it is also immensely popular, and so, in the spreading of these rumours, we may read not just a credulity borne out of a thirst for good news and the wish for global solidarity, but also attempts to distract us from the spectacle, the circenses, and bring our collective focus back to where it urgently needs to be.
Set against these benign and largely doomed-to-fail efforts to redirect our attention is Israel’s social media offensive, which also isn’t new, but this time feature promoted tweets from Benjamin Netanhyahu’s official account, as well as fresh reports on the advancement of the nation’s network of university students-cum-disinformation agents. There is something uniquely obscene, and at the same time poignant, in the way that this offensive mimics a corporate marketing campaign and – just like a marketing campaign – the tweets are not concealed, but rather boastfully promoted to journalists and the public. From Matthew Hall’s report in The Sydney Morning Herald:
‘We started to work together,’ said [23-year-old IDC and programme volunteer Igal Raich], who is sitting exams during the current conflict. ‘We are constantly getting updates from the Prime Minister’s office and the Minister of Foreign Affairs because they know we are successful in what we do.’
In a stark contrast are the fragmented, disorganised and vulnerable voices of the Palestinians who take to social media on the ground in Gaza, and who we have read and disseminated over the past few weeks, as we did last year and the year before – voices that also irrupt, interrupt our daily concerns and our televised entertainment; voices that speak and then suddenly cease to speak; voices that generate, inevitably, another kind of spectacle, another channel to plug into, but one that we also learn to recognise as real, and to fear for.