“650 Rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza in an attempt to overwhelm Israels’ Iron Dome: 173 intercepts, 4 people killed and 28 wounded. What is @IllhanMN response to this violence? Will she condemn it?”
– Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson, on Twitter , May 5, 2019
What do a singing competition, Gaza, misleading video and Katrina Pierson have in common? This tweet. The singing competition indirectly helped spark a deadly round of violence along the border between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza between May 4 and May 5.
Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, tagged prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., in a Twitter thread. She questioned whether or not Omar would condemn the violence along the Gaza border.
Pierson included a video showing rockets firing into the sky as part of the thread. And almost immediately Twitter users and Omar responded, noting the video Pierson had shared wasn’t from Gaza at all. So, what’s going on here?
By the time an uneasy cease-fire settled over the border on May 6, four Israelis and at least 25 Palestinians were dead in what was the worst round of fighting between Israel and militant factions in Gaza since 2014. Militants in Gaza fired more than 600 rockets into Israel, and Israelis responded with airstrikes on hundreds of targets in Gaza, which brought multistory buildings tumbling to the ground and included a targeted assassination.
Home to nearly 2 million people and controlled by a militant group, Hamas, that does not recognize Israel, Gaza is densely populated. It’s surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on one side and desert-like landscapes, maintaining a semi-arid climate.
The video that Pierson shared had dark greenery and controlled artillery fire, which seemed out of place when compared with other videos from the region filmed during that weekend.
A quick Google search made it clear the same video has been widely circulated on the Internet, incorrectly representing conflict zones in several different countries, including Iraq, Ukraine and Russia. Pierson said she had found the video on YouTube but declined to provide a link. (We did not find any version of this video, aside from Pierson’s tweet, that in any way suggested it was filmed in Israel or Gaza.)
A reverse image search did lead to several versions of the video – many of which claimed to be in Russia or Ukraine. A YouTube video from 2014 showed the same smoke plumes and tree formations as Pierson’s video. The caption on that video identified the weapons system being shown as the BM-21 Grad.
A search of videos for the ‘BM 21 GRAD’ led to a video from Belarus’s military TV that showed a different military drill from a different angle but that clearly took place in the same location. The caption identified it as the Polessky firing range. But where is that range? After all, just because a military TV network says it’s one place doesn’t mean that is the case.
A news photograph from a decade earlier of a training exercise confirmed that the Polessky firing range was in Belarus, located almost 200 miles south of Minsk. A separate video from activists together with the photo’s caption located it near the border with Ukraine.
After pushback online, Pierson responded to her tweet, saying the video was simply meant to illustrate what “hundreds of rockets look like.” But the video fails as a representation. The artillery shells shown in the video are ordered and rhythmic; the footage is clean and stable. Rockets fired in Israel and Gaza that weekend had none of these characteristics.
Aric Toler, a researcher for Bellingcat who first identified this location as Belarus, pointed out that this kind of misuse is common. “This happens constantly with every conflict. We have recycled footage being passed around back and forth.” He pointed out that the footage “sometimes [is] not even [from] conflicts.” It can be something as simple as an air soft game filmed in a particular way.
“The onus should fall a lot more on journalists and big-picture, high-user Twitter people” to check where the media they posted originates, Toler said. “I don’t think this is really something that should be the responsibility of the average person.”
Pierson told The Fact Checker in an email the “tweet does not claim that it is actual footage.” But there is nothing in her original tweet to give a viewer this cue. Rather, it’s the opposite. She posted a video of rockets, with a caption about rockets, without clarifying they were not the same rockets. When The Fact Checker pointed this out, she replied, “I’m not a reporter, it’s not my job to tweet hard news.”
Pierson told us, “I am only responsible for what I say – not what others can comprehend.”
Deciphering the true location of video, particularly from a conflict zone, isn’t always easy. But a simple Google search would have told her that this video probably wasn’t from May 2019 or from Gaza. If the video was meant as a representation, as she claimed, she should have said as much sooner and then removed the video from her original tweet. Instead, the misleading video she posted gained more than a million views.
It’s dangerous for public figures to misattribute conflict footage – especially when it could be viewed as an attempt to shift public opinion and shape political rhetoric. Pierson (and others) should be more careful with their Twitter fingers.
We were tempted to award Four Pinocchios here because of the egregious misuse of video, but the basic facts listed in her caption checked out. She earns Three Pinocchios.