The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Growing Oct. 7 ‘truther’ groups say Hamas massacre was a false flag

In city council hearings, protests and online, a growing movement with ties to Holocaust denial is effacing history in real-time

(Illustration by Natalie Vineberg/The Washington Post; Hatem Moussa/AP))
10 min

When she first heard about Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, Mirela Monte was “appalled.” The South Carolina real estate agent and self-described holistic healer detests violence and is horrified by war and human suffering.

But as Monte read more in Uncensored Truths, a Telegram group with 2,958 subscribers active on foreign policy and the supposed perils of vaccination, her shock turned to anger. According to the forum, the news reports were wrong: Secretly, Israel was behind the massacre.

Monte now argues the Oct. 7 attack was a “false flag” staged by the Israelis — likely with help from the Americans — to justify genocide in Gaza. “Pure evil,” she said. “Israel is like a mad dog off a leash.”

The Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack is among the most well-documented in history. A crush of evidence from smartphone cameras and GoPros captured Hamas’s breach of the border — a strike Israel says left about 1,200 dead, the most deadly onslaught in the country’s history.

But Oct. 7 denial is spreading. A small but growing group denies the basic facts of the attacks, pushing a spectrum of falsehoods and misleading narratives that minimize the violence or dispute its origins. Some argue the ambush was staged by the Israeli military to justify an invasion of Gaza. Others say that some 240 hostages Hamas took into Gaza were actually kidnapped by Israel. Some contend the United States is behind the plot.

These untrue and misleading narratives have been seeded on social media, where hashtags linking Israel to “false flag” — a staged event that casts blame on another party — tripled on services including TikTok, Reddit and 4chan in the weeks after the attacks, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonprofit tracking disinformation.

It’s bleeding into the real world: Demonstrators have shouted the claim at anti-Israel protests and have used it to justify removing posters of hostages in cities like London and Chicago. At a November city council meeting in Oakland, Calif., multiple residents disputed the veracity of the attack.

“Israel murdered their own people on October 7,” said Christina Gutierrez, an analyst in the city’s housing department, where some in the crowd shouted “antisemitism isn’t real.” Gutierrez did not respond to requests for comment.

The phenomenon is worrisome to Jewish leaders and researchers who see ties to Holocaust denial, the attempt to undermine the genocide that killed 6 million Jews during World War II, a belief that has surged online. They also see parallels to many pernicious, internet-driven conspiracy theories with antisemitic tentacles, including the QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges “globalists” — a reference, some say, to Jews — used the pandemic to control the world, and disinformation about the 9/11 terrorist attack, which some fringe groups falsely argue was perpetrated by the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.

Antisemitism was rising online. Then Elon Musk super-charged it.

“There’s a built-in audience that wants to deny that Jews are the victims of atrocity and furthers the notion that Jews are secretly behind everything,” said Joel Finkelstein, chief science officer at NCRI.

In Ukraine and other conflict zones, smartphones coupled with the velocity of social networks allow the public to witness events in real time, providing a sense of “ground truth” about far-flung incidents.

But social media is an equally potent tool for distortion — and the internet has a singular power to erase and twist history.

The head of International Relations for Hamas, Basem Naim, has falsely asserted that the group “didn’t kill any civilians” when it attacked Israel on Oct. 7, calling the claim “Israeli propaganda.” Such false claims are finding an audience in a variety of online spaces.

“So basically the Hamas attack was a false flag for Israel to occupy Gaza and kill Palestinians,” reads a recent post on the Reddit forum r/LateStageCapitalism. “Expected behaviour from nazi wannabes.”

LateStageCapitalism is a community of left-wing activists that bills itself as “A One-Stop-Shop for Evidence of our Social, Moral and Ideological Rot.” But the claim can be found elsewhere on the internet, including publications critical of Israel like Electronic Intifada and GrayZone, and in messaging groups like Monte’s Uncensored Truths, which previously had been focused on pandemic-related gripes about vaccines and conspiratorial ideas about “globalists” ushering in a so-called New World Order. Right-wing Holocaust deniers also have latched onto the claims.

All cherry-pick evidence — some factual, some highly distorted — to push misleading narratives.

Israeli citizens have accused the country’s military of accidentally killing Israeli civilians while battling Hamas on Oct. 7; the army has said it will investigate. But articles on Electronic Intifada and Grayzone exaggerated these claims to suggest that most Israeli deaths were caused by friendly fire, not Hamas.

One Grayzone story quotes an Israeli helicopter pilot describing difficulty distinguishing between civilians and Hamas on Oct 7. But the account distorts his testimony, in which he describes in Hebrew the dilemma of facing so many terrorists, said Achiya Schatz, director of FakeReporter, an Israeli watchdog organization dedicated to fighting disinformation and hate speech online.

An Electronic Intifada article from November also argues that “most” Israeli casualties on Oct. 7 were perpetrated by the Israeli army, basing the story, in part, on a YouTube clip of a man who describes himself as a former Israeli general. The clip refers to these outsider observations as “a confession.”

Electronic Intifada executive director Ali Abunimah said in an email: “It would appear that the reach and success of The Electronic Intifada in debunking and exposing the kind of pro-Israel propaganda routinely published by the Washington Post is now causing enough worry that you have been assigned to do a hit piece, in which labels such as ‘far-left’ and ‘anti-Israel’ will be deployed in order to try to misdirect your readers from our careful, factual reporting.”

Holocaust deniers find new allies

Two weeks after the Hamas attack, filmmaker Aharon Keshales and his wife were taking a Saturday walk in the Primrose Hill section of London when they saw a woman ripping down hostage posters on a local bridge.

The couple, who are Israeli, spoke to the woman, who said she was removing the posters because the people had not been kidnapped by Hamas, according to video of the encounter reviewed by The Post. Keshales said he and his wife told the woman that even Hamas has admitted taking hostages. The woman grabbed the posters and walked away, according to the video.

Keshales said the incident — which has now been repeated in several cities, according to other videos posted on social media — left him disturbed.

“Everyone takes a side in every conflict, and that’s okay. But to put it on Israel — that’s a lie,” he said. “Maybe it’s easier to lie than to say, ‘You got what you deserve.’ Maybe it’s psychologically easier than saying, ‘I hate you.’”

Influencers who question the Holocaust are also among those sowing doubt about Oct. 7.

“Despite how it can appear sometimes I don’t actually have an axe to grind with the Jews,” said Owen Benjamin, a comedian who embraces far-right and antisemitic content, in a November post on X. “It’s just the insane Holocaust narrative and fake war atrocities by shoved down our throats as Americans by israel needs constant pushback,” he wrote in apparent reference to the atrocities of Oct. 7.

The current conflict also is helping Holocaust deniers find potential new allies: neo-Nazis have shown up at pro-Palestinian rallies in several states, seizing an opportunity, analysts said, to push antisemitic tropes. And they’ve deployed conspiratorial rhetoric that appeals to different audiences: Dan Hanley, who runs an organization that claims there were no Muslim terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks, posted on X in November that the “Zionist Rothschild cabal et al was behind both the 9-11 and Oct. 7 false flags.”

Benjamin and Hanley did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Researchers warn that Oct. 7 conspiracy theories may follow a similar trajectory to Holocaust denial, which was waning before social media platforms propelled its resurgence a decade ago.

The election of former president Donald Trump — who fanned the flames of white nationalism with his defense of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville — along with lightly moderated tech services like Telegram, Discord and Gab, have given new life to Holocaust denial, said Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. Mainstream platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which permitted such content under their policies until recently, have also played a role.

The platforms have enabled extremists to pitch their ideas to more people, replacing swastikas with more broadly palatable internet memes such as Pepe the frog.

This newer brand of antisemitism has led a generation of young people to dispute the Holocaust. One in five American adults under 30 say they agree the “Holocaust is a myth,” according to a YouGov/Economist poll conducted in the first week of December. More than a fifth say they believe that the Holocaust was exaggerated.

The long tail of Holocaust denial is a lesson in what may happen to Oct. 7, said Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank — despite copious real-time documentation of the attacks. Extremists will draw people who are genuinely concerned about the atrocities in Gaza, where over 24,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s invasion, down a rabbit hole of conspiracies and misleading information, he said.

“It’s generally indisputable that Hamas did something — the pro-Hamas camp can’t erase that entirely. But they can keep chipping away at it, and over time, you’re seeing a rewriting of history,” said Brooking, co-author of the book “Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”

Erasures of historical memory by online tacticians are not confined to the Holocaust, researchers noted. In both Brazil and Argentina, right-wing groups have used disinformation campaigns to question settled facts about human rights abuses under the military dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s. Popular YouTube influencers who support Argentina’s far-right President Javier Milei are increasingly arguing that the military’s torture and disappearance of tens of thousands of political adversaries during that period didn’t happen, according to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group that recently asked Google to remove the content.

Finkelstein said that conspiracy theories about Oct. 7 are beginning to bleed into the tumult roiling U.S. universities over the war. On X, activists claim Jewish students and “zionists” are “staging false flag hate crimes” against themselves on college campuses. Grayzone called it a “contrived campus antisemitism crisis.”

While it’s reasonable to question the intentions and wartime tactics of Israel’s government, Finkelstein said, efforts to say Israel was responsible for Oct. 7 are part of a broader strategy by antisemitic extremists to undermine Jewish suffering.

“First you have to prove that your enemies aren’t really victims or oppressed,” he said. “If your enemies are victims or are oppressed, your worldview doesn’t make sense.”