A false rumor about the resettlement of Israelis in Dagestan that incited a violent mob at its capital airport Sunday was shared online for longer and more widely than previously reported, according to a New York Times analysis of Telegram posts.
The false narrative was spread across multiple, popular Dagestani Telegram channels in the two and a half weeks before the riot, illustrating the power and danger of disinformation in areas far from the Israel-Gaza war.
It appears to have been first sparked by a Russian regional airline resuming flights between Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, and Tel Aviv following a pause after the Hamas attacks in Israel. The first flight arrived on the evening of Oct. 11.
That same day, several Telegram channels falsely claimed that a group of Israeli refugees had arrived. Five of these posts on Oct. 11 and 12 were collectively viewed over 250,000 times. There is no indication that there have been any efforts to resettle Israelis to Dagestan.
At 2:27 a.m. on Oct. 12, a photo was posted on the Telegram channel Voice of Dagestan showing two dozen men with a large Palestinian flag and the caption, “The Israeli flight was met with Palestinian flags at the Makhachkala airport.” Although the photo doesn’t appear to have been posted online before Oct. 12, and it was taken at the airport, it was not possible to verify with certainty the date the photo was captured, or whether a protest actually took place. But the post was viewed nearly 140,000 times. And in the next four hours, similar posts with the same photo were shared on two other Telegram channels, with 123,000 and 64,000 followers each.
The rumor cropped up again on Oct. 23, when an Instagram account that covers local news in Derbent, the city home to most of the region’s small Jewish population, published a post from a reader suggesting that Dagestan welcome back the Jews who emigrated from the country to Israel. A Telegram channel then shared a screenshot of the post, along with a message to users that used degrading language, calling them to report any Jews who arrived in Dagestan “under the guise of being refugees,” and refuse to sell them any goods or rent them apartments. “These scum should hear this everywhere they go,” a message on the channel said.
The rumor spread amid rising anger over the Israel-Hamas war. In the majority Muslim region, nearly every popular Dagestani Telegram channel reviewed by The Times was dominated by posts about the conflict supporting Palestinians.
In the days leading up to the riot, users began threatening violence, and the anger metastasized into online and offline antisemitic actions against Jewish people. Some people pressured local businesses to ban Jewish customers. Hundreds of people called to action online showed up in person to mob a hotel where a person claimed that a Jewish person was staying.