Misinformation swirls online after Iran's missile attack on U.S. targets in Iraq

False reports of U.S. casualties and claims that Iran had declared war on the United States added to growing inaccuracies on social media.

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By Suzanne Ciechalski and Rima Abdelkader

Not long after Iran fired ballistic missiles targeting U.S. forces at two Iraqi air bases, misinformation began appearing on social media, including outdated photos and videos falsely presented as showing the attacks.

A Twitter user responded Tuesday to a tweet from President Donald Trump with an image purported to be Ain al-Asad air base under attack. The image was actually from an incident in the Gaza Strip, which borders Israel, in November.

A ball of fire is seen following an Israel airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Nov. 15, 2019.Abed Rahim Khatib / AFP via Getty Images file

The Iranian Fars News Agency tweeted an outdated image purported to depict a missile launched in the attack Tuesday. The photo actually shows a missile heading toward Syria in 2017.

Iran strikes targets of the Islamic State militant group in Syria in 2017.Fars News Agency

Similarly, an image showing Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with his name misspelled circulated online Tuesday night. It was purported to show Khamenei supervising the attack on Ain al-Asad, but it appears to be an edited version of an image released by Iran in 2014 during an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exhibition.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, at an exhibition of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran on May 11, 2014.The Office of the Supreme Leader file

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NBC News' Social Newsgathering team, which works to find, verify and report on trending and breaking news stories, debunked the material, which turned out to be out of date, out of place and misidentified.

With some simple online verification tools, such as Google's reverse image search feature, anyone can check whether a photo tweet, a YouTube video or another image floating around online is a fabrication.

In addition to erroneous photos and videos that have been shared online, a number of social media accounts posted false claims that Iraq had declared war on the United States, as well as reports of U.S. casualties in Tuesday's attacks, which Trump denied in an address to the nation Wednesday.

"The American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night's attack by the Iranian regime," Trump said. "We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases."

Full coverage: Stories and analysis on the Iran crisis

After last week's killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, many people took to social media to voice fears about the possibility of a military draft should the United States declare war on Iran.

The Selective Service System, the agency that handles registration of people eligible for the draft, said its site was experiencing high traffic volumes "due to the spread of misinformation." It said it was "conducting business as usual."

"In the event that a national emergency necessitates a draft, Congress and the President would need to pass official legislation to authorize a draft," the agency tweeted.

U.S. Army Recruiting Command released a statement Tuesday discrediting text messages that people reported receiving that informed them that they had been selected for the draft.

"U.S. Army Recruiting Command has received multiple calls and emails about these fake text messages and wants to ensure Americans understand these texts are false and were not initiated by this command or the U.S. Army," it said in a statement.

The online misinformation started even before the attacks, when Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., posted a manipulated image on Twitter.

Gosar tweeted a fake photo Monday of former President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He captioned the tweet, "The world is a better place without these guys in power."

The tweet got more than 22,000 likes, but many users were quick to point out that the photo was not real and that it had been circulating for years.

The photo appears to be a manipulated image of Obama shaking hands with former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011. It was used in a political action committee's advertisement for Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., as far back as 2015, according to FactCheck.org.

Gosar defended the tweet, writing, in part: "No one said this wasn't photoshopped. No one said the president of Iran was dead. No one said Obama met Rouhani in person."

Ali Gostanian, Caitlin Fichtel, Jareen Imam, Caroline Radnofsky, Shamar Walters and Anthony Correia contributed.