Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Middle East activists thwart online hoaxes



Middle East activists thwart online hoaxes

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
WhatsApp boasts 75 per cent penetration among internet users in the Middle East. AFP

Middle East activists thwart online hoaxes

Browse through Arabic-language social media pages and you could walk away thinking Covid-19 is a US hoax, isn’t deadly and can be swiftly cured with a garlic clove.

Arabic pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are brimming with fake news stories on the novel coronavirus, from benign inaccuracies to full-throated conspiracy theories.

As authorities work to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, activists across the Middle East are stepping up to combat the Arabic “infodemic” they say is as dangerous as the infection itself.

“We correct the news and save lives,” said Baher Jassem, an Iraqi activist from the Tech 4 Peace collective, which switched from its four-year campaign against fake political and economic news to setting the record straight on Covid-19.

Every few hours, the collective’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages publish screenshots of fabricated news stories about the virus, from claims about new remedies to celebrity deaths from the illness or a reassuring wave of recoveries.

The pictures are marked with a red stamp reading “fake post”, accompanied by a correction and links to more accurate information. Their accounts reach more than one million followers.

“We don’t just want to expose lies. We want to spread awareness about the coronavirus, the right way to protect yourself, the wrong remedies that are circulating,” Jassem told AFP.

The corrections campaign could not have come sooner: the region appears to be experiencing a long-feared Covid-19 spike.

Iraq’s daily case rate increase exploded to more than 2,000 in late June, nearing 3,000 per day this month.

Lebanon, Oman and Algeria saw peaks of daily new cases in mid-July, while Saudi Arabia and Jordan witnessed crests in late June but appear to be stabilising.

Doctors in Iraq blame online misinformation: their patients have insisted coronavirus is an American conspiracy, or people are actually dying from a sarin gas attack, or that Iraq’s blistering heat would halt the virus’s spread.

Medics say such false information could make people less likely to wear masks in public, abide by social distancing or wash their hands regularly.

‘This is personal’

Misinformation about Covid-19 has been spreading in various languages since the pandemic’s early days, but the proliferation in Arabic is particularly dangerous because of the lack of quality reporting, activists told AFP.

Indeed, Reporters Without Borders has noted authorities’ tightening control over media in the Middle East in 2020, specifically over information relating to Covid-19.

As a result, activists said, news consumers are suspicious of the information they find in traditional outlets and more likely to entertain conspiracy theories.

“Media literacy is non-existent. Iraqis can go on Facebook and Twitter but are not really equipped to see 50 different sources and differentiate what’s fact and what’s fiction,” said Faisal al-Mutar, a US-based Iraqi activist and founder of Ideas Beyond Borders.

IBB has partnered with Wikipedia to translate more than 250 detail-rich pages on Covid-19’s origins and spread into Arabic.

It’s no easy task given the Arabic language’s diverse dialects, said volunteer translator Issam Fawwaz, based in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.

“The scientific terms aren’t standardised. A term used in Syria, Lebanon or Jordan is totally different from Egypt or Morocco,” while some English terms have no Arabic equivalents, 33-year-old Fawwaz told AFP.

But conviction in the impact of his work has kept him going.

“This is personal for me. I was one of those people that used to believe fake news, but I was lucky to have people who pushed me to use my brain,” he said.

“One person persuaded by a fake news story can spark a calamity in his community.”

Fighting fire with fire

Fatabayyano, a Jordan-based platform founded in 2014 whose name translates to “Verify”, is fighting fire with fire.

“Fake news spreads faster than real news – and the amount of misinformation on WhatsApp is absolutely huge,” said Motaz al-Thaher, Fatabayyano’s media manager.

WhatsApp boasts 75 per cent penetration among internet users in the Middle East, according to a 2019 study by the Northwestern University in Qatar.

People use it to stay in touch with friends and family, but also to share links, photos and audio messages on current affairs, often unverified.

There are few regulations to fight misinformation on WhatsApp, Thaher said, as messages are encrypted and the platform can’t flag suspicious messages the way Facebook and Twitter can.

So Fatabayyano created its own channel, sending fact-based coronavirus reporting to thousands of WhatsApp users simultaneously.

The messages include links to long science-based Arabic articles on Fatabayyano’s website, bright virus-related graphics on its Instagram page and punchy one-minute videos to its nearly 800,000 Facebook followers.

“Rumours are viruses too!” reads the new caption under the campaign’s logo.

MOST VIEWED

  • ‘Education’ a priority traffic-law penalty

    A top National Police official on June 21 neither rejected nor confirmed the authenticity of a leaked audio message, which has gone viral on social media, on a waiver of fines for a number of road traffic-related offences. General Him Yan, deputy National Police chief in

  • Siem Reap’s $18M zoo said to educate public, help wildlife

    Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium Co Ltd has invested $18 million in a zoo in Siem Reap province, which will be opened in October to educate and promote animal conservation as well as attract national and international tourists. Currently, the Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium is building the

  • Volunteer scheme to foster ‘virtuous’ humanitarian spirit

    A senior education official said volunteer work contributes to solidarity and promotes a virtuous humanitarian spirit among the youth and communities. Serei Chumneas, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, made the comment during the opening of a training programme called “

  • Chinese firms unveil preliminary results on metro, monorail for capital

    Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol and representatives from China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and its parent company, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC), met on June 24 for talks on results of the firms’ preliminary study on a potential metro

  • ACLEDA, WU to enable global money transfers

    Cambodia's largest commercial bank by total assets ACLEDA Bank Plc and global money transfer firm Western Union (WU) have partnered to offer customers cross-border money transfers to 200 countries via “ACLEDA mobile” app. In Channy, president and group managing director of ACLEDA, said the June 22 agreement

  • Aeon, Micromax partner again for third mall

    AEON Mall (Cambodia) Co Ltd and a locally-owned Micromax Co Ltd have entered into a partnership agreement to develop fibre optic infrastructure for $200 million Aeon Mall 3, which is expected to be opened in 2023. The agreement was signed on June 20 between Masayuki Tsuboya, managing director of