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

  • Hun Sen says Kingdom not a 'satellite country'

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said Cambodia had sent diplomatic notes to various embassies demonstrating its stance and clarifying allegations that the Kingdom is a satellite country of China which will allow it exclusive access to the Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province. The response

  • Vast Prince Manor fun park opens to much fanfare in Kandal

    Chinese-owned Prince Culture and Development Co Ltd officially launched the $85 million Prince Manor entertainment centre in Kandal province on Wednesday. Prince Manor is located along National Road 1, 20km from the centre of Phnom Penh. It is the first major theme park project in Cambodia and

  • Angkor provides ‘valuable’ water storage

    The Apsara National Authority (ANA) has stored millions of cubic metres of water at reservoirs in the Angkor area after Cambodia experienced a series of rainstorms over the last few days. The storing of the water, besides serving temple conservation, will also be used to

  • Floods prompt evacuations in Kampong Speu

    Rain-induced floods and water flowing from Kampong Speu province have submerged the houses of 1,527 families living close to the Prek Thnot River in Spean Thma, Tien, Kong Noy and Roluos communes in Phnom Penh’s Dangkor district, according to data from local authorities. Spean Thma

  • Serving coffee with a side of robots

    The eye-catching glass building surrounded by greenery at the intersection of Streets 371 and 2002 in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district is more than just another coffee shop where you can while away a few hours. UrHobby House cafe is filled with robots and characters from

  • Cintri strike ends, workers’ contracts to be terminated

    CINTRI (Cambodia) Ltd rubbish collectors who have been on strike for the past 13 days agreed to return to work starting Wednesday evening after the company agreed to terminate their contracts at the end of January next year and provide seniority payments and other benefits to