This report was originally published by IFEX and is re-posted here with permission and thanks.
While the world grapples with a global health pandemic, in the MENA region the spread of misinformation and disinformation seems to be outpacing the spread of the actual disease. Regional Editor Naseem Tarawnah looks at the nature of information disseminated online and civil society’s attempt to combat it.
While the MENA region has been an increasingly fertile arena for disinformation and misinformation in recent years, it has undoubtedly reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an unprecedented onslaught of information, the global health crisis has accelerated and amplified information wars that have already been playing out in MENA.
In this unfolding information overload dubbed a global ‘infodemic’, where uncertainty and fear have gripped an anxiety-riddled, socially-distanced population absorbing an endless stream of information on their digital screens, the ability for bad information to seep into the public discourse is high.
To make matters worse, public distrust in authoritarian governments that have historically lacked transparency is at an all time high in the region. Given the substantial investment these states have made in restricting access to information, eroding the capacity for quality journalism, and criminalizing free expression and the ability to question official narratives, the capacity for bad information to be believed and shared has inflated, exacerbating an already fraught situation.
With information being weaponized to fuel pre-existing regional narratives and political goals during the pandemic, some questions emerge. What kind of bad information is being produced in the region? What has the impact of disinformation campaigns been? How has civil society pushed back?
Making sense of the infodemic
In this muddled onslaught of information, differentiating between misinformation and disinformation can be problematic. While misinformation is generally considered bad information being circulated accidentally, disinformation is information that deliberately misleads. In MENA, the latter is typically deployed in the pursuit of governments achieving specific political goals. The difference is subtle; a circulating WhatsApp message claiming garlic can act as a vaccine against the coronavirus is misinformation, while headlines that the Emir of Qatar has been infected with the virus is considered disinformation.
The spread of misinformation and disinformation in MENA has likely outpaced the spread of the actual disease. Social networks in the region have hosted content that ranges from anxiety-inducing misinformation, such as claims the virus causes male infertility or those who observe their daily prayers are immune, to intricate disinformation campaigns that exacerbate political rivalries and sectarian divisions.
In either cases the information being produced is designed to play on emotions and existing confirmation biases, and in both cases there are deadly consequences for people in the region.
In Iran, hundreds died from alcohol poisoning after consuming methanol based on misinformation circulated online claiming it was a cure for the virus. In Egypt, rumors that hydroxychloroquine was an effective drug to treat COVID-19 motivated many to buy these drugs without medical supervision, causing a shortage for patients who are in actual need of them.
Rumors of cures have also played to emotions. “Iraqi pharmaceutical company Pioneer confirms it now has a treatment for the Coronavirus,” said one news report in Iraq, while another claimed that Egypt gifted a locally-produced vaccine to China during a state visit. Although this kind of misinformation is typically designed as clickbait, by playing to the undercurrents of patriotic zeal common in the region, it also has the consequence of people taking prevention measures less seriously.
Weaponizing information in a pandemic
Disinformation produced by regional governments has ranged from downplaying the severity of the health crisis to promoting conspiracy theories that fuel sectarian divisions in the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict between Iran and the Gulf states.
Take for instance Libya, where an ongoing proxy war has seen a Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE alliance face off against a Turkey-Qatar axis. These regional powers have been vying to fill the country’s political vacuum, with the Saudi-led alliance backing Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, and Turkey and Qatar moving to counter. In the fog of this war has been an intricate web of conflicting narratives shaped by propaganda and disinformation.
In December 2019, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory uncovered a vast network of social media accounts orchestrating a large-scale disinformation campaign designed to promote the Saudi-led alliance and sow mistrust in Turkish and Qatari leadership. In all, the operation generated over 36 million tweets that spread across social platforms, prompting Twitter to take down some 5,350 accounts seen as “amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar, Iran and Turkish activity,” while Facebook closed 164 pages and 76 Instagram accounts.
Yet, by the time the accounts were closed, the global pandemic was already underway. Headlines accusing Turkey’s President Erdogan of sending coronavirus-infected fighters to fight Haftar’s forces in Libya proliferated online.
With the pandemic arriving in the region on the heels of February’s failed talks to resolve the GCC infighting, the crisis became a golden opportunity to reignite the rivalry. One viral video accused Qatar Airways of being the “official carrier” of the virus. The trending Arabic hashtag #قطر_هي_كورونا (#Qatar_is_Corona) produced a variety of anti-Qatar conspiracies, including one prominent tweet by Saudi-based journalist Noura Moteari claiming Qatar was capitalizing on the virus to undermine the UAE’s Expo 2020, and the Saudi Vision 2030 – a national strategic plan championed by Qatar’s chief rival, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS).
Moteari would later claim her tweet was meant to be ironic, but went on to promote two hashtags that generated significant online engagement and suggested Qatar was responsible for manufacturing the virus.
Disinformation campaigns targeting Qatar reached new heights during the pandemic, culminating in one campaign circulating reports of an attempted coup in the Gulf state. Spearheaded by obscure, fake Twitter accounts originating from Saudi Arabia, and promoted by Saudi influencers, the campaign soon saw “coup in Qatar” trending in both countries. Complemented with doctored video clips showing explosions and gunfire supposedly in Doha, the trending topic was subsequently covered by Saudi-sponsored media outlets reaching an even broader mainstream audience.
These information wars have also spilled beyond regional borders. In May 2020, Facebook announced that Iran’s state broadcaster IRIB had used hundreds of fake social media accounts to covertly spread pro-Iranian messaging online since at least 2011, targeting voters in countries including Britain, Scotland and the United States.
The networks also published Arabic content like memes and links to articles critical of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other geographic adversaries, with recent content framing the coronavirus pandemic as “an attack on Iran by a foreign enemy and a reason to lift sanctions on both Iran and Syria.”
Aside from governments using disinformation to achieve geographic political dominance, it has also been deployed to target people on the ground as well. In this arena, women have especially been targeted with campaigns seeking to discredit them. Take Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr who wielded his Twitter pulpit during February protests in Iraq to accuse the youthful anti-government protesters of promiscuity, and outlined an 18-point code of conduct that demanded gender segregation. Sadr’s efforts to taint the protest movement by attacking its morality, was seen as a concerted effort to shame and silence women’s voices and quell the non-violent protest movement. In response, Sadr was heavily mocked online with hundreds of Iraqi women donning pink scarves marching across the country days later in defiance of his call.
How is such state disinformation carried out? Such campaigns are typically designed by digital content companies in the region and seeded throughout networks of social media followers and bots that amplify specific messages until they achieve trending status. (There have also been documented cases where trolls have appropriated ‘dead’, verified Twitter accounts, resurrecting them to spread information under the banner of a credible blue checkmark). These messages are subsequently picked up by local online outlets that engage in what the LA Times dubs ‘hashtag laundering’, whereby media outlets produce “media content covering artificial social media trends to increase engagement and make them seem legitimate.”
Throughout this entire process, public confusion reigns, mistrust in the press is sown, and the state positions itself as the sole source of information.
Dismantling alternative narratives
In solidifying their monopoly on information, the pandemic has also presented authoritarian states a golden opportunity to tighten their grip on freedom of expression by eliminating the competition. The region’s governments have engaged in website blocking, and used the pandemic to activate laws criminalizing misinformation in the guise of maintaining public health and national order.
These laws are notoriously renowned for their deliberate broad and vague definitions, granting authorities the sole responsibility in determining what constitutes ‘fake news’. In Algeria, the new government abruptly passed a fake news law imposing steep penalties that include two to five years’ imprisonment, while a similar law was fortunately shot down in neighbouring Tunisia, thanks to the country’s strong civil society. The threat of lengthy prison sentences for disseminating content the state deems ‘fake’ is also present in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Downplaying the crisis: Lies, damn lies, and statistics
At its onset, the knee-jerk reaction of some regional governments was to downplay the pandemic. Fearing the toll on its tourism industry, Egypt initially distorted its national figures, persecuting those who contradicted the official tally.
Fearing the pandemic’s impact on their profit margins, some of the region’s richest players also downplayed the crisis. Qatar Airways’ CEO questioned the very existence of the virus, saying the aviation industry should not come to a halt because of a “fear factor”, while Egyptian billionaire Nujaib Swairis encouraged workers to return to factories after the country’s two-week curfew in April. “It only kills 1 percent of patients, who are mostly elderly people,” Swairis said, misinforming a national TV audience.
In Iran, one of the hardest hit nations in the region, authorities diminished the magnitude of the virus ahead of the country’s February parliamentary elections. The country’s cyber police arrested dozens for spreading “misinformation and fear” online while suppressing the flow of information in an effort to avoid a low-voter turnout.
When the elections resulted in the country’s lowest turnout since the 1979 elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed “negative propaganda” generated by Iran’s enemies “[whose] media did not miss the tiniest opportunity for dissuading Iranian voters and resorting to the excuse of disease and the virus.”
Civil society strikes back
On the frontlines of the infodemic, activists, journalists, and civil society organizations have been fighting to combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Fact-checking organizations and initiatives are now charged with sifting through a rumbling ocean of information to identify fact from fiction.
In Palestine, Mada Center launched an online awareness campaign, steering the public to credible information sources, while journalists and activists at PalKashif have been monitoring dozens of local news sources, verifying the information, and pointing out violations to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.
In Jordan, platforms like Akeed.jo and Misbar.com have debunked rumors that include video clips claiming the pandemic is an orchestrated effort to insert microchips into patients that can monitor and control them – in Egypt, a social media blogger attributed the same microchip conspiracy to Bill Gates in a video viewed four million views online – or a false report that the respiratory virus was in actuality a bacteria causing blood clots and could be treated with antibiotics.
Similar platforms throughout the region that have taken a role in fact checking an already distorted media environment are now primed to shift their attention to the current infodemic. This includes the Maharat Foundation’s fact-o-meter in Lebanon, and Matsda2sh (‘don’t believe it’) in Egypt. In the latter, recent research was able to classify the various types of misinformation since the outbreak in Egypt, identifying 39% dedicated to false claims concerning treatments, and 23% about the government’s response.
In Iraq, Tech 4 Peace expanded its reporting of platforms spreading false news and propaganda promoting violence or terrorism to include fact-checking pandemic information. Meanwhile, UNICEF partnered with telecom companies to combat misinformation by spreading accurate information via text messages, reaching millions of people in the process.
The current health crisis is undoubtedly responsible for this sudden surge in mis- and disinformation work civil society actors are currently engaged in, however the approaching new normal is one in which the infodemic continues to grow and evolve in increasing complexity. In this aftermath, the need for civil society’s push against a growing tide of bad information will be in high demand.