BEIRUT: Like the wildfires that preceded the Oct. 17 uprising, inaccurate information and fake news about the now monthlong, nationwide protests have spread at a furious and uncontrollable pace. Protesters and politicians alike have been thrown on the defensive as conspiracy theories and alarmist rhetoric have filled social media and public conversation.So, why has this happened and what can be done to better protect the public?
Mahmoud Ghazayel, a journalist and fact-checker, has been tracking the spread of inaccurate and deliberately misleading information since the protests began. Acting alone, each day he has identified at least five news items of questionable authenticity.
“This is only the disinformation that I’ve caught,” he said at a panel discussion hosted by digital rights organization SMEX over the weekend. “You can imagine how much is being spread that I haven’t managed to catch.”
Ghazayel said 40 percent of the items he identified were “totally fabricated,” while old news repurposed to mislead readers accounted for 23 percent. Meanwhile, 18 percent of the examples he highlighted were shared by public figures, politicians or media personalities.
“What’s really interesting to me is that fake news hasn’t been coming from one side only - people from all sides have been sharing news without verifying it,” Ghazayel said. “People in government ... have been sharing fake news because they want to target the other side of the protest, and the protesters [have been sharing it] to target politicians.”
Much of the misleading information starts out as baseless rumor or mere supposition. But activists say that media outlets are failing to check stories before sharing them.
“There is a relationship between what is being spread on WhatsApp and what appears in mainstream media,” said Azza El Masri, an independent media researcher. “Interpersonal communication - WhatsApp messaging - travels from one source to another ... until it reaches the mainstream media. The issue is that ... outlets don’t take the time to do the verification process.”
When mainstream media outlets willfully circulate false or unverified information, the political motivations are clear. For Masri, this was particularly evident after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah told his supporters on Oct. 25 that the uprisings were part of a foreign conspiracy against Hezbollah.
“The biggest betrayal was from [local newspaper] Al-Akhbar, who started spreading disinformation that the revolution was funded by foreign embassies,” Masri said.
Referring to the local TV channel that is affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement, she added, “OTV escalated this and released a so-called investigation which said that the revolution was funded by [billionaire philanthropist] George Soros, and had help from the Saudis, Americans and Israelis.”
Social media platforms also share responsibility for the spread of misinformation. Facebook, for instance, says it is “committed to fighting the spread of false news” and that it will work with fact-checkers registered with the International Fact-Checking Network to take down misleading posts. Campaigners, however, say the platform is not implementing this policy in Lebanon. Facebook launched an Arabic-language fact-checking program with the news agency AFP this year, but the initiative is still in its infancy.
“Facebook has clear policies about disinformation but they don’t apply them in countries like ours,” Masri said. “Reporting content as misinformation has been completely out of the question. ... We were told [by Facebook], ‘We can’t do anything because we don’t have a third-party fact-checker in Lebanon.’”
Ghazayel told The Daily Star that AFP had only called out three misleading articles during the entire period he had been scanning media related to the uprising.
Another tool is the mass reporting of accounts to platform administrators. This is typically done by users acting on behalf of governments and political groups to silence opposition voices.
Shortly after the start of the uprising, SMEX set up a digital security hotline to help restore the profiles of protesters who had been targeted in such attacks. Ali Sibai, who manages the help line, told The Daily Star that his team responded to 15 account suspensions and three cases of hacking in the first two weeks.
Yet, media researchers say platform administrators are not responding quickly enough to their appeals for help. “Facebook is responsive, but they are very slow and are enforcing the policy without taking into account the context [in which the complaints are made],” Masri said, adding that Twitter did not reply.
The panelists identified a handful of tactics and strategies that can be adopted to stem the flow of fake news. In the mid to long term, the rollout of media literacy training at schools and universities will be key in reducing people’s vulnerability to fake news, and increasing support for independent media outlets will help loosen the grip of party-affiliated publications, they said.
But perhaps most immediately, participants agreed, serial publishers of fake news and misinformation must be named and shamed.
“It’s the only way they’ll understand,” Ghazayel said.
This article was amended on Tuesday, November 19 2019
Ghazayel originally told The Daily Star that AFP had called out one article. He later clarified to The Daily Star that the number was three.