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Meet IBB Grantee Fighting Russian Misinformation in Arabic
Tech 4 Peace is tackling the flood of false narratives circulating on Iraqi social media from ISIS propaganda and Covid misinformation to State-Sponsored disinformation
The clue could be something tiny, like the mobile phone number in an advert or the sign outside a shop. It’s relatively easy to spot whether a photo is fake, you just have to know where to look, says Bahar Jasim, spokesperson at Tech 4 Peace. His team of 265 digital investigators spend hours every week scouring images, videos, and text to determine their origin. “It’s relatively easy to track photos and videos, it just takes time,” says Jasim.
The battle of Russian misinformation in Iraq
Originally set up to counter Isis propaganda in 2016, Tech 4 Peace has expanded to tackle disinformation in Arabic around other topics, including Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. “There has been a lot of fake news here about Russia and Ukraine…I never expected to see our nation so divided by a war in the Western world,” says Jasim.
But the interest is keenly felt in Iraq where fake videos showing Russian troop landings or aircraft over Kyiv have gone viral and conspiracy theories about the allegiances of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden have gained a lot of traction. “Iraqis like to follow global trends and analyze what’s happening,” he says. “Some people just share whatever comes onto their timeline without thinking, but others know it’s fake news and do it deliberately to support their interests or cause harm,” Jasim says.
While photos and videos offer a wealth of visual information and metadata that makes them easier to trace, the text is more difficult. It can take days of sifting through documents and fact-checking sources to establish the veracity of a written rumor and Tech 4 Peace staff work on a voluntary basis. “We all have day jobs. People do this in their spare time because they want to serve society and use their skills to give back.”
It’s also dangerous. Only Jasim’s name is public because he resides in Europe – the rest of the team operates in secret out of Iraq. “We receive a lot of threats due to the sensitive nature of the cases we debunk,” says Jasim.
He recalls the tragic fate of a man who was accused of being homosexual on social media because he had long fair hair. The comments were widely shared and a few weeks later he was found dead in a rubbish container in Baghdad. “After that, we published an article asking people to stop pressing that share button without thinking,” Jasim says.
In some cases, Tech 4 Peace can debunk false narratives and prevent further harm. After the battle to expel Isis from Mosul, Iraq’s rumor mill went into overdrive as authorities tried to root out sleeper cells. Tech4Peace received a desperate call from a man whose brother was arrested after his photo was captioned with the name of an Isis fighter and circulated online. The person behind the image had fallen out with his brother weeks earlier and was exacting revenge. In Iraq, acts like this can cost someone their life, Jasim explains.
Tech4Peace was able to prove that the Isis fighter in the picture had been dead for some time and the findings were used to secure the innocent man’s freedom. But the daily flood of false narratives is sometimes too much for the team to tackle. “Our aim is to tackle every piece of fake news we find but we do have to give priority if there is a type of false news that causes harm,” Jasim says.
During the pandemic, Tech 4 Peace expanded to process the surge in fake advice and conspiracy theories flooding Iraqi social media. “It was a huge increase in our workload,” Jasim recalls, pointing to the need to investigate medical advice, follow up with scientists and verify case studies. Sometimes it was harmless but much of the advice was dangerous, like the well-known television presenter who told audiences that alcohol could protect drinkers against Covid-19.
And the flood of false narratives has only increased since the height of the pandemic, which is why Ideas Beyond Borders has given Tech 4 Peace an Innovation Hub grant to offset the costs of staff members giving up their free time.
“These people act at great personal risk to debunk dangerous rumors and expose lies that contribute to the instability and hate underlying many of the problems facing Iraq,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Founder and President of Ideas Beyond Borders. "Unfortunately, conspiracy theories and misinformation in Iraq are mainstream so it's vital to work at a time when it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, not just in Iraq but across the world."
For Jasim, the aim is to make Tech 4 Peace universal by teaching people to verify information themselves. The organization offers free online courses in fact-checking and online security and they include details for each investigation at the bottom of the page so viewers can see exactly how it’s done and what tools were used. “We want everyone in Iraq to be part of Tech 4 Peace so people can take charge, call out fake news and fight it by themselves,” he says.