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Conspiracy theories, attacks, and the Covid-19 epidemic, topics under which many false news circulate in Iraq, especially on social media, may cause tension in a country that has known decades of wars and crises, so the need to refute them has arisen..
In front of a large number of screens and behind their laptops, three employees of the Monitoring Department of the Media Department at the Ministry of Interior watch the huge amount of daily news that is broadcast on television and social networking sites..
The task of these people is to identify suspicious news and transfer them to the rumors section in the department, which in turn coordinates with the official body concerned with the published news, as the head of this department, Brigadier General Nebras Muhammad, explains to AFP from his office, to deny or confirm it..
The department, in turn, publishes denial or confirmation data on its Facebook page, which is followed by more than 34 thousand people out of 25 million users of social media sites in Iraq in 2021, according to the “Data Portal” Center for Statistics..
Ironically, Facebook is the main source of fake news in Iraq, which often deals with “trend”, meaning whatever is popular..
This was the case, for example, when a picture appeared on the grounds that it was of the Chinese “Long March 5B” missile, which was lost earlier this month, in the skies of Iraq, only to find out later that it dates back to 2019 and has nothing to do with the missile. France Press.
As worldwide, the rumors also included conspiracy theories related to the Coronavirus and vaccines.
One of the founders of Technology for Peace, which specializes in refuting false news, and who preferred to remain anonymous, explains that “there are hundreds of pages with different names circulating false posts” on the blue site in Iraq.
Many of the circulating pages carry the names of news agencies and outlets, such as “Iraq Pulse”, and another named “News Agency” for a specific region in the country. But they are not really news agencies or licensed media.
Fake news turns into an “almost daily trend,” as the founder of Technology for Peace explains in a phone call to Agence France-Presse..
Some of them are humorous and do not cause harm, such as the news of “a young man from Mosul marries four girls in one day”, which was refuted by “Technology for Peace”, so that it appears that the image used in the news is a propaganda for a beauty salon..
The motive for spreading other false news is to obtain more likes. When the burning tragedy of Ibn Al-Khatib Hospital in Baghdad occurred about a month ago, pages began dealing with false news about the burning of other health institutions to attract users..
On the other hand, other news “comes in the context of a specific trend, political for example,” as the founder of “Technology for Peace” explains.
Here, fake news is no longer a source of joke only, but rather becomes a political propaganda tool stemming from electronically organized campaigns, in a country that experienced a bloody sectarian war between the years 2006 and 2008 and four years after it left the war against ISIS..
The founder of Technology for Peace notes the existence of “organized campaigns on thousands of pages, especially Twitter, with political goals regardless of the party” behind it, whether it is from the pro-Iranian factions, or from other parties, on which “millions of dollars” are spent.
Thus, “Iraq has become an arena for a struggle for fake news,” between regional, international or domestic parties, as he explains.
In late August 2020, for example, sectarian rhetoric spread on Twitter and Facebook following rumors of the arrest of the owner of a car loaded with explosives in the Shiite-dominated Dhi Qar region of southern Iraq, and the promotion that he came from Tikrit in the north, which is predominantly Sunni..
On the other hand, other pages said that he is from Dhi Qar and belongs to the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of Shiite factions loyal to Iran and affiliated with the state. The discussion did not end until the official authorities lied the two versions.
And after the Tayaran Square attack in the capital in January, organized campaigns attributed to technology for peace to “electronic armies” on communication sites, accusing Riyadh of being behind the attack. Then I published a photo of a Saudi who was accused of being one of the suicide bombers involved in the attack..
A long way
This applies to news related to the early parliamentary elections next October, as rumors about it have already started circulating, such as talk about incorrect alliances or nominations..
In front of this, the rumors section of the Ministry of Interior reinforces “field campaigns”, by distributing leaflets to passers-by warning about false news and the legal consequences of publishing them periodically, as Brigadier General Nebras Muhammad explains to Agence France-Presse, stressing, “We also cooperate with bloggers of web pages to spread awareness.“.
But these campaigns are not enough in a country where the official media was the only source of news and information before 2003 under the rule of the Ba’ath Party regime, while the laws that punished them date back to the era of the previous regime..
Amid this shortage, the 24-year-old Abdullah, who like other people of his generation browses his phone for hours, is forced to check the news himself. “I don’t trust the news I’m reading at first glance, but I’m looking for its source, whether it is governmental or otherwise,” he tells AFP from a Baghdad café.
The process of combating rumors requires more complex mechanisms, such as cooperation with social media companies.
There is a draft law to combat information crimes in the halls of parliament, which includes rumors and false news, but it raises controversy and “may undermine the right to freedom of expression in Iraq,” according to Human Rights Watch..
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