BAGHDAD — After Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of a leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, there was widespread outrage in Shiite Muslim communities across the Middle East, and especially in Iraq.
Protests were organized in Baghdad fed by social media. One video was shared that allegedly showed the last seconds of Nimr’s life and his execution. Another widely shared video showed Nimr’s body being dropped out of a helicopter after the execution. Some Iraqis even said he was thrown out of that helicopter while still alive.
This kind of “news” is common on Iraqi social media. And it’s dangerous because for many Iraqis, social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and to a lesser degree Instagram have become a major source of political- and security-related news. They do not trust mainstream media in Iraq, which is mostly considered to be partisan, with much of it funded by political parties, religious bodies, or other organizations pushing their own agenda.
Many Iraqis say their most trusted source of news is word-of-mouth—relatives, friends, neighbors—so it makes sense that they would turn to social media, basically an expanded word-of-mouth network, to get information they believe they can trust.
However, once again, the country’s ingrained social divisions are playing a part on social media sites too. Manipulated videos, Photoshopped pictures and other false news and disturbing rumors are shared continuously by Iraqis craving information and, in some cases, anything that confirms their own bias.
The story about Sheikh Nimr’s execution was a prime example of this. It’s hard to know who posted the videos originally but it seems clear that the original user had an agenda.
Under the guidance of open source verification experts at the investigative network, Bellingcat, a team of bloggers from the Iraqi Network for Social Media who are also the founders of a Facebook page called Fake Posts, and journalists from NIQASH took a closer look at some of these falsified reports on social media.
Using open source verification techniques like geolocation and reverse image search, the team quickly found that the first video, the one allegedly showing al-Nimr’s execution, had nothing to do with the Saudi cleric. The clip, watched by thousands of Iraqis, was actually the video of the execution of an Indonesian maid in Saudi Arabia and it was four years old.
The other video that supposedly showed al-Nimr’s body being thrown out of a helicopter after his execution was also something else: It was a video showing a member of a Saudi police force falling out of a helicopter, most likely to his death, in 2013.
The investigators then went on to look at several other popular rumors doing the rounds of Iraqi social media.
Another picture that caused a different kind of uproar was that of a bloodied soldier with the remains of a mortar embedded in his arm, alive and sitting on a bed.
Interestingly enough every single group fighting in Iraq wanted to claim this “hero” as one of their own. The Iraqi Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, said he was one of their men. The Iraqi army claimed him as their soldier and then the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias, who may or may not fight alongside the Iraqi army, said he was one of their brave volunteers.
Even the extremist Islamic State, or ISIS, got in on the act saying he was actually one of their fighters.
People in Iraq want to believe this kind of story and they gave the soldier with the mortar in his arm nicknames like “Iron man” in honor of his survival.
But once again it turned out that nothing about this picture was correct: the man was in fact a soldier in the Colombian army in South America. The picture dated back to 2000 and the man had been injured while the Colombian army was fighting local left-wing rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Details on the remains of the mortar in the man’s arm, words on his badge saying Quimbaya, his military rank and other news reports on the incident quickly made it clear that the soldier had nothing to do with Iraq at all.
Another controversy was caused by a picture that seemed to show an officer from the Iraqi Kurdish military consorting with members of the ISIS group, a force that the Iraqi Kurdish are supposed to be fighting.
Back in 2014, when ISIS first took over the northern city of Mosul, there were already rumors that the Iraqi Kurdish were cooperating with the group in order to gain advantage and move toward a long-cherished goal of Kurdish independence. No big surprise then that this picture of supposed enemies together relaunched those rumors in the echo chamber that is Iraqi social media.
Once again though, this was misinformation. The individual who looked like he was a member of ISIS—sporting a long beard and a typical long-shirted ISIS outfit—turned out to be an actor well known in Iraqi Kurdistan but not by Arab audiences in Iraq. He was in an area west of Mosul working on a film about how ISIS had attacked the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq. And the member of the Iraqi Kurdish military pictured with the actor was a real soldier, a member of the security task force assigned to protect the film crew and actors.
It seemed that the picture had been taken as a kind of celebrity souvenir and uploaded in that vein, but had then been taken out of context by those who didn’t recognize the Kurdish actor and who had suspicions about the Iraqi Kurdish military.
It is not just ordinary Iraqis on social media spreading rumors and gossip. The Iraqi media also disseminates these kinds of stories to increase audience share and get more visitors to their sites. They know these controversial reports will do that. For some of the less scrupulous, more partisan media outlets, the false stories may also support their organization’s agenda.
Digital content that sets one sect, or ethnic group, against another in Iraq is seen as popular, a bit like the populist muck raking done by tabloids in the West; it often spreads very quickly—which makes even more professional news outlets want to re-publish or comment on it.
“The best way to confront this kind of news is to better train Iraqi journalists,” suggests Hashim Hassan al-Tamimi, dean of the College of Mass Communication at the University of Baghdad. “Iraqis urgently want news about security and about politics. The real media should be able to provide them with this information, instead of allowing rumors on social media to incite hatred.”