Tech-savvy activists debunk fake news engulfing Iraq protests

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An Iraqi protester waves the national flag as he stands atop a burnt out police vehicle outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on Friday

From accusations long-dead soldiers shot protesters to jihadist statements backing the rallies, fabricated news has swirled around Iraq's protests -- sending tech-savvy youth into debunk overdrive.

While their compatriots hit the streets in anti-government rallies, dozens of anonymous activists from Iraqi NGO Tech 4 Peace hunker over laptops, using virtual private networks to circumvent a social media ban.

Those in Iraq coordinate with fellow activists across the Arab world, Europe and even North America to discern the real from the ridiculous.

Did the Islamic State group really call for demonstrations? No -- that's a fake statement, writes Tech 4 Peace on its popular Facebook page.

Was a young protester shot dead this morning? No, his friends confirm he's still alive.

Did the family of ex-dictator Saddam Hussein back the rallies? Another no.

One of the most common forms of fallacy spread online is the misidentification of security personnel who shot at protesters, said a Tech 4 Peace verifier identifying himself as Sami.

"Pictures of people accused of killing demonstrators have been circulating for days," Sami told AFP.

They included photographs of Iraqi soldiers who had in fact died fighting the Islamic State group several years ago.

"We've also debunked dozens of claims of people accused of being jihadists, with their names and photographs circulated online, who have nothing to do with terrorism," he added.

- 'Alert! Fake news!' -

Protests erupted in Iraq's capital and further south on October 1, first demanding more jobs and an end to corruption before evolving into calls for an overhaul of the entire political system.

Authorities swiftly imposed internet restrictions, first banning some social media before imposing a total blackout.

But activists at Tech 4 Peace were just as fast: by the second day of protests, they were trawling through online platforms full of inaccurate or totally fabricated claims.

"We found videos with false titles or bad sourcing, posted by people, pages or other social media accounts that sometimes don't even know they're distributing false information," said Sami.

He and his colleagues also often find falsified government decrees, which they repost on the group's Facebook page with a red watermark saying: "Alert! Fake news!"

Iraq has a plethora of television stations and newspapers, but most people use Facebook or messaging application Whatsapp to share news.

That makes it easy for unverified information -- including mistaken rumours of deaths -- to spread.

"A former president even issued his condolences for an artist who was still very much alive," said Saad al-Kaabi, an Iraqi blogger.

"Authorities sometimes even launch test runs, spreading rumours on the internet to see the street's reaction," he told AFP.

- Power of propaganda -

A total of 157 people were killed in the first week of rallies, authorities said in a recent report, a majority of them protesters who died of wounds to the head or chest.

The government has kept restrictions on some social media sites in place, but even regular Iraqis are circumventing them en masse by using VPNs.

Activists called for protests to resume on Friday October 25, but they began hours ahead of schedule on Thursday evening.

Many seemed nervous about whether they were receiving accurate portrayals of the reality on the ground.

"The situation is always complicated, and plenty of people could easily fall victim to rumours," said Reda Najmaddin, a 50-year-old day labourer.

Iraqis have been hoodwinked in dramatic fashion before.

IS used the power of its propaganda in 2014 to claim it had taken a series of Iraqi cities even before it had militarily conquered them.

Such claims spread fear among security forces, ultimately making them a self-fulfilling prophecy when troops fled.

Some worry that people being taken in by fake news could again cause major destabilisation, including Susanne Aziz, a 46-year-old housewife.

"No one knows what could happen," she told AFP.