Covid-19 and the dangers of disinformation in the Iraqi media

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By Aida al-Kaisy

On 2nd April 2020, Reuters published an article which claimed that official figures on cases and deaths from Covid-19 in Iraq were inaccurate and higher than those being reported in the Iraqi media. The report referenced three doctors, a representative from the Ministry of Health and a political figure -all anonymously as medical staff have been told not to speak to the media. They suggested the numbers of Covid-19 cases were in the thousands rather than the hundreds, as claimed by the Iraqi government. The report alleged that the government was hiding accurate data from the Iraqi public, a claim which has been denied by the health ministry. The Communications and Media Commission (CMC), Iraq’s media regulator, has suspended Reuters’ licence to operate in Iraq for three months and fined them 25 million Iraqi dinars ($21,000), accusing Reuters of risking public safety and jeopardising efforts to contain the pandemic. National and international press freedom organisations have protested this as a clampdown on freedom of expression and a blatant attempt to misinform the Iraqi public on the spread of the disease.

Disinformation is not a new phenomenon in Iraq. Under the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, the media was used by the government as a tool for propaganda with lies and ‘fake news’ appearing commonplace. In the years since 2003, disinformation campaigns in the Iraqi media have been driven by a multitude of different actors with very specific motivations and political agendas. Authorities and non-state actors have relied on the media which they finance to disseminate disinformation on their behalf.

In more recent history, there were a number of actors using early forms of disinformation campaigns to drive attitudes. In 2003, the Coalition Provision Authority (CPA) and occupying US forces used media as a means of mobilising support for their activities and presence in Iraq and the region. This ranged from leaflet drops to the creation of a new television channel Al Hurra Iraq by Voice of America (VOA). Whilst not always disinformation, these were deliberate attempts to subvert and challenge local Iraqi narratives. Both Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) have used the media for the propagation and dissemination of extremist ideologies as well as instilling fear in areas that remained under their control. The Iraqi government and associated actors have co-opted the media, in particular during the ethno-sectarian war from 2005 to embellish the ethno-sectarian narratives that dominated the political and information spheres which eventually gave credence to the legitimatisation of militias and sub-state actors at both a state and societal level. In the last couple of years, Iraqis have been subjected to the dissemination of fake content combined with online trolling by Pro-Iranian and, to some extent, Saudi Arabian electronic armies to support geo-political narratives against conflicting powers.

Iraqi audiences have grown accustomed to a plethora of fake news and content as well as an on-going use of media for propaganda purposes which is problematic in situations such as the current Covid-19 pandemic. There has been some evidence of more traditional communities being less likely to visit hospitals when showing signs of illness as trust in the government and associated institutions, including medical, is at an all-time low. The highly partisan mainstream media landscape in Iraq perpetuates this situation further. A recent report produced by the Iraqi Media House   has demonstrated that coverage of Covid-19 is highly politicised as media outlets use the crisis to attack politicians from different sides to those of their financiers.

A number of disinformation trends have emerged more recently some of which focus on discrediting activists and political opponents. The protest movement in Iraq, although active since 2015, has seen an upsurge in recent months with on-going calls for an end to corruption and a re-evaluation of the current governance systems. Security forces have responded with violence and o ver 600 protesters have been killed plus more than 20,000 injured. Journalists, activists and human rights defenders have been threatened, kidnapped, tortured and killed. In addition to physical oppression, both state and non-state actors in Iraq have also resorted to virtual intimidation and the use of disinformation campaigns has escalated and become more varied. The strength of the protest movement has been thwarted somewhat by the recent pandemic with curfews and restrictions limiting the movement of the protestors.

The trends in disinformation listed below are not exclusive to the Iraqi public sphere but are being seen across the region and beyond. Some of these have been further heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND FAKE INFLUENCERS

Firstly, there has been a rise in the use of ‘political influencers’ and fake accounts on social media to fuel what might be seen to be unprompted online engagement around trending topics and debates. With the rise of the protest movement in Iraq since October 2019, this trend has become even more obvious and to some extent more dangerous. For example, an influence campaign began on Twitter in order to encourage support for a revolution in Iraq with many local activists identifying these fake accounts and hashtags through their use of non-Iraqi dialect and language. An analysis of Iraq protest hashtags by Canadian digital rights organisation Citizenlab conducted in late 2019 has suggested that the majority of these hashtags originated from the Gulf, a region where political narratives reflect regional alliances which tend to be anti-Iran and pro-Saudi Arabia. These hashtags and posts were shared on social media both internally in Iraq and also by the Iraqi diaspora. Online conversations and debates then took place with the intention of disseminating a pro-government narrative. This is can also be seen the form of what is now called ‘electronic flies’. These are online profiles and pages which disseminate propaganda-like content on behalf of the government and its related entities. These are managed by real people or in some cases bots. Traditional media platforms are also used to further promote the fake content.

DEEPFAKES AND ARTIFICIALLY CREATED CONTENT

There has also been a rise in the use of ‘deep fake’ videos which are created and circulated online and on social media platforms. Deepfake content uses artificial intelligence to create fake video content. Deepfakes gained notoriety around the world in the form of celebrity pornographic videos and have since been used as means to create elaborate stories, hoaxes and fraud. In Iraq, such videos have been used to target women in senior roles. During the Iraqi election campaign in 2018, fake ‘sex tape’ videos were circulated on social media in order to discredit female candidates. In a traditional society such as Iraq, reputations remain destroyed, despite evidence to show the videos are fabricated, and many women were forced to stand down from their positions as candidates.

This trend was further exemplified in January 2020 after Iran launched missiles on US military bases in Iraq. Cheaper and less technological deep fake videos of the attacks used footage from attacks in the Ukraine and Palestine for example to stoke fear locally and internationally. In some cases, the videos themselves were not manipulated but were posted with the deliberate intention of spreading false information and rumours. In February 2020, a number of videos circulated on social media which began to implicate protesters in violence. A deepfake video circulated on the media platforms associated with Asaib Ahl Al Haq, one of the Iran-sponsored militias operating in Iraq, showed a protestor opening fire from his camera by co-ordinating the sound of gunfire with the camera’s flashlight.

HARRASMENT OF JOURNALISTS

Threats and the harassment of journalists and activists in Iraq remain endemic and pervasive, both in the physical and online space. These often begin with fake claims and content associating them falsely with parties that might be considered to be ‘enemies’ of Iraq. One of the most high-profile of these cases took place in September 2019 when messages began circulating on social media in Iraq that accused 12 journalists and human rights defenders of ‘wanting to normalise relations with Israel’. Some of these journalists were seen to be associated with a non-governmental organisation which receives US-funding and there were allegations that these claims were issued as a death threat to the journalists. One of the journalists targeted, Ali Wajeeh, wrote a letter to the prime minister asking if there was a ‘directive’ from government to call for the death of the journalists. It is likely that this trend is being fuelled by government sanctioned militias and non-state actors as well as officials themselves.

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA UNDER ATTACK

In addition to local journalists, International journalists considered to be ‘political influencers’ covering Iraq have also become the subjects of disinformation campaigns. There have been a number of reports from international journalists working in, and covering, Iraq, of fake accounts and identities being set up in their names and in some cases used against them. Louisa Loveluck, Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, reported on Twitter that a counterfeit Gmail account had been registered in her name and was being used to email journalists with fake stories related to the Iraqi militias. David Brennan from Newsweek also noted similar behaviour. The Digital Forensic Research lab at the Atlantic Council has suggested that influencer-targeting and discrediting has become a key characteristic of Iranian influenced disinformation campaigns. A campaign targeting BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville and his cameraman Nik Millard which accused them of being Mossad agents also went viral in January 2020. The campaign originated from an Iraqi MP who tweeted a picture of them in Baghdad asking why Israeli Mossad agents were in Baghdad. This might have potentially positioned them as targets for militias and put their lives in danger.

This has created a landscape where both media producers and consumers are becoming aware of the power of disinformation campaigns in Iraq. Some media platforms and social media activists use fact-checking and verification of content before publishing. During the pandemic, WhatsApp groups have become more widely used amongst some members of the journalistic community as a means of content checking as well as sharing accurate figures and data. In the current climate and global health crisis, where accurate news and information more than ever can save lives, the need to tackle the issue of disinformation becomes critical.

Author photo

Aida Al-Kaisy is a Programme consultant for the Ethical Journalism Network and an academic researcher who has worked extensively on media development projects across the MENA region and, more recently, in Central Eastern Europe. She is currently working on a number of projects, focusing on issues related to the development of independent media platforms, media in conflict and media in countries where freedom of expression is challenged. She teaches at SOAS and is a researcher on the London School of Economics Conflict Research Programme. Aida’s PhD research examines the practices of the Iraqi broadcast media during the country’s conflict with ISIS.