A fake resignation letter made its way into CNN in Arabic and has spurred false news in Lebanon

October 29, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

What do you do when you see a photo of a resignation letter supposedly signed by a high-level politician going viral on social media?

If you stay on top of issues around mis/disinformation, you probably reach out to a fact-checking organization and/or to a traditional news website to confirm whether the item is real and to read further about it.

On Oct 19, Lebanese people intensively shared on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp a false resignation letter allegedly signed by their Minister of Interior, Raya Hassan.

Those who tried to fact-check the information — later debunked by the minister herself — had a terrible time.

CNN in Arabic published an article about the false resignation letter as if it was a breaking news story (the original link was deleted by CNN and is no longer available on its website).

Additionally,  there is no full-time fact-checking platform operating in Lebanon, even though the country is stuck in a massive economic and political crisis.

Protests in Lebanon started Oct. 17 and made international headlines quickly. In Beirut, thousands of people gathered in front of Parliament for days demanding Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri take action against corruption — Lebanese aren’t happy at all with their political elite.

Roula Mikhael, the executive director at the Maharat Foundation, a Beirut-based NGO working on media development and freedom of expression, said the riots started during a review the 2020 national budget process, and are related to politicians trying to impose more taxes on the people, including one over the use of WhatsApp.

“The latest protests are the result of years of corruption, clientelism and finance policies that benefited only the very rich,” Roula told the IFCN. “And the evident lack of public communication we see here led to the escalation of the number of rumors and misinformation spread here — even before the protests started.”

When Lebanese people took to the streets, false news was all over. Last week, the IFCN asked Roula to list a couple of misleading pieces of content she had recently received regarding the riots. She presented more than five of them.

“There were people sharing posts about a helicopter taking the president to the hospital and others confirming his death. There was one false news regarding politicians running away. There were pictures of the foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, on a plane with a caption that said he had fled the country. The picture, however, was old.”

Roula’s list continued.

“Another rumor ‘assured’ that ministers were entering the presidential palace in Baabda to join the council of ministers’ session on Oct. 21 by ambulance or by Red Cross’ cars. The Red Cross had to issue a public statement saying this was false so no one would attack them.”

Baybars Orsek, the International Fact-Checking Network’s director, arrived in Beirut on Oct. 19 to offer a fact-checking workshop. Long before any of those hoaxes circulated and long before the riots started, the IFCN knew Lebanon needed to develop a fact-checking ecosystem, as it is in the heart of a growing region.

The growth of fact-checking in Lebanon can inspire other countries in the Middle East.

“In the workshop, Orsek taught some fact-checking tools and techniques to 35 journalists from Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. These countries are all facing disruptions where mis/disinformation are widely spread. Journalists were definitely encouraged to start fact-checking initiatives.”

The problem, however, could be the lack of public data and the risks related to pushing the limits of freedom of speech in the region.

During the latest protests in Beirut, fearing an economic crisis, many Lebanese citizens decided to withdraw their bank deposits in foreign currency (USD). That spread panic not only among bankers but also to companies and citizens. Roula pointed out that while people were madly hitting their savings accounts, the Lebanese Central Bank remained silent, allowing for plenty of room to rumors and hoaxes.

But why?

“A circular issued by the presidency on Sept. 30 reminded people that it is considered a crime, under the Lebanese penal code, to publish information about the country’s economic situation,” said Roula. “If you write or publish something about it, you can be jailed for having harmed the national economy.”

On Oct 3, the situation got even worse. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri blamed the media for inciting fear among people and disseminating misinformation.

“He, then, called for harsher laws and for fines on media,” Roula said.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.