Religious ideologies and authoritarian regimes: the challenges faced by virtual newsrooms of Arab fact-checkers

July 17, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

In summer 2014, at an event in Amman, Jordan, a lecturer told his audience the story of an astronaut who’d converted to Islam after hearing a noise in space that he later identified as the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Moath Al-Thaher sat in the audience in utter shock.

“Is it possible that in an audience of a thousand people,” he thought, “no one knows that sound does not move in space?” 

Al-Thaher observed the faces of those around him to see if anyone would object to the lecturer’s claim, or at least ask for more details to confirm the accuracy of the story. He wondered, “Did no one have the curiosity to ask for the name of the astronaut? When his trip to space was? The number or name of the space-craft?” 

Back then, Al-Thaher said he knew that the issue of misinformation in the Arab world was too great a problem for him to tackle on his own, but he decided to act anyway. He created a Facebook page titled “Fatabyyano Project to fight fake news” and got to work. 

Today, the page has about 530,000 followers. 

“We are not just a platform, we are a platform that offers an exclusive service, which is very rare in the Arab world,” Al-Thaher told the IFCN. 

“Most of the media is biased towards a country or government, but Fatabyyano is an Arabian project. It’s independent, youthful, works all day long covering a variety of fact checks. That’s what makes us have a huge audience.” 

Recruiting virtual newsrooms via Facebook 

Since its launch, Fatabyyano has expanded to covering misinformation and hoaxes throughout the Arab world, including 22 countries throughout the Middle East and North and East Africa. But the organization has struggled to secure adequate funding; Al-Thaher estimated that sponsorships from the Applied Science Private University and the Zedni Education Network have covered only about 25% of the platform’s needs. 

As a result, Fatabyyano, a holy command from the Quran meaning “to investigate,” has turned to innovative methods of recruiting talent and expanding its reach. 

Every few months, the organization posts a competition on its Facebook page, encouraging followers to see if they can debunk a false claim themselves. The winner of the challenge gets hired as a fact-checker, a strategy that the fact-checking platform Da Begad in Egypt has also used. 

“We believe this is a very practical way (to find employees); we need fact-checkers,” Al-Thaher said. “When you make a competition and 3,000 people participate, you know the person (who wins) is going to be remarkable.” 

Mostafa Elsayed was the first of Fatabyyano’s competition recruits, and he joined the organization in February of 2016. Now, he is the platform’s editorial manager, though he is still only a part-time volunteer; Elsayed is a fifth-year medical student living and studying in Egypt. 

“(Our team) has members from all over the world,” Elsayed told the IFCN. “Most of them are part time, because of our budget. It’s surprising that we have managed with this low a budget to reach the place we have reached.” 

The appeal of fact-checking in Arab countries 

Al-Thaher attributes Fatabyyano’s success in part to the diversity that this recruitment method brings to the organization.

“When you have a diverse team, by default you’re going to have diversity in your audience,” he said. “By not belonging to one country, it becomes an Arabian project.” 

He also said the platform is popular because there are so few fact-checkers in the Arab world, and such a high demand for the craft. “It’s not a project or a platform, it’s a solution to a problem that everyone in the Arab world is facing. And there aren’t a lot of competitors.”

Hay Bahgat, the founder of the fact-checking platform Da Begad in Egypt, argued that the popularity of fact-checking in the Arab world, and particularly in Egypt, had to do with the rise of social media use after the Egyptian revolution in 2011 that resulted in the overthrow of the government of former President Hosni Mubarak.

“After that time, people started registering on Facebook and Twitter, and these eventually became the major sources for information,” he told the IFCN. “They used to believe that anything posted on these sites is true.” 

After weeks of pestering his friends and family whenever they’d share false information with him, Bahgat decided to launch Da Begad, (“Is this real?”) in 2013, which reached 200,000 followers within a few months. (The site now boasts more than one million.)

“(Fact-checking) was like a shock for people,” he said. “They used to believe everything, and then suddenly they found someone who was telling them no, this is not true.” 

Morsi Meter, the first fact-checking project to be launched in Egypt, was launched in 2012 in an “attempt to document and monitor the performance of Egyptian President-elect Mohamed Morsi” throughout his first 100 days. By 2014, the site shut down due to political pressure. 

According to Freedom House, Egypt has no press freedom, and the government’s recent regulations against “fake news” have been criticized as media censorship tactics. 

Currently, Fatabyyano is the only IFCN-verified signatory that operates entirely in Arabic. Other non-verified platforms in the region include AkeedJo in Jordan; Saheeh Masr, Falsoo, and Matsadash in Egypt; and No Rumors in Saudi Arabia. The Facebook pages for each of these platforms have between 30,000 and 250,000 followers.

Bayanat Box, a traditional media site based in Beirut, launched its own fact-checking campaign at the end of 2018. Haramoun Hamieh, a digital content manager from Bayanat Box, told the IFCN that the idea behind the campaign was that “the general audience doesn’t know how news is produced in journalism. There’s this perception of the journalist as a know it all — if he says something on Twitter or posts a story, it has to be correct.” 

When Bayanat Box began to post videos and infographics explaining how news and fake news get produced, the audience responded positively.

 “People commented ‘Wow, we didn’t know that, this is really important,’” he said. “As if there had been something missing, and we were able to offer them this information.”

Fact-checking in authoritarian contexts

Shady Gebril, a freelance journalist in Egypt, said fact-checking in the Arab world has become a “youthful trend,” brought on by young journalists on digital platforms. But he warned that some of these fact-checking platforms have obvious political biases and agendas. 

Reporters Without Borders states that “freedom of information faces many challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. Known for its hotspots and conflicts, the region is also characterized by repressive regimes that control their people in order to hold on to power and protect their image.”

Entering this environment as a fact-checker can be challenging, especially when religious ideologies are involved. 

“When there is no stability in a country, rumors will spread between competing parties, whether negative or positive,” Gebril told the IFCN. “Most fake news in social media are around political events.” 

He explained that in some countries, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, groups in power — whether that be political parties or businessmen — fund “electronic armies” to spread disinformation online.

“Their mission is to disseminate fake news on social media and support certain issues, by sharing or giving likes.” 

It certainly doesn’t help that many of these countries have low literacy rates. According to a recent study by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Egypt is the country where people are most gullible when falling for fake news. 

Fatabyyano has dealt with this issue by treading lightly when it comes to fact-checking politics. 

“There is no democracy here. It’s very dangerous to talk directly to politics; we’re very careful,” Al-Thaher said. 

Elsayed added that political news can often be so flippant and volatile, it’s nearly impossible to effectively fact-check. 

“You can’t depend on the news that is published,” he said. “One day, the truth is one thing, and the second day the story has changed; the sources have changed.” 

As a result, Fatabyyano focuses on more vague political “trends.” For example, when news of the death of the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was making headlines, Fatabyyano fact-checked videos that claimed to show Khashoggi’s killing but were really snippets of an episode from a TV show. 

Bayanat Box’s fact-checking campaign has taken a different approach, focusing on increasing media literacy at the local level in Lebanon.

“Fake news is happening at the hyper-local level, especially on the topic of refugees,” Hamieh said. 

“A lot of pages on Facebook that cover village news in local areas are run by politically affiliated individuals or people with no background in journalism… This is a hub where public opinion is created in the Middle East, where you have younger and older generations online consuming the same content.”

Thus, Bayanat Box’s campaign is geared toward teaching people how to fact-check independently.

Misinformation rooted in religion

Al-Thaher and Elsayed said that much of the misinformation that gets circulated in Arab countries is tied to religious beliefs, and therefore can be difficult to fight. 

“There’s lots of fake news, myths and rumors that have been around for 10, 15 years in Arab societies, without any debunk or any fighting. It has become a part of the culture,” Al-Thaher said. “It’s part of peoples’ daily conversations and gatherings.” 

One such myth that Fatabyyano tried to debunk was the story of a spring that would purportedly flow with water when someone stood by it and read Quranic verses. Fatbayyano fact-checked the claim in a video, demonstrating how rhythmic springs are a natural phenomenon. 

The video got 50,000 views, but still nowhere near the 60 million views that the Facebook post containing the false claim had received. 

“The fake is more powerful than the truth in the Arab world,” Al-Thaher said. 

Fake news’ propensity to spread faster than facts is a worldwide problem. One recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab found that “falsehoods diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information.” (This study was confined to statements fact-checked as false and statements fact-checked as true.) 

Al-Thaher and Elsayed both said they hope that Fatabyyano will acquire more funding and support from the global fact-checking community in the future. 

“There are 400 million Arab speakers,” Al-Thaher said. “We know that this area needs a lot of work, and we cannot do it alone. We need partnerships and relationships with other companies and platforms.” 

“Very little attention is paid to fact-checking in places like the Arab world,” Elsayed added. “There needs to be more support given to the people who are trying to make an impact in the places where it really matters.”