This is what it takes to send a fact check to Iran

November 28, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Those who fight against misinformation cannot accept — in any way — that this battle leans on suppressing citizen’s right to obtain free information whenever they want to.

Once again, it is time to remind the powerful that the best vaccine against false news is more news, shared in a quicker and more transparent way.

Since Nov. 17, those who live in Iran have faced the largest internet shutdown in history.

NetBlocks.org, an organization tracks internet disruptions and shutdowns all over the world, found Iran faced a near-total national internet shutdown for more than 100 hours; with only 5% of ordinary levels of data connectivity.

For NetBlocks specialists, this disruption was “the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power (August, 2013), and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.”

This means that, during all that time, it was virtually impossible to send or receive information from Iran. A citizen living there could not log in to Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook, access Google or any other website. It doesn’t matter how urgent his/her need was.

The reason for that shutdown was clear: President Hassan Rouhani’s government sought to crush any protest related to the rise of fuel prices — something that affected political stability in Chile only a few weeks ago.

“During this internet shutdown, the little we heard was people saying they felt like they were living in North Korea. They couldn’t even check international weather conditions,” said Iranian journalist Farhad Souzanchi, who edits, from Canada, FactNameh and RouhaniMeter, the two main fact-checking platforms available about his country.

When the internet shutdown was already five days long, Souzanchi wrote an email to journalists at the International Fact-Checking Network asking for help. He wanted ideas and suggestions about how to send his checks to Iran without using the internet. He felt he was producing content for almost no one.

“We were lucky and kept publishing fact checks because we have been downloading to our computers several databases that now are no longer available,” he said. “So we still have information from Iran’s Statistical Center, the Central Bank and the Research Center of the Parliament, for example. But almost nobody inside the country is reading our content and this is very serious.”

Iran's Statistics Center homepage seen from Canada on Nov. 21, 2019

The solution Souzanchi found was to start using a satellite service called Toosheh. Now Factnameh’s checks are arriving in Tehran and other Iranian cities by satellite. Yes. Satellite.

“Our fact checks enter a package that Toosheh sends to the satellite. It goes along with a series of news, educational materials, digital security apps, entertainment programs, movies, etc,” Souzanchi said. “To access this material, Iranians must have an app, previously downloaded on their mobile, and also a satellite receiver. But the bad thing is that there is no way we can know if those people who have all these things are really reading our fact checks.”

According to Toosheh, its app has been downloaded 1 million times in Iran before this massive internet shutdown. The country, however, has 82 million inhabitants.

“What we see here is a very sophisticated authoritarianism,” a journalist who is in Tehran and asked not to be identified told the IFCN. “They managed to suspend the internet as we all know. Nothing works. But they kept Snapp (an Iranian app similar to Uber) going. And, by doing this, they managed to get thousands of drivers that were protesting against the rise of fuel prices back to work.”

Souzanchi said this is technically possible because his country is developing “its own internet”, something called “National Information Network.”

“It is a domestic replica of the world wide web that can run independently from the global Internet. People on this network can access domestic government-approved websites and services (eg. news websites, domestic apps, banks, government services, etc). And, under this system, access to the global Internet may or may not be possible, depending on the central authority’s discretion,” he said.

In the fight against misinformation, this idea may sound like a plausible solution. Maybe even a fast and effective one. But only for those who do not value basic democratic rights.

Among fact-checkers there is a consensus: against misinformation, more information — with high speed, transparency and quality. There should be no other way out.

Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.

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

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