The new coronavirus has become a political football in Iran, making it difficult for fact-checkers and the public to distinguish politics from public health.
Rival factions in the government have reported differing numbers of virus deaths and online critics are alleging a cover up.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday news about the virus was part of an international propaganda campaign to hurt Iranian democracy. Turnout figures for the Feb. 21 parliamentary elections were historically low, which Khamenei and other officials blamed on the virus.
The outbreak was first discovered Feb. 19 in the city of Qom, home to the Fatima Masumeh Shrine, an important pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims. Religious authorities in Qom resisted calls to quarantine the city and close the shrine.
An anonymous post on the shrine’s official website claimed the “antibacterial properties of silver” within the shrine would protect pilgrims from the virus. That post was eventually taken down, and replaced with a statement that said this was not the shrine’s official position.
Farhad Souzanchi, who runs the Iranian fact-checking organization FactNameh, said public trust in the Iranian government is at an all-time low following the January downing of a Ukrainian commercial airliner. Following public outcry, the government conceded it had accidentally shot down the plane after initially denying responsibility. The coronavirus response has faced similar public criticism.
As of Thursday, Iran’s Health Ministry has reported 26 deaths. They also reported 245 infections, including Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar.
In a tweet Tuesday, Ebtekar urged the public not to politicize the virus, and instead keep the focus on public health.
“Fake, politicized news or posting can be life-threatening…WHO & Health Ministry protocols should be taken seriously,” Ebtekar tweeted.
Souzanchi said that Iranians have grown accustomed to some level of political propaganda from the government. But the COVID-19 outbreak is the first time, he said, that he’s seen this phenomenon jump over to public health.
For the World Health Organization, fighting viral hoaxes has been challenging. A source inside Iran told the International Fact-Checking Network that WHO has been forced to dedicate nearly half its time in Iran to fighting fake news.
At a WHO briefing earlier this month, Executive Director of Health Emergencies Dr. Mike Ryan called for “a vaccine against misinformation.” The IFCN’s 39-country effort to fight coronavirus hoaxes has tried to provide such a treatment.
Using the hashtag #CoronaVirusFacts and #DatosCoronaVirus, fact-checking organizations from around the world have been sharing information and shooting down the most pervasive online hoaxes to prevent their spread. As of Thursday, the collaboration has fact-checked 575 claims.
Souzanchi said he has relied on the network to help debunk online misinformation, adding that the lack of trusted government data has forced him to focus on debunking bogus cures.
“What we can do is provide our readers with facts about how they can stay safe … and we’re kind of relying on international data like WHO for reliable sources,” Souzanchi said.
More recently, the Iranian government has stepped up its effort to fight the virus both on and offline. Two people were arrested in Iran Thursday for spreading fake news about COVID-19, and the health ministry announced it was canceling Friday prayers to prevent transmission of the virus.
The Fatima Masumeh Shrine in Qom is still open, but was disinfected earlier in the week. Despite government warnings about avoiding large gatherings, Mohammad Saeedi, the cleric who oversees Fatima Masumeh, appeared in a video Wednesday encouraging pilgrims to visit. Speaking to a group of men, the cleric called the shrine a “place of healing.”
The WHO does advise members of the public to keep one to three meters away from people who are coughing or sneezing.
* Harrison Mantas is a reporter of the International Fact-Checking Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.