Toward the end of his speech last week celebrating the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made a stark admission — he’d misled the public.
“It’s probably the first time in the past three decades that Ayatollah Khamenei admitted to a mistake and corrected himself,” said Farhad Souzanchi, editor at the Iranian fact-checking organization FactNameh. The admission came after two of the organization’s fact checks of claims made by both Khamenei and Iran’s state media went viral and spurred criticism of the government in the broader Persian diaspora.
The initial fact check was prompted by a claim Khamenei made during his March 20 Nowruz speech. Seeking to rebut claims about Iran’s struggling economy, the supreme leader cited statistics from the World Bank that he claimed ranked Iran’s economy 18th largest in the world.
“(The economy) is probably the worst thing in Iran, and he’s saying ‘Oh, it’s actually good,” Souzanchi said. “For the leader to say this was very strange.”
FactNameh’s fact check tried to give Khamenei the benefit of the doubt — that he may have misspoken or may have been referring to a different set of statistics.
“We looked into the IMF (rankings) as well, and it wasn’t true. We looked at Iran’s GDP (purchasing power parity),” Souzanchi said. “In no scenario Iran was 18th.”
The fact check and other rebuttals of Khamenei’s claim went viral, prompting Iranian state media to find ways to back up the supreme leader’s claim. One article included a photoshopped infographic of the World Bank rankings to give the appearance Iran’s economy was ranked higher.
“They took two countries out of it, so that if you counted Iran would be higher up,” Souzanchi said. FactNameh pointed this out on Twitter, which Souzanchi said went more viral than their initial fact check. Finally, in his Ramadan speech, Khamenei addressed the dispute over his claim.
“(He said) some people came to us and said this is incorrect … and I thank the people who pointed this out,” Souzanchi said. Khamenei didn’t mention FactNameh, but Souzanchi said Iranian Twitter users began tagging his organization immediately after the supreme leader’s speech.
“‘Oh look it’s your impact,’ or ‘I thought of you guys when I heard this,’” Souzanchi said referencing the tweet mentions and direct messages FactNameh received after the announcement. “In the eyes of our users or people who know our work, they recognize that this started with our website.”
Souzanchi said Khamenei’s retraction is one of the most important moments in FactNameh’s history. The site, which is based in Canada, has been blocked by Iranian internet service providers since August 2018, months after its first fact check of Khamenei in March of that year.
“It was very heartwarming for us because at least we could see real impact,” Souzanchi said. “It shows that our work can reach the highest ranks in Iran, and I think that’s because of the support of our audience.” Souzanchi cited the doubling of FactNameh’s Twitter following since January 2019 as evidence of its growing support.
Despite the increased adulation in the wake of Khamenei’s retraction, Souzanchi stressed the importance of FactNameh demonstrating its nonpartiality to its audience. A few days after fact-checking the Ayatolla, FactNameh debunked a claim by an expat opposition figure. She had claimed falsely that China was dumping nuclear waste in Iran.
“The majority of people who are following our work, they can see we’re being fair to everyone no matter where they come from, and I think that builds trust,” Souzachi said.
FactNameh is hoping to build on that trust going into national elections this June. Souzachi said his organization has built up a database of fact checks in order to improve response times to claims, and plans to do live fact-checking of candidate debates during the campaign season.