False images and videos about Open Arms show that not even a ‘full humanitarian crisis’ in the Mediterranean can stop misinformation

August 21, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

For almost 20 days, a vessel with more than 100 migrants on board has been stranded off the coast of Italy, waiting for Vice Prime Minister’s Matteo Salvini’s authorization for it to dock in the country. The right-wing Italian government, however, keeps denying that authorization. Italian ports are closed.

Operated by a Spanish search-and-rescue team, Open Arms has become the stage for a “full humanitarian crisis.” El País reported Monday about its deteriorating conditions and on how often fights, panic attacks and even suicide attempts are becoming more and more common in the sea.

This situation hasn’t prevented Open Arms from also being the target of false information — and European fact-checkers have been working hard to catch them on social media.

On Monday, a photo went viral on Facebook showing a black, malnourished child on the left and another black child smiling with a mobile phone in his hand on the right. The caption said the smiling boy had been a member of the Open Arms ship. But the Italian fact-checking organization Pagella Politica debunked it, proving the black boy holding a mobile was actually a model who had never been a migrant in the Mediterranean.  

Pagella’s team has been receiving many images that are falsely connected to the vessel. In a Facebook post that was reported as misleading, a photo showed some black men with baby bottles in their mouths.

“The post says that they were the ‘alleged’ children landed from the Open Arms boat. But this is false,” said Giovanni Zagni, the editor in chief. “One of the men is the singer Tequila Taze.” 

Even the actor Richard Gere was involved in the misinformation crisis surrounding Open Arms. On Friday, the American actor delivered fruit to the ship to express solidarity. Hours later, Facebook was taken by a viral photo of him in a yacht, and Gere was accused of hypocrisy. The photo, fact-checkers showed, was old: from 2015.

“The main message funneled through this material is sometimes subtler than one of outright racism: the crisis is not real, those people are not actually in need, and the ones involved in rescuing immigrants are not in good faith,” said Zagni.

In Spain, misinformation is also flooding the Open Arms effort. A video recorded in 2016 for a documentary called “Salvados” was heavily shared on various social media platforms as if it was from this week. The Spanish fact-checking team from Newtral debunked it, proving the original source and explaining the Open Arms’ captain was not recorded talking to drug dealers. The boat on the recording is not even the same.

In 2017, Teyit’s editor-in-chief, Gülin Çavuş, spent some time with The France 24 Observers to study how misinformation around migration and refugee crisis spreads. Her conclusions were striking two years ago, and can easily be applied today.

“During my research, I had the chance to see how one single image or photograph ends up being shared in different contexts, according to the specific conditions in different countries,” said Çavuş. 

She said that disinformation campaigns are commonly organized against migrants who seek hope as refugees in different regions of the world. All the false information being shared now about Open Arms reflects what researchers see when they approach the center of the anti-refugee discourse in all parts of the world. 

“Basic allegations against refugees emphasize that those who try to flee from their countries are actually strong, healthy men and have no reason to escape,” Çavuş said. “With the rise of right-wing populism, these discourses find a lot of room and we should remind people they have to be careful with the content they see on social media about refugees.”

Cristina Tardáguila, the associate director of the IFCN, can be reached at cris@poynter.org.