Activists debunk war-torn Syria’s fake news

BEIRUTLebanon (AFP) — Old images, fiction films and even video games have all been used to spread fake news stories in war-torn Syria — creating all the more work for a media collective debunking them.

Protests broke out against Syria’s regime in 2011 and then spun into violent conflict. All along, there has been a continuous stream of fabricated “news,” helped by the rapid-fire reach of social media.

To bring clarity and truth to an increasingly complex war, 32-year-old activist and journalist Ahmad Primo founded Verify-sy, an electronic platform that monitors and fact-checks stories about the conflict.

“What’s happening today will be written down as history, and we don’t want it to be fake history.”

Years ago, Primo took part in protests in the northern city of Aleppo and worked at a website that published news about the popular movement.

After being arrested three times by government forces, he moved to rebel-held territory in northern Syria before eventually leaving for Turkey.

“I was arrested for publishing the truth about what’s happening [in regime territory], and when I moved to opposition areas, I noticed they tamper with the truth, too,” says Primo.

“My reaction was that I can’t be quiet until we finish with these oppressors — and there are many oppressors now in Syria.”

In Syria, fake news is nothing new, says Primo.

Before President Bashar Assad, “we were raised on the idea that [his father, president] Hafez al-Assad was forever. But then he died. So what does ‘forever’ mean?”

On Twitter, it posts screenshots of misleading new stories stamped with a thick red “X” and placed alongside correct versions branded with a green check mark.

“We consider any picture or news story that gets widely published to be something we should monitor and verify,” says Primo.

For fellow fact-checker Dirar Khattab, fake news travels faster than the truth.

“Anybody who has a social media account with lots of followers turns into a news channel,” the 32-year-old says.

Among the news stories Verify-sy has debunked is a picture that went viral in May, allegedly showing Israeli air strikes on Damascus.

The photo, in fact, is from Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.

With every new military assault in Syria, the team sees its workload skyrocket — they fact-check at least four or five stories a day, says Primo.

In June, as government troops prepared an assault on Syria’s southern province of Daraa, opposition pages published footage of a voice blaring from a mosque minaret urging rebels to take up arms.

Verify-sy found it was shot in Yemen in 2015.

The platform has worked in English and Arabic for years, and recently opened a Turkish service when Ankara-backed rebels attacked a Kurdish region of northwest Syria.

“Once, there was a video clip going around on Turkish news pages showing fighters being monitored through night vision goggles,” recalls Primo.

“When we verified it, we found it was footage from a video game.”

Film footage

The White Helmets, rescuers who help victims of regime bombardment in rebel areas, have been at the center of fake reports.

In one viral video clip, men presented as White Helmets are seen acting out a scene on a film set, sparking accusations the group stages shots of its rescues.

But it was later discovered that the scene was, in fact, from a film by a pro-government director smearing the White Helmets.

Primo’s team relies on various tools to verify news. They use traditional methods, like checking with their reporters and sources on the ground.

But they also use Google’s reverse image search to determine whether a picture portrayed as capturing one event actually dates back to an entirely different event.

Sometimes, members of the team are able to spot old photographs and video footage straightaway.

Khattab remembers how, in December 2016, he watched Syria’s envoy to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, show the UN Security Council an image purportedly taken just before the regime retook Aleppo from rebels.

“I saw him hold up a picture of a soldier on all fours, with a woman stepping on his back to get off a truck,” he says.

“But I knew the photo was from Iraq.”

To help them in their work, the group has launched a Facebook page allowing users to post suspected phonies for them to check.

But with only six volunteers working on the project in their spare time, it’s a mammoth task.