Fighting fake news and disinformation
Due to security concerns, the interviewee preferred to remain anonymous.
What prompted you and your team to establish the Sidq Yemen platform?
In August 2019, when we founded Sidq Yemen, my Yemeni friends and I noticed that fake news was being widely circulated and there were no platforms to counter or expose it. Some of these fake news stories were harmful and seen to threaten societal peace. For example, when we launched the platform, there was a fake story circulating about southern citizens attacking people in Sana’a that went viral. People began talking negatively about southern Yemenis. We checked the news and found that it was false. The video that was published to support the claim was also false. When we discovered that it had gone and no one was doing anything to stop it, we decided to set up Sidq Yemen. We were inspired by other fact-checking platforms, such as the Jordanian Fatabyyano and the Iraqi platform Tech 4 Peace. We became the only Yemeni platform countering disinformation.
What are the biggest challenges your team has faced since establishing this platform?
The biggest challenge is the security risk for journalists in general – and for investigative journalists or fact-checkers in particular – after all, no party in Yemen likes those who expose their lies. In terms of investigations, one of the main challenges we face is that we don’t have enough access to high quality sources. There is more than one government in Yemen, so now we are dealing with the Houthi-controlled SABA News Agency and President Hadi's government news agency, SABA. That makes things even more complicated, not to mention challenging.
False: A photo of the #Belhaf LNG production facility that has been recommissioned.
Truth: The picture is old from 2011 and the recommissioning was not announced by the Yemeni or the French government, who were accused of taking gas from #Yemen to replace Russian gas.#SidqYemen pic.twitter.com/jr8colsaBj
— Sidq Yemen (@SidqYemEn) March 17, 2022
Trust in the truth
What about your greatest achievements to date? What are you and your team most proud of?
We are proud of the huge trust our supporters have placed in us. We receive dozens of messages from people requesting clarification or wanting to talk about a disinformation topic, simply because they trust us and they want us to post something about it. In one instance, there was a fraud network – Qasr al-Sultanah – in Yemen that collected millions of dollars using pyramid marketing. Sidq was able to expose the network and we were instrumental in dismantling it. Ultimately, the people behind the operation were arrested. It was a huge success. The fake company was run by a woman named Belqees al-Haddad. Needless to say, she is now in prison. There was also a man who collected money from people while claiming to have businesses in the United Arab Emirates, so we broke that story and he was arrested.
Have there been any threats against you or your team during the investigation of such cases?
We have received messages saying things like, "The men of Allah will come for you and take our revenge". People sent WhatsApp messages saying Sidq Yemen was the reason they lost their investment. But people lost their money because they trusted such schemes! That is the main reason we prefer to remain anonymous. We're also proud of having exposed a number of journalists. When we expose a piece of news, we include the names of the publishers. These days, journalists are being more careful when they post news. They don't want their names to appear on Sidq Yemen as publishers of fake news. There is also great interaction from officials, influencers and activists with Sidq Yemen products. It is great to see a popular journalist or minister or ambassador retweeting our content. It is the affirmation we need.
Opinions aren't news
There is so much disinformation circulating in Yemeni media. How does your team decide which topics to investigate?
We have a list of conditions that we follow. Firstly, the item should be circulating widely. We cannot expose fake news that has only been published by a few social media accounts, because we don't want to help amplify the story or boost the profile of those publishing disinformation. Secondly, the fake news should be harmful. Finally, it should be about Yemen – we are, after all, a Yemeni platform. We don’t fact-check opinions, since opinions aren’t news.
What are some of the tactics used to make a piece of fake news seem real?
Publishers push items that aim to persuade people to support or oppose certain individuals, groups or ideas. They publish disinformation to produce emotional reactions like fear, anger, or joy. One example is when the Houthis published fake news claiming that IDP camps were harbouring terrorists, which prompted understandably angry reactions. Sometimes publishers of fake news exaggerate or belittle the seriousness of something that has been said or done.
They also sow confusion about past events – there is currently a lot of confusion surrounding documents from the days of Ali Abdullah Saleh circulating on social media. Fake news accounts publish the same topic repeatedly: when people see the same content over and over again, they eventually accept it. Pictures and videos are doctored, news is taken out of context and specific statements attributed to false sources.
Do different parties use different disinformation tactics? For example, is fake news published by the Houthis different from fake news published by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) or Hadi’s government?
According to our assessment, it is different. The Houthis are the most organised party when it comes to disinformation. When I see disinformation from the STC or Hadi's government, it's disorganised, random. Yet when I see or analyse the Houthis' disinformation, I sense that it is very organised and their publication is very calculated. Every Houthi who publishes fake news is very well prepared; you feel like they have an operation room and goals to achieve.
What role should companies like Facebook be playing when combatting disinformation?
Our meetings with Facebook have focused on getting them to intensify their cooperation with fact-checking platforms. They need to act on our reports more quickly. For example, we reported to Facebook that there is an account impersonating the governor of the Central Bank of Yemen. Facebook has yet to take action. Meanwhile that account is still publishing fake news and reaching thousands of people.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms should help fact-checking platforms reach more people. For example, if you interact with fake news about COVID-19 and Sidq Yemen exposes that fake news, Facebook should show the truth that we publish on your newsfeed. Occasionally our pages are also restricted or deleted because of banned keywords. Facebook and Twitter need to improve their fake-news detection technology. They should penalise people who post fake news. I don’t know why they don’t do more.
It’s because fake news gets more shares and likes, right? Fake news is more exciting than real news.
Precisely. They make more money off it – it basically keeps their platforms alive. Add to that the fact that in Yemen, especially, countering disinformation is not a top priority for governments, political parties or civil society. Indeed some of these actors are the ones publishing disinformation and misinformation. The Yemeni government – the legitimate Yemeni government – needs to help combat disinformation by supporting organisations like Sidq Yemen. Yemen’s Minister of Information thanked Sidq Yemen for its great work, but he didn't offer any support. Yet support doesn't always need to be financial. He could help us reach more people, or appear on TV or radio stations. The government is effectively doing nothing to combat disinformation.
The need to remain independent
But don’t you think there’s a risk that if you received support from Hadi’s government, it would make it difficult for you to counter disinformation coming from said government?
Admittedly, that would be a challenge. When a sponsor comes and offers us support, they ask us to ignore the disinformation that they or their supporters publish, which is something we would never do since our guiding principle is neutrality.
Do you think disinformation in Yemen will be as much of a problem in future as it is today?
I am optimistic about the future of Yemen's media and people's awareness because we are now seeing more fact-checking platforms appearing on social media. I've seen good journalists who have participated in training courses on how to recognise disinformation. These days a lot more people are aware of the danger of spreading disinformation. I do feel optimistic about the future – hopefully I will be proven right!
What advice would you give to an average Yemeni social media user who wants to make sure they don’t share fake news?
I would say, educate yourself. Stop and think before you share a piece of news. Ask yourself, why would I want to share this? Also ask yourself, what is the source of the news and why was it published? Wait and think for yourself before publishing anything on social media.
Do you have any articles or books – in Arabic or English – that you would recommend on this topic?
For people interested in this topic, I am currently reading a book called Disinformation, Misinformation, and Fake News in Social Media. I would also suggest reading a guide in Arabic on disinformation published by the Al Jazeera Institute and European Journalism Centre. Finally, a French book on rumours by Jean-Noel Kapferer that has been translated into English and Arabic.
Is there anything else you might like to add? Maybe some thoughts about disinformation relating to Ukraine that we might see on social media?
Because Sidq Yemen's audience are Yemenis, I would like to advise Yemeni people to stop and think before sharing anything about Ukraine and Russia. It’s easy to just hit "share", or to post any piece of disinformation, but we could be harming people. People may be at risk because of a post on social media. I know everyone is interested in the war between Russia and Ukraine, but there is enough going on in Yemen – and we don’t need more disinformation spreading on social media. So just stick to the Yemeni situation for now. Try to be as truthful as you can – don’t publish just anything.
Interview conducted by Hannah Porter
This article was originally published by the Yemen Policy Center, which is funded by the German Foreign Office.
Hannah Porter is an analyst with the international development firm DT Global where she researches Yemen’s media environment and contributes to projects supporting independent Yemeni journalists. She holds a master's degree from the University of Chicago and wrote her thesis on Houthi rhetoric and propaganda.