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15,000 Executions? On Misinformation and Unhelpful Reactions to It
Both the Instagram activist crowd and the tankie reaction are muddying the waters around real violence.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau warned on Twitter that Iran was going to execute 15,000 protesters, based on a viral news story. He then deleted the claim, because it was false. Several members of U.S. Congress had shared the same information.
The claim was a misreading of three real facts. First, Iranian authorities had arrested over 14,000 people in the recent uprising. (This number includes people who were caught and released.) Second, they had issued the first death sentence against a protester, for alleged arson. These are pretty ominous pieces of news by themselves.
Third, a letter from Iranian members of parliament reportedly called on authorities to treat “rioters” like terrorists and pursue capital punishment. Some news sources later cast doubt on the letter’s authenticity.
It is not really worth dwelling on the misinformation, because it was neither malicious nor detached from reality. The more modest claim that nearly 15,000 people are each at risk of execution — because the state could decide to make an example out of any of them — is true.
The Iranian courts have already handed down a few more draconian sentences, including the death penalty for blocking traffic. All of that is on top of the hundreds who have died in the streets from bullets and beatings.
However, the meta-debate around this misinformation is worth examining, because it reveals two worrying dynamics. On one hand, the anti-anti-atrocity crowd has started to crawl out of the woodwork, using the misinformation to cast doubt on the dangers Iranians are facing. On the other hand, some pro-opposition activists have reacted against the very idea of fact-checking atrocity claims.
Some forms of misinformation can be quite destructive. The conspiracy theory that Iranian agents have infiltrated America led activists to harass a children’s cancer charity. Furthermore, that paranoia has allowed hostile actors — possibly the Iranian intelligence services — to spread chaos in the Iranian diaspora through wiretapping and leaks.
Overstating the number of death sentences against protesters is a much more benign mistake. It probably does not change anyone’s course of action, or direct their attention away from the nature of the situation, but just adds some urgency to the issue.
Correcting the misinformation is still worth it, because journalists and public figures should strive to get the facts straight as a general principle. And too many exaggerations can lead to a “boy who cried wolf” phenomenon.
That has already started to happen, as skeptics portrayed the story about the 15,000 protesters as the beginning of a war propaganda campaign.
The Cradle, an alternative news outlet, used the story to paint Iranian human rights organizations as allies of “a CIA soft power front.”
A similar dynamic played out during the Syrian civil war. Much of the early English-language reporting on the crisis was oversimplified, glossing over the politically and morally complex realities of Syrian society. Journalists offered a simple David versus Goliath story, with U.S. military intervention as a straightforward solution.
A cottage industry of contrarian journalists emerged at outlets like the Grayzone, and charged in the exact opposite direction. (They’re sometimes called “tankies,” after an obscure Communist insult.) Gadflies pushed conspiracy theories to cover up the Syrian government’s war crimes, and mocked the victims in quite ugly ways.
Understandably, Iranian opposition activists are suspicious of anything that looks like nitpicking atrocity stories. However, the pushback to the pushback is quickly becoming hostility to any kind of thorough investigation.
Nazanin Nour, an actress who has become the voice of the Iranian opposition in Hollywood circles, lashed out at a Wall Street Journal reporter for reporting death sentences that were real while refusing to report death sentences that were not real.
A few social justice influencers have used the language of “lived experience” to argue that…well, it’s not clear exactly what the point is, but their commentary seems to suggest that outsiders should not push back on whatever rumors emerge from the fog of war, or else they’re being racist.
That attitude will muddy the waters when observers confront more complicated questions than whether the government is being repressive. There have already been a couple of shooting attacks in which Iranians disagree on the perpetrator.
If all it takes is a well-designed graphic posted by someone with an Iranian name, then Instagram celebrity guru culture will probably be used for actual pro-war propaganda, as well as manipulation by pro-government forces, who can themselves claim to be “Iranian voices.”
It is indeed hard for people in the thick of a crisis to carefully verify each piece of news. That is why journalists and human rights researchers on the outside are so valuable. They have the privilege to investigate claims thoroughly. Those who have a platform should amplify their findings.
On that note, here are some investigators doing solid work. IranWire is a high-quality outlet focused on Iran, while the BBC and the New York Times do thorough coverage of the country in general. And the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights covers Kurds specifically.
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