5 steps to spot fake news on Afghanistan

Days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the internet and social media were flooded with pictures and videos. Horrifying pictures and videos. Women in niqab were being auctioned off in public, news of the assassination of Qayum Rahimi, former governor of Logar, was shared by Lara Logan of Fox News, images of his lifeless body a shocking representation of false promises of amnesty.

However, there was a problem with those stories. They were complete and utter fabrications.

Those women being auctioned off in public? That was from a demonstration in London. Sure, the double-decker buses in the back should have given that away, but unfortunately we are in an age where logic gives way to emotion.

What about the assassination of Qayum Rahimi? Well, he is alive. Alternatively, he is a zombie. Mere hours after his alleged death, he was able to go on television and conduct interviews.

Needless to say, getting facts out of Afghanistan at the present time is a challenging task. There are state, private and corporate actors with competing interests in a country with limited infrastructure and access to the outside world; each seeks to add its own ‘spin’ on the events unfolding.

In other words, Afghanistan is a prime breeding ground for fake news.

Why shouldn’t it be? After all, publications are for-profit entities. More clicks equal more revenue. Who wants to read a boring line saying, “For the first time in years, Kabul has had electricity for a continuous 24 hours” when they can read something like “Armed men enter every house in Kabul, raping and killing everyone,”?

With this influx of fake news, those who wish to stay informed, and not inflamed, must take a few precautions when reading/watching news:

  1. Ask yourself who is writing the article, or who owns the publication. Does this person have any incentive to lie? Recently, a video surfaced in which an Afghan woman was crying on camera about threats to her family and how they would be killed. It was truly tragic and heart-wrenching. Ready for the plot twist?

The woman ended up being Mariam Solaimankhel, a relative of Ashraf Ghani. You know, that guy who used to be President of Afghanistan, and then fled with more than $50 million of Afghanistan’s money? Yes, there are those with safety concerns. Most of them are poor people who translated, and worked with NATO, for economic benefit. However, her family likely doesn’t have that concern. In fact, they should probably be more worried about the FBI coming after those stolen funds than the Taliban.

2. Analyse the information. Does it make sense? Admittedly, I have been watching the news coming out of Panjshir like a hawk for the past few days, because it will determine if our country will finally have peace -or be drowned in another decade of war. While checking updates on Twitter, many of them were coming from…India.

How is this logical? Well, it’s not. The situation in Panjshir has been a near communications blackout for days, with little information known to the public. The odds of an Indian publication having access to information before Afghans is highly unlikely. This comes back to “competing interest”. It’s well known that India was very fond of the previous regime. In less than a week’s time, they went from having a romantic partner in Ghani, to a militant leadership that opposes the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Indian media outlets, which are largely government propaganda networks, are incentivised to put pro-Indian, pro-Modi spins on every story.

  1. It’s all in the data. If you receive an image ask for the original file. Analyse the metadata. This may not always work, but in some cases the metadata can show you: where an image was taken, the date it was taken and even the location it was taken in! If an image is purported to be from Kabul this week, but the metadata shows it was taken in Yemen last year, chances are it’s misinformation. This is not a fool-proof method either. Someone with enough tech know-how can alter metadata. More often than not, those sharing fake news aren’t the brightest bulbs and can’t do this.

Also, check the data in the pictures. Recently, there was a popularised image of a woman in a burka sitting in an office, in front of a computer screen. The allegation was that the women was forced to wear that while working. A few problems existed with the picture -in addition to the fact that it was obviously photoshopped. For starters, none of the text or information in the video was readable. How convenient. Had it been visible, the information could have been verified by checking with additional sources on the ground.

Also, there was a man in the background. Isn’t segregation being implemented? The woman was allowed to work in the same office as men, but was forced to cover completely. Tip for Photoshoppers: crop the man out next time.

  1. Have a background of history, culture and context. Yes, this is the most challenging one, but this is not asking you to be an expert on Pashtunwali or Deobandi theology. There are some basic things you can look out for.

 For example: the images of the women being auctioned off, sure you may have missed the 30-foot-tall double-decker bus driving by in the background, but what about the ‘auctioneer’? Didn’t his Arab robe or headdress hint that this may not be Afghanistan? Or the fact that he wasn’t speaking Dari or Pashto?

Ok, maybe that one was too hard. Let’s get onto the next one: “ISIS is going to team-up with the Taliban and kill America!” I thought it was self-evident that people who want to kill each other don’t usually become best buddies overnight. This narrative has been shared by many lazy intelligence analysts and reporters alike.

A precursory internet search would tell you that ISIS adheres to an extreme(er) offshoot of Wahhabism. They consider the Taliban, and just about anyone who disagrees with them, to be apostates and hypocrites.

The success of these types of stories relies on the fact that the average American can’t distinguish between a Sikh and Muslim person, yet alone two different groups of Muslims.

Are there going to be security issues in a country that has no infrastructure and decades of war? Almost assuredly, but creating monsters that don’t exist certainly won’t address real-world problems.

  1. Ask for sources. I remember enrolling into j-school, having a glamourised image in my mind of being a top-level reporter with ‘sources’ who provided me with inside scoops. That was until my professors shot those dreams down. Long story short, I was told, “Having anonymous sources is stupid,”. Not that you shouldn’t be protecting people’s privacy while collecting information, but there is ALWAYS another way to tell the story. Use the source as background information and then fill in the gaps with people willing to go ON THE RECORD. For example, in the story about the woman who was forced to wear a burka while working in the office, the original poster declined to name the source due to fears over that person’s safety.

Even if that was true, the province could have been shared. There are millions of people living in the provinces. Had we known the name of the province where this occurred, we could have confirmed this with other people on the ground, without jeopardising the safety of the person who (allegedly) photographed it.

The only reason not to share information like this is if it was created in the province of Photoshop.

Why is all of this important?

There are some who will undoubtedly question the need to perform these steps when sharing information. Afterall, the situation in Afghanistan is dire and won’t sharing things to shock people just raise awareness?

This is a dangerous belief, and will hurt those who are actually suffering. Stories about people starving and facing famine which are actual threats risk getting drowned out by more sensationalist (and false) headlines. Awareness is raised, but not for the right causes. Stories about families dying due to lack of medical care, food and shelter will be buried under fabricated stories meant to generate revenue. In this critical phase of Afghanistan’s history it is important that we hold power to account with facts and information, using social media as a tool; not becoming tools ourselves.

Qadeer Popal is an Afghan American communications consultant. He has helped athletes, corporations and non-profit organizations develop their brands, images and marketing strategies.

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