Defend Truth


Social media – duping journalists since 2009


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

The roles of social media in general and Twitter specifically have been conflated in the hurly-burly of breathlessly competitive global journalism into a minefield of hoaxes, lies and propaganda. This is the very real danger of social media and makes unprecedented demands on journalists and news consumers.

For every person who still believes social media brought revolution to Egypt and Tunisia, there is an activist fed up of explaining the role social media played in the revolution to the gawking press. Social media did not bring revolution to Egypt and Tunisia, neither did it seed discontent in Morocco, Libya, Syria, Yemen or Bahrain. What social media did was assist activists to mobilise people without having to actually meet them, hold a rally that would inevitably be shut down by police, or accrue the cost of print pamphlets. Activists in Egypt, for example, used social media to drum up support for their cause, galvanising thousands of people to take to the streets on 25 January.

South African publications have in the past few months carried more and more Twitter content, not only reporting on the newest five-second fad on the social networking site, but also liberally quoting tweets as reactions to breaking news as well as first-hand reportage of unfolding stories. Social media has revolutionised the way in which journalists approach storytelling and nowhere is this more evident than in coverage of the Arab Spring.

Throughout the Arab awakening, or as it’s turned out, the unremitting slumber of Arab dictators, social media offered journalists an unprecedented opportunity to connect with people on the ground, gaining insights into events as they happened, tapping into local expertise and translating hashtags into more nuanced coverage. Broadcasters like Al Jazeera have been able to give their coverage an insider’s feel into breaking news without the fuss of a well-coiffed journalist traipsing through the chaos wielding a microphone. Social media has given great value to the currency of local experience.

Just this week, Syrians in the embattled town of Hama shared photos and videos of a massacre, opening the eyes of the world to the atrocities of the Assad regime when few foreign journalists had been allowed in the country. But how much can these social media activists and citizen journalists actually be trusted in backing up mainstream coverage of, for example, Syria? All broadcasters who ran the amateur video footage from Hama this week carried the disclaimer that the content of the videos was unverified.

It is, of course, difficult to verify the sort of content that has come out of Hama. Journalists with contacts on the ground have told stories of bodies decomposing on the streets as Syrian troops continued their brutal assault on the city. Even as electricity, water and phone lines were disconnected, a trickle of information still came through from Hama. Residents with satellite phones continued to paint a gruesome picture of what exactly was going on behind the heavy curtain Assad had draped over the city. It is clear that there are almost certainly atrocities being committed in Hama in the same way atrocities have been committed elsewhere in Syria with impunity since March this year. Assad, the cruel and cold-hearted dictator he has proven to be, certainly deserves no sympathy, but mainstream coverage of Syria is so severely skewed against Assad’s regime that citizen reporting through social media is escaping due scrutiny.

The world was appalled when the purportedly gay girl in Damascus, “Amina Arraf” turned out to be a straight man in Edinburgh. It was a rather elaborate hoax, an exercise in vanity taken too far. Yet a number of good journalists were swayed by “Arraf’s” account of the havoc the Syrian regime wreaked in the streets of Damascus. Tom McMasters, the man behind the Amina hoax, took advantage of the fervour that has been stirred around the Middle Eastern uprisings. He earned himself a cult following and “Amina” was taken as a credible source of information from the Syrian street.

Truth is, we’re hungry for information and McMasters fed us handsomely. Ultimately, it was the promotion of the “Gay Girl” blog by professional journalists in mainstream news bulletins that guaranteed its success. For weeks a man sitting at a computer screen on a university campus in Scotland was relied for as a first-hand perspective on what exactly was happening in Syria. We were so busy cheering on revolution in Syria that it was some months before the myth of Amina was unravelled and McMaster’s sorry excuse for honing his writing skills on  the blog exposed. Journalists were left red-faced. Somewhere in Syria, Assad and his cronies might have shared a chuckle at the gullibility of journalists who lapped up “Amina’s” every word. As the indignation against McMasters dies away in the unrelenting newscycle, the question remains: have we learned enough though to avoid another Amina?

Already, just two of months since the grand hoax, the Twittersphere is once more buzzing with an ad-hoc investigation into what seems increasingly like someone else trying their hand at being an Arab-American woman with expert opinion on events in the Middle East. Liliane Khalil is supposedly an Atlanta-based journalist of Palestinian and Armenian descent. There is almost nothing to back up her various stories of being a journalist with various news agencies, although she has been proven to have plagiarised Reuters content, or her claims of being chums with disgraced senator Anthony Weiner. When her original Twitter account with a sizeable following of more than 3,000 disappeared, many voiced concern for her safety.  Then, she reappeared with a new account, claiming her original account was hacked. By this time, Khalil’s story seemed to have enough holes in it to intrigue social media researcher Marc Owen-Jones to probe further.

Khalil shot to prominence with her involvement with a group of tweeters working from the besieged town of Zintan in Libya. The group, @operationlibyia (sic), gained many followers after Khalil wrote an emotive obituary for one of the group’s members who had been tragically killed. The story was quoted at length by the The Lede for The New York Times, appearing on blogs and also published by the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency. Following the obituary, the group began to ask people to contribute to relief efforts by putting money into their personal PayPal accounts. However, it wasn’t long before people began to question the authenticity of @operationlibyia and on cue, some days later, Liliane claimed she had been duped. Then, her  Twitter and Tumblr accounts were deleted. It seemed as though every trace of Khalil’s story was being swept off the internet. There is now enough evidence to suggest that Khalil may actually be a hand hired by the Bahraini royal family to infiltrate social media platforms with propaganda, besmirching opposition activists and playing online “praise poet”. If Khalil is indeed exposed as a Twitter mercenary it will certainly pose new challenges for news gatherers on social-media platforms, but what Khalil’s example proves is that we are so focused in our antipathy towards the likes of Gaddafi and Assad that journalistic integrity is suffering.

On Thursday, Britain’s The Independent was forced to apologise to Saudi minister of interior Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud after reporting that he had ordered his forces to show no mercy to unarmed protesters and use live rounds against them. In this case, it was no doe-eyed journalist lapping up Twitter accounts of people with questionable identities, this was veteran Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk. In an essay headlined: “The Arab awakening”, published in The Independent on 15 April, Fisk quoted from an order said to have been issued by the Saudi minister who is also second in line to the Saudi throne. Hot on the heels of the Johann Hari saga, The Independent has now issued a published apology to the Saudi minister: “Although the essay was published in good faith, we now accept that the ‘order’ in question is in fact a forgery, and that Prince Nayef did not issue any such order. We apologise sincerely to Prince Nayef for the damage and embarrassment which our reporting of it has caused him.”

Both The Independent and Fisk have accepted that there was no truth to the allegation. Errors of judgement do indeed happen, but even a journalist as accomplished as Robert Fisk in his hurry to have Nayef live up to his popular moniker of “Nayef the nasty” failed to scrutinise his sources adequately.

In the first of the so-called Twitter revolutions in 2009, Iranians rose up against their government in protest against a rigged election. Mainstream media sources were relying almost entirely on Twitter for sources. In solidarity with Iranian revolutionaries, Twitter users around the world changed their locations to Tehran and doused their profile pictures in a green gloss. It became increasingly difficult to decipher whether tweets were actually coming from within Iran or not. It was fertile ground for heavy duty propaganda machines.  In the words of free-speech activist Jillian C York: “It was not a Twitter revolution, but a Twitter clusterf&*%”.

Social media offers exciting new ways to tell stories, but also poses tremendous difficulty to journalists who need to be trained to sort through the information morass with a keener eye for bullshit. DM


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