Tweets, lies and videotape
Mehdi Akhavan-Sales asked in his century-defining poem Qasedak (banned under both the Shah and Khomeini, and sung soaringly and clandestinely by Shajarian in this low-quality video): ‘What news have you brought me? Is there news still left somewhere?’
Below, a compilation of rumors and falsehoods—cross-checked as exhaustively as time and resources allowed—that expanded the cloud of disinformation during the post-election protests in Iran. You don’t just kill the truth when you report or forward unsubstantiated, unverified, unconfirmed and dangerously overblown rumors on a green-tinted avatar: you put protesters’ lives in danger and jeopardize their efforts.
1. ‘Mousavi is under house arrest,’ as seen on CNN, Haaretz, and Brazil’s O Globo. FACT: Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi’s wife, denied that he had been detained or put under house arrest.
2. Unconfirmed reports say ‘as many as 150 dead,’ as seen on Facebook. CNN International repeated this verbatim from Facebook in its coverage. FACT: The number of dead is still unconfirmed. Some have counted between 15-20, others 20-50. Amnesty International said it was ‘perilously hard’ to verify the casualty tolls. Amnesty’s Iran researcher Drewery Dyke: ‘The climate of fear has cast a shadow over the whole situation. In the 10 years I’ve been following this country, I’ve never felt more at sea than I do now. It’s just cut off.’ Note: In addition to its obscurantist strategy about assassinating protesters the Iranian government was quick to blame the deaths on protesters themselves.
3. ‘3 million marched in Tehran the day after election.’ What started the rumor (circulated widely) was a claim that the Tehran municipality, run by conservative mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, estimated the number of protesters at this number. However, speaking to Fardanews, Qalibaf denied having made such an estimation. FACT: Even if you factor in the tens of thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters on the streets that Saturday, this number was never even close to being reached.
4. ‘Army has deployed and moved in against protesters,’ as reported on Twitter. FACT: The army was never deployed.
5. ‘Basiji is trying to recruit door to door,’ as reported on Twitter (‘in south of #Tehran !!! – means they are weak! ???’). FACT: Unfortunately this was untrue; their own strength in numbers could be depended on.
6. Deaths in front of embassies, ‘people r dying,’ as reported on Twitter. FACT: Totally unsubstantiated hearsay.
7. ‘Helicopters releasing some kind of chemical on protestors’ in Tehran on June 20, 2009, as reported on Twitter by user @iranriggedelect. Picture here. The photo was actually a Czech roundel helicopter. ‘Way to be bad,’ replied another Tweeter.
8. ‘Terrorists among protesters,‘ as reported by Iranian television including Press TV. The photo seen here was used to suggest that protesters were carrying guns. In fact, Getty Images’ image shows an ardently foolish, harmful, if not completely crazy, man holding a toy gun. (It is worth noting that the Pentagon’s stance toward protests—that they are a ‘low-level’ form of terrorism—is very close to the Iranian government’s position.
9. Showing video footage of previous day’s (or days’) protests in same-day broadcast. CNN International could have its own falsification page in this category: it showed video footage from other days purporting to be on same day (when protest activity was low, for example), as I documented here. On CNN and Facebook, unverified Youtube videos were distributed as ‘major protests’ from days when such protests were never even announced.
10. Again, CNN truly deserves its own category. Its broken Twitter links lead to nowhere, as in Techcrunch’s ‘CNN Loves Twitter, But Doesn’t Seem To Always Know How To Use It‘ and some Twitter users’ creation of a #cnnfail hashtag.
11. My personal favorites—and by favorites I mean making me wish out loud for a vomit icon on Twitter—were the total lies about foreign fighters (i.e. dark, Arab) recruited to battle Iranian protesters. ‘Hamas is crushing dissent in Iran’ as reported by two protesters to the Jerusalem Post. ‘Ask anyone, they will tell you the same thing. They [Palestinian extremists] are out beating Iranians in the streets… The more we gave this arrogant race, the more they want… [But] we will not let them push us around in our own country.’ The ‘Arabs hurting Iranian protesters‘ line was repeated:
12. ‘The rumor about Hezbolah & Hamas helping Basij, until today I never believed it but I saw them today with my own eyes / they wear black riot police outfit, brown skin and shouting to people in Arabic & hit everybody they see / State Police Force comfirms the plain-clothes and black-masked militia are from Palestine and Lebanon and have diff. orders,’ as reported in the Tweets of Andrew Sullivan. (He forgot to mention that Mousavi had a hand in creating Hezbollah during its most polemic phase.)
Here’s CNN’s version: ‘Iran’s volunteer paramilitary forces known as ’Basij’ have added some Arabic-speaking members suspected of being Hezbollah fighters‘ (see Algarabia’s documentation, in Spanish)
Robert Fisk says he was awakened in bed by reporters asking about Arab foreign fighters causing destruction in Tehran. He vehemently denied it.
FACT: One of the best short histories and responses to this outlandish (and cheerfully racist) line comes from Open Anthropology’s Max Forte in ‘U.S. Democracy Promotion in Iran‘ who I will quote at length: ‘The [Foundation for Democracy in Iran] is one of the first, if not the first, source of the allegations that Hezbollah fighters have been imported by Iran to beat protesters — as “proof” it provides two photos under the 18 June 2009 entry on its site, showing a few unremarkable fellows standing in front of the camera, some against a backdrop consisting of a sign written in Farsi. That’s it. We do not know who they are, where they came from, whether or not they are actually Lebanese or even anywhere in the Middle East, the date of the photos, their location and, most importantly, we do not see them anywhere near any protesters. This has not stopped people from seeding Twitter in an attempt to misinform and alarm, presumably with a hope of generating a rift between Iranians and their nation’s allies, while furthering the cause of both Israel and the U.S. (this tweet takes us to this blog post, which uses the FDI photos and then adds allegations of Hamas involvement — courtesy of the Jerusalem Post of course — and from that blog we are taken to a presumably Iranian dissident blog that repeats the allegations. Note that while accompanied by visual materials, no photos of these mysterious Hezbollah and Hamas people engaged in anti-protest action are ever supplied, and corroborated).’
I outline just 12 widely circulated cases, but there were many, many more. I leave the conclusion open-ended. (But let it not go unsaid how invisible and ignored were the many thousands and millions of Hondurans, Uighurs, Palestinians and others in the meanwhile.)
(With thanks to 3arabawy, Alireza, and Algarabia0. Art by A1one.)