As the digital age continues to evolve, so does the spread of disinformation, particularly in regions like the Middle East, as it feeds significantly by political disorder. Since its establishment, the Arab Fact-Checkers Network (AFCN) from ARIJ, a grassroots network working towards fostering transparent and impartial fact-checking in the MENA region, has searched the reasons behind information disorder in the region.
AFCN is concerned with understanding and analyzing the reality of information disorder in the region as it helps in achieving its primary mission of empowering the Arab fact-checking community and creating a professional work environment that limits the spread of information disorder.
Therefore, AFCN took part in the Global South study, which was conducted in 2021, to bridge the gap of shining the light on the actors who stand up against information disorder in the MENA region, Asia, Latin America and Africa.
This year, AFCN has joined a new collaborative study led by Stellenbosch University on Information Disorder in the Global South to cover the MENA region: Drivers, Implications and Strategies. AFCN has formed a team of 10 researchers in ten Arab countries to identify the impact of information disorder on political, economic and social affairs. Conducting such research in the region presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
Challenges vs Opportunities
Disinformation can exacerbate existing tensions and contribute to the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East. For example, in 2017, several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt, severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed an embargo. During this crisis, disinformation campaigns were used by both sides to shape public opinion. False stories and fabricated quotes were circulated, creating a climate of confusion and mistrust among the people of the countries involved.
Studying the reasons behind disinformation in the region can provide insights into the underlying motivations and tactics used to influence public opinion. This understanding can inform efforts to counter false narratives, promote critical thinking, and foster media literacy among populations affected by disinformation.
On the other hand, the Middle East is not isolated from global trends and dynamics related to disinformation. False narratives originating in the region can have ripple effects beyond its borders, influencing international perceptions, policies, and actions. Understanding the reasons behind disinformation in the Middle East can contribute to a broader understanding of disinformation as a global phenomenon and inform global efforts to combat it.
By studying the reasons behind disinformation in the Middle East, journalists, fact-checkers, researchers, policymakers, and civil society organizations can gain insights into the specific challenges and dynamics at play in the region. This knowledge can support evidence-based approaches to counter disinformation, promote media literacy, protect human rights, and foster informed public discourse in the Middle East.
Despite this importance, numerous challenges remain. Firstly, the vastness and diversity of the region make it challenging to capture the full scope of disinformation campaigns. Each country has its own cultural, political, and social dynamics that influence the spread of fake news. Therefore, AFCN decided to cooperate with 10 local researchers from Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen to help in collecting needed data for the study and conducting interviews with key players in this field.
Still, The most pressing of these is the difficulty of data collection due to political instability and censorship in some parts of the region. Governments exert control over traditional media outlets, and social media platforms are subject to censorship and surveillance. This limited space for independent journalism and the suppression of alternative viewpoints hinder the collection and reporting of data on disinformation campaigns. Also, self-censorship is a major factor that affects data collection. Respondents are often unwilling to share their opinions openly due to fear of reprisal from authorities.
AFCN’s researchers have also reported that many independent resources were hesitant to come forward or share information openly and many have asked to be off record. Some even refused to record the interview or sign the informed consent. In Syria, even former officials refused to be interviewed. In Egypt, the researcher didn’t get lucky in conducting any interview with any public officials. There was no outright refusal, just no response for three months.
In addition, research on disinformation campaigns may involve risks for researchers. Two of our researchers shared concerns about interviewing public officials. In conflict countries, like Yemen, contacting governmental bodies means the impossibility of contacting the opposition, and vice versa.
Moreover, researchers face difficulty in assessing Impact and effectiveness of interventions. Evaluating the impact and effectiveness of interventions or countermeasures against disinformation requires robust data analysis. Without access to comprehensive data sets, researchers have struggled to assess the efficacy of strategies such as fact-checking initiatives, media literacy programs, or platform policies. Inadequate data hinder researchers’ ability to measure the effectiveness of interventions and provide evidence-based recommendations for combating disinformation effectively.
On other hand, comparative studies and benchmarking are valuable for understanding the regional variations, trends, and patterns of disinformation. However, the lack of comprehensive data sets makes it challenging to conduct comparative research across different countries in the Middle East. As a result identifying commonalities, differences, or emerging patterns in disinformation campaigns, can be considered a big challenge for AFCN’s researchers who strive to get meaningful conclusions and develop region-specific strategies.
In conclusion, conducting disinformation research in the Middle East is a challenging yet crucial endeavor as it offers insights into the unique challenges and dynamics of disinformation in the context of the region. By understanding and addressing these challenges, AFCN strives to introduce a realistic understanding of the reasons behind disinformation spread in the region and develop targeted strategies to counter disinformation, promote media literacy, safeguard democratic processes, and foster informed public discourse in the MENA region.