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Bill Gates is dressed as the Joker. His hair is fluorescent green, his face painted white and his elongated smile is cut into his face. In his hand is a large needle, filled with bright green liquid. The Facebook post has been shared more than 700 times and viewed by thousands of people. Below it, a caption teases Gates’ “horror plan”. It’s a baseless conspiracy theory that has torn through Facebook throughout the pandemic. But this post is different. It’s in Arabic – and it’s just one example of a much larger problem.
Across dozens of Arabic pages and groups, dangerous conspiracy theories about the pandemic are racking up millions of views and likes. New research from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which has been shared with WIRED, shows vaccine falsehoods are rampantly spreading in Arabic on Facebook. Sophisticated disinformation operations have racked up millions of views on videos promoting vaccine disinformation and built up hundreds of thousands of followers. And while Facebook has repeatedly been criticised for failing to tackle this problem in English, little attention has been paid to the scale of the problem in Arabic, a language spoken by more than 400 million people.
Between January 1 and February 28, ISD researchers found 18 Facebook pages and ten groups sharing pandemic-related misinformation and conspiracy theories in Arabic. They had a combined following of more than 2.4 million people. “It was way too easy to find this content,” says Moustafa Ayad, ISD’s executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Facebook’s popularity in the Arab world has soared in recent years, with more than 164 million monthly active users being reported in 2019.
To get an idea of the scale of Facebook’s Arabic disinformation problem, Ayad and ISD analyst Ciaran O’Connor created a list of key pandemic-related words and searched for pages and groups that used them. Using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool, they then produced a snapshot of the most prominent communities, including groups with up to 100,000 members and pages with up to 650,000 followers.
Some of it is brazen: group names, when translated from Arabic, included phrases such as “Corona lie”, “Covid-19 conspiracy”, and “No vaccine Corona has not ended”. Posts on these pages contain false claims about vaccine ingredients, production and rollouts. They also spread baseless conspiracy theories claiming that the world is about to end and that the pandemic has been fabricated as a way to control people.
Amongst this sludge of lies and mistruths, Gates emerges as a common theme. The Microsoft founder is a central figure in Western conspiracy theories around the pandemic and these same lies have been translated into Arabic, with text or voice-overs added to videos and images. One page, which has more than 134,000 likes, has pushed a video about Gates’ “horror plan”, baselessly accusing him of wanting to depopulate the planet and make money from vaccines. (There is no evidence this is true).
Other conspiracy theories related to Gates that have gone viral in Arabic on Facebook include suggestions that people should “get ready for the Hunger Games”. Another video shows him with his lips sewn together. Many of the videos have been shared hundreds of times. “I’m talking about videos with millions of views about Bill Gates blocking the sun, or Bill Gates plans to put the mark of the beast in individuals through an injection,” Ayad says.
The videos are so absurd and blatantly false that it should be easy for Facebook to identify and remove them proactively, the ISD researchers say. Their report says Facebook’s moderation of Arabic misinformation isn’t as effective as it is in English. “You can’t just address it in one part of Facebook,” Ayad says. “You have to address the communities across the board.”
Since the pandemic began, Facebook has struggled to contain the spread of Covid-19 misinformation and disinformation on its platform. In February 2021 it said it would remove claims that say Covid-19 was man-made, that vaccines would not be effective, and that vaccines are toxic or it would be safer to get the disease. This is on top of other claims it will remove about the pandemic. It has also said it will ban all misinformation about any vaccines and clamp down on groups that break its rules.
A spokesperson for Facebook says it is taking “aggressive steps” against Covid-19 misinformation. “Since the pandemic began we’ve removed over 16 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram containing harmful Covid-19 misinformation and have taken down groups and pages for repeatedly sharing this material, including several groups and pages identified by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue,” the spokesperson says, adding it has added warning labels to more than 167 million pieces of content. It did not provide any information on the amount of Arabic language content it has removed.
The spokesperson adds that Facebook has three Arabic fact-checking partnerships – AFP, Fatabyyano and Reuters. The spokesperson also says Facebook is using AI to try and detect new content that may break its rules and to detect altered versions of existing content it has removed or labelled as inaccurate. While Facebook removed seven of the groups and pages uncovered by the ISD research, it did not provide any reason why they were taken down or explain why others remained active. As well as the pages, Facebook says it also removed some posts and videos.
The pages and groups the ISD found are just a snapshot of some of the most prominent Arabic conspiracy theories. The researchers say they would need more time and funding to properly understand the true scale of the misinformation and look at conspiracy theories on a more local level.
“Even in the English cases [Facebook has] been very slow and ineffective in being able to flag credibly dangerous conspiracy theories, and even making decisions about what content counts as political and what doesn’t,” says Eliza Campbell, associate impact director at the US-based research organisation Middle East Institute, who has been working on issues around Middle East content moderation on social media platforms. “The likelihood is that they just have not invested the human power, or made the investment in proper kind of subject matter experts when it comes to knowing how to design these policies,” she adds.
At the time of writing, for instance, one Facebook page with more than 288,000 likes and 450,000 followers is hosting at least two videos featuring interviews with conspiracy theorist David Icke. The videos are from interviews Icke did with London Real, which have been edited to add Arabic subtitles. One has been watched more than two million times. (In April 2020 Facebook and YouTube removed a London Real video featuring Icke that falsely linked Covid-19 and 5G; Icke’s own channels were removed from Facebook in May 2020).
The translated London Real videos featuring Icke are just a small part of the output of the Center for Reality and Historical Studies, which the ISD research describes as a “dubious online content hub” and a “conspiracy superspreader”. As well as its hugely popular Facebook page the Center has its own website and a string of other social media channels where it posts its own videos and translated videos.
The ISD research says the Center, which brands itself as a think tank, hosts videos on Facebook that include claims alleging that a Jewish cabal runs the world, conspiracies about Gates, 5G and conspiracies about the World Economic Forum. One of its Facebook video playlists, which contains 47, has been viewed more than ten million times. The Center did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
“It has all manner of videos saying that the vaccines are dangerous, they’re not safe, that Covid is a hoax, that it’s been orchestrated by a technocratic cult,” O’Connor says. The ISD also points to one 27-minute video hosted on the Facebook page that says the pandemic was “orchestrated to make you fearful to take the vaccine”. The video has been debunked numerous times but this Arabic version has not been labelled as misleading.
The ISD says videos posted by the Center between March 2020 and the end of February 2021 have been viewed more than 25 million times. During that time the number of likes on the page has increased by 65 per cent. “This is sophisticated,” O’Connor adds. “This is an operation [by] people who are trying to influence the debate.”
As well as its main Facebook page, the Center also has a backup page and has told its followers to like this in case it gets removed. It also points people towards its Telegram channel and presence on other social media platforms.
The Center has also been posting videos to YouTube. The Google-owned platform removed the Center’s main channel and backup channel following the ISD’s research. YouTube says the channels broke its terms of service, although did not specify which ones – the Center also previously had a page that was removed from YouTube. After YouTube removed the channels, the Center’s still-live Facebook page posted an image with a frowning face and links to its website, Twitch and Telegram channels.
“It’s not just a Facebook challenge,” Ayad says. “It just happens to be most of the content that we can track and monitor is on Facebook, and it’s connecting us to some of the other stuff.” Ayad argues that social media companies need to work more closely with civil society groups and employ local expertise to effectively fight conspiracy theories and misinformation online, regardless of where they are spreading. “You’re leaving the Arabic stuff up there to fester,” he says. “Ultimately, it causes this intellectual rot, where it becomes more and more in the mainstream.”
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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