Hannah Porter

A Conversation on Fighting Disinformation in Yemen


March 2022

Misinformation and disinformation are powerful tools used during conflict, muddying the waters and obscuring the distinction between truth and lies. Sidq Yemen is an independent online platform established in 2019 that specializes in fact checking viral Yemeni news stories and countering mis/disinformation. For the Yemen Policy Center, Hannah Porter (from DT Global) spoke with the head of communications at the Sidq Yemen team to discuss fake news in Yemen. Due to security concerns, the interviewee’s name is not included.

I want to start off by asking about the origins of Sidq Yemen. What were some of the experiences that led you and your team to establish this platform?

In August 2019, when we created Sidq Yemen, my Yemeni friends and I noticed that fake news was being widely circulated and there were no platforms to counter or expose it. Some of these fake news stories were harmful and seen to threaten societal peace. For example, when we launched the platform, there was a fake story about Southern citizens attacking people in Sana’a, and it went viral. People started talking negatively about Southern Yemenis. We checked the news and found that it was false and that the video that was published to support the claim was also false…When we found that it went viral and no one was there to stop it, we decided to start Sidq Yemen. Other fact checking platforms inspired us, like Fatabyyano, the Jordanian platform, and Tech 4 Peace, the Iraqi one. So, we decided to do it and we did it! And we were the only [Yemeni] platform to counter disinformation.

What have been the biggest challenges that your team has faced since establishing this platform?

I believe the biggest challenge is the security risk for journalists generally and for investigative journalists or fact checkers in particular, since no party in Yemen likes those who expose their lies. In terms of investigations, one of the main challenges we face is that we don’t have enough access to high quality sources. There is more than one government in Yemen, so now we are dealing with [the reality of] SABA News Agency which is under the control of the Houthis, and SABA under control of President Hadi’s government. So, it’s complicated and it’s really challenging.

What about your biggest accomplishments? What are you and your team most proud of? 

We are proud of the great confidence that our followers have given us…We’ve received dozens of messages from followers asking for clarifications or to talk about a [disinformation] topic because they trust us and they want us to post something about it. In one instance, there was a fraud network [Qasr al-Sultanah] in Yemen that collected millions of dollars using pyramid marketing. Sidq was able to expose that fraud network and we participated in dismantling it. Eventually, the people behind this network were arrested. It was a big success for us [and other platforms that contributed]… The fake company was run by a woman named Belqees al-Haddad and she is now in prison. There was also a man who collected money from people after claiming to have businesses in the United Arab Emirates, so we announced that and he was arrested.

It sounds risky, uncovering something like that. Were there any threats against you or your team when you were investigating these cases? 

Yes. We received messages saying things like, “The men of Allah will come for you and take our revenge”. People on WhatsApp sent messages saying that Sidq Yemen was the reason for them losing their money [in these schemes]. But people lost their money because they trusted such schemes! So, this why we keep our identities unrevealed. 

We’re also proud because we’ve exposed [fake news] journalists. When we expose a piece of news, we include the names of publishers. Now, journalists are more careful when they post news. They don’t want their names to appear on Sidq Yemen as publishers of fake news. There is also great interaction from officials, influencers, and activists with Sidq Yemen products. When I see a popular journalist or minister or ambassador retweeting our content, it’s a success and something that makes us proud. 

There is so much disinformation circulating in Yemeni media. How does your team decide which topics it’s going to investigate?

We have a list of conditions that we follow. First, the piece of news should be widely circulated. We cannot expose fake news that has only been published by a few accounts because we don’t want to participate in amplifying [the story] or helping disinformation publishers reach even more people. Second, the fake news should be harmful. Finally, it should talk about Yemen because we are a Yemeni platform. We also don’t factcheck opinions since opinions aren’t news.

What are some tactics that are used to make a piece of fake news seem real? 

We’ve learned that pages publishing fake news aim to persuade people to support, or oppose, certain individuals or groups or ideas. They also publish disinformation to produce emotional reactions like fear, anger, or joy. One example is when the Houthis published fake news claiming that IDP camps were harboring terrorists, which prompted reactions of anger…Sometimes [publishers of fake news] exaggerate or belittle the seriousness of something done or said. They also create confusion about past incidents. For example, we have seen documents from the days of Ali Abdullah Saleh circulating now on social media and a lot of confusion surrounds them. Another tactic is when fake news accounts repeatedly [publish] the same topic. This is very dangerous, because when people see the same content over and over again, they become familiar with it and will accept it. Fake news publishers also doctor pictures or videos, they take news out of its context, they attribute specific statements to false sources, etc.

Do different parties use different disinformation tactics? For example, is fake news published by the Houthis different from fake news published by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) or Hadi’s government?

Yes. According to our assessment, it is different. And if I can say who the most organized party is when it comes to disinformation: the Houthis are. Because when I see disinformation from the STC or Hadi’s government, I feel like it’s disorganized. It’s random. But when I see or analyze the Houthis’ disinformation, I feel like it’s very organized and they publish it in very studied ways. You notice that every Houthi who publishes fake news, they do it in a very well-prepared way, and you feel like they have an operation room and goals to achieve. 

What is the appropriate role that companies like Facebook should have in combatting disinformation? What about the role that governments should have?  

I have discussed this with Facebook in a couple of meetings and I ask them to strengthen their partnerships with fact checking platforms. They should act quicker with our reports. For example, I reported to Facebook that there is an account impersonating the governor of the Central Bank of Yemen. Facebook hasn’t taken action yet and that account is still publishing fake news and reaching thousands of people. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms should help fact checking platforms reach more people… For example, if you interact with fake news about COVID-19 and Sidq Yemen exposes that fake news, Facebook should show on your newsfeed the truth that we publish. Also, sometimes our pages get restricted or deleted because of banned keywords. Facebook and Twitter should improve their technology that detects fake news. They should make it more difficult for people who post fake news… I don’t know why they don’t do more.

It’s because fake news gets more shares and likes, right? Fake news is more exciting than real news. 

Yes, exactly. And they make more money off it. It keeps their platforms alive. When it comes to the government’s role, I believe that, especially in Yemen, countering disinformation is not the top priority for governments, political parties, or civil society. Actually, some of these actors are the ones publishing disinformation and misinformation. The Yemeni government—the legitimate Yemeni government—should help combat disinformation by supporting organizations like Sidq Yemen. Yemen’s Minister of Information thanked Sidq Yemen for its great work, but he didn’t offer any support. Support doesn’t always need to be financial. He could help us reach more people, or appear on TV or radio stations. I believe the government, especially in Yemen, is not doing enough, or is doing nothing, actually, to combat disinformation.

But don’t you think there’s a risk that if you received support from Hadi’s government, it would make it difficult for you to counter disinformation coming from this government? 

Yeah, this is another challenge. When a funder comes and wants to support us, they will ask us to ignore the disinformation that they or their supporters publish, and we will never do that since we operate with neutrality.

Do you think that disinformation in Yemen will be as big of a challenge in the future as it is today?

I’m optimistic about the future of Yemen’s media and people’s awareness because I am now seeing more fact checking platforms appearing on social media… I’ve seen good journalists who have participated in trainings on disinformation. A lot of people now are aware of the danger of spreading disinformation. So, yes, I feel optimistic about the future and hopefully I am right!

What advice would you give to an average Yemeni social media user who wants to make sure they don’t share fake news?

I say, educate yourself. Stop and think before you share any piece of news. Ask yourself, why would I want to share this? Also ask yourself, what is the source of the news and why was it published? Wait and think for yourself before you publish anything on social media.

Do you have any articles or books–in Arabic or English–that you would recommend on this topic? 

For people interested in this topic, I am currently reading a book called Disinformation, Misinformation, and Fake News in Social Media. It’s a nice book, but it’s not easy to understand. I would also suggest reading a guide in Arabic on disinformation published by the Al Jazeera Institute and European Journalism Centre. Finally, a French book on rumors by Jean-Noel Kapferer that is translated into English and Arabic.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Maybe some thoughts about disinformation related to Ukraine that we might see on social media? 

Because my audience are Yemenis, I would like to advise Yemeni people to stop and think before sharing anything about Ukraine and Russia. We think it’s easy to just hit “share” or to post any piece of disinformation, but we might be harming people. People might be at risk because of a post on social media. Also, I know it’s a war now between Russia and Ukraine and everyone is interested, but we have enough in Yemen, and we don’t need more disinformation to spread on social media. So just stick to the Yemeni situation for now. Try to be as truthful as you can, and then keep reading the news about Ukraine and Russia, and don’t publish just anything. 

Hannah Porter is an analyst with the international development firm DT Global where she researches Yemen’s media environment and contributes to projects supporting independent Yemeni journalists. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Chicago and wrote her thesis on Houthi rhetoric and propaganda.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.

Editors:
Jatinder Padda
Translators:
Hannah Porter (Arabic)
Image:
Ahmed al-Hagri
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