The UN’s envoy to Iraq on Wednesday said that a wave of fake news and misinformation was stoking sectarian tension as well as sapping public confidence six weeks before critical national elections.
UN envoy Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said media outlets and social networks in Iraq were spreading “misinformation and even conspiracy theories” that create “false but accepted perceptions” about the October 10 parliamentary vote.
Early elections were a key demand during the mass protests that rocked the country from 2019-2020. Still, campaigning has been marred by political assassinations, sectarian tension, Covid-19 and a boycott by some politicians.
“Misinformation is abundant and wide-ranging about [the Independent High Electoral Commission], about protests, about government officials, about political rivals and also about the United Nations,” said Ms Hennis-Plasschaert.
“If misinformation overtakes reality, it is not only an enormous energy drain for those working hard for the greater good of Iraq — it is also risky business.”
She highlighted a fast-spreading rumour that her Iraq-based UN team was pushing for a postponement of elections rather than helping Iraqi election officials with their planning — a claim she said was “frankly absurd”.
An Iraqi organisation called Tech 4 Peace has tracked hundreds of pages of conspiracy theories and false reports about the elections that have been circulating on Facebook and Twitter in recent months.
They often play up the sectarian tension that already exists between the country's Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as well as between supporters of regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are both vying for influence in Baghdad.
This year, radical pro-Iranian groups launched a widely shared Twitter and Facebook campaign accusing a Saudi man of carrying out a double suicide attack in Baghdad that killed 32 people. ISIS eventually claimed responsibility for the bombing.
An estimated 25 million Iraqis use social media, DataReportal figures show, but only a small proportion of users follow Facebook's surveillance service page, where debunked false news is posted.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry monitors streams of news and television online, flagging and debunking bogus reports.
Facebook this month launched a system in Iraq to vet anyone running political advertisements on the site or on Instagram in an effort to cut down on fake news before the elections.
For Ms Hennis-Plasschaert, the responsibility lies with Iraqi politicians who can “make or break” the vote. The “clock is ticking” down to “E-day” she added, urging candidates to play fair.
“No matter how many technical measures are put in place, it is up to them collectively to refrain from any attempt to force or distort election results,” the Dutch politician told the UN Security Council.
“You only need one bad actor to ruin it for everyone else.”
Iraq’s elections were brought forward in response to a nationwide protest movement that lasted from October 2019 to June 2020, during which demonstrators also rallied against foreign meddling, corruption and cronyism.
The UN Security Council in May answered a request from Iraqi politicians to expand the UN’s mission to Iraq, known as Unami. The team is five times larger than it was during Iraq’s 2018 election, with a boosted number of election monitors.
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for “free and fair elections” and said US donations of some $15 million towards election monitoring would pave the way for a “better future for Iraqis” as US combat forces exit the country this year.