In the age of information overload, conspiracy theories have become a strategic tool used by extremist actors to instrumentalize the public for their own purposes. They use a PR industry tactic that has been practiced for decades in a perfidious way: the so-called “grassroot campaigning”.
Both right-wing, left-wing radicals and conspiracy theorists use the platforms on social media channels to manipulate their readers and audiences, to feed them fairy tales that they sell as facts in order to better achieve their goals.
Are Arab communities more prone to conspiracy theories?
But fake news are also used to target certain sections of the public. For some time now, communication scientists have also argued that Arabic-speaking people are particularly susceptible to such fake news. Valid statistical data has not yet been published in abundance, but even Muslims themselves often make fun of how easily fake news find its way into serious Arabic online media, which is then reposted thousands of times on social media as “the truth”.
Faisal Al-Mutar, an Iraqi expert on the topic, says belief in conspiracy theories is not, of course, a specifically Middle Eastern phenomenon. But “we have here misinformation on steroids”. One reason for this is that there is very little serious content in Arabic on the Internet – scientific websites in particular are few and far between. That is why there is a lack of factual online content in Arabic. A common joke is that the Arabic-language Internet can be boiled down to just two pieces of content: cooking and extremism. The lack of factual content and above all media competence is the big problem. The spread of misinformation is just a symptom.
Sweden as a target of Islamist propaganda
Earlier this year, a video from Sweden made headlines around the world: it showed a Syrian whose children were allegedly taken away by Swedish authorities. First, the man stands mourning in front of the door of the social security authority and says that this is exactly where his children were “kidnapped” in 2018. Then you see him at a playground, which he often visited with his children. His wife falls to her knees next to the slide and begs for Sweden to finally give him his children back.
The original video was clicked 2.3 million times on YouTube alone, Arabic online media and websites distributed the content thousands of times, wanted to prove with further videos and articles that the Swedish state was taking children away from Muslim parents on a grand scale. The basic tenor of this reporting for the Arabic-speaking reader: children are given up for adoption because the Swedes hardly give birth to children themselves, children are placed in homes and are being baptized and sexually abused. The Turkish state television TRT, controlled by Erdogan, broadcast the video on its English-language YouTube channel with over 112,000 clicks to date.
The case of a woman in Sweden who took her own life after Swedish authorities took her child away also became known. As in many conspiracy myths and fake narratives, there is a kernel of truth: European states put the well-being of the child first. As a final step, if there is reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused or neglected in the family, the authorities may take the child away from the family for temporary or permanent foster care.
However, it is now being rumored online that Sweden and other European countries are kidnapping children in large numbers in order to baptize them. This is ironic given that a country like Sweden is, according to research, the most secular country in the world. The government established the “Myndigheten för psykologiskt försvar” (Agency for Psychological Defence) in 2021 to refute such cases of fake news, which can lastingly shake up coexistence in a multi-ethnic country like Sweden. The term psykologiska försvar comes from the early years of the Second World War, “when Sweden was sandwiched between the Nazis and the Soviets and the aim was to strengthen the population’s resilience”. There was then an agency of the same name against Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, which was disbanded in 2008. From 2015, the Swedish government first noticed troll campaigns from Russia portraying Sweden as a hotbed of crime, a country mired in chaos of disorderly migration and sexual perversion.
The agency now has 54 employees, a colorful mix of linguists, historians, anthropologists and political scientists. Their mission, according to the director: “We try to take action against malicious disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad that tries to change our view of reality, our voting behavior, our everyday decisions.”
At the beginning, none of the employees had any idea “how massively Islamist fundamentalists would attack Sweden shortly afterwards. And precisely these attacks have dangerously intensified since Paludan’s action.” When the Swedish-Danish right-wing extremist Rasmus Paludan burned a Quran in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm in January of this year, the footage of his aggressive provocation on the Internet was often linked to the kidnapping rumors: They are kidnapping our children and burning our books! Islamist networks, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Turkish Islamic associations and Islamist terrorist cells, portrayed Sweden as an anti-Muslim stronghold.
There were demonstrations against Sweden throughout the Arab world, and the Turkish president even used Paludan’s action to veto the Scandinavian country’s NATO accession. The Swedish state security warned in early February that the risk of terrorist attacks had increased sharply. The government was forced to hold a press conference at which Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, along with his Minister for Social Affairs and the Minister for Justice, denied that the state had ever kidnapped any Muslim children. They presented a catalog of measures to counteract this propaganda.
For the Swedish agency, fighting such propaganda is not about restricting freedom of expression. It is not its task to give instructions or to issue bans. Rather, it sees itself as a kind of adult education center for critically dealing with facts and fake news. “Nothing and nobody prevents people from telling lies. But we will do everything we can to expose these lies as lies,” said the director.
They analyze who is distributing the videos from abroad, explain to the media the enormous impact of digital narratives, and support the health and social welfare authorities in their information campaigns. There are self-produced videos in which two young men use magic tricks to show how easy it is to manipulate. It is questionable, however, whether it will help if woke, blonde Swedes in an open denim jacket, explain to astonished immigrant families how easily they can be ripped off and what they should look for in the future. But how do you reach those who are so suspicious that they believe such campaigns are lies in the first place? “In such cases it makes no sense if we are the sender. We can only support other offices with strategic communication. Or work with people who are credible in the respective community.”
Conspiracy theories as a tool to divide a society
A particularly strong increase in fake news was observed at the time of the corona pandemic. Right-wing and left-wing opponents of vaccination were united in many European metropolises at protest rallies, they shared insane theses on their social media platforms.
But even regional actors from the Islamic world did not hesitate for a minute to politically exploit the corona pandemic. For example, Iran has repeatedly spread conspiracy theories: Tehran pursued a dual strategy, a digital and a physical one. For one thing, the government was spreading the word through numerous channels that the virus was created by the US and was part of the US war against the Muslim world. Then Iran staged itself as the savior in last-ditch need. This is then expressed in humanitarian support, such as the delivery of masks. The message is: Iran is the protector from US aggression.
Al-Mutar says that trust in fake news among Arabic-speaking population groups also has something to do with the origin of many Muslim migrants in Europe, who grew up in totalitarian autocracies: “Imagine you are a 50-year-old Iraqi: with 20 in Iran -Iraq war, at 30 the first civil war, then the sanctions and all further wars. The whole time you live under Saddam Hussein’s state propaganda in the media and schools. People are then not able to recognize propaganda – they grew up with it. That is a very fertile ground for false information. This actually applies to all people who grow up and live in a dictatorship.”
In the meantime, organizations in the Arab world that want to enlighten and use counter-campaigns to prove that fake news is “false” are becoming more important and louder. They’re constantly monitoring social media in the Middle East and what’s going viral. They then focus on that, but various conspiracy theories use a repetitive strategy. For example, a video was made about the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates created the coronavirus. A few weeks later, the creators came across the news that Jeff Bezos was the originator of the corona virus. This is exactly the same message and it would just be a waste of energy to dwell on it again.
False information and disinformation are a social problem, according to activist Al-Mutar. “We have to teach people media literacy and critical thinking. Our target group has to be the Arab youth. It doesn’t work to just tell people: ‘If you believe that, you’re an idiot'”. People need to be given the tools to spot fake news and disinformation campaigns for themselves – to think for themselves and tell fact from fiction. This is the best vaccine against fake news.
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