A false post on Iran’s protests went viral. Social media can’t get it wrong again – The Guardian

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The apps serve as a critical tool in a country where much of the press cannot be trusted
This weekend, a post revealing a terrible atrocity in Iran went viral on social media. “Iran sentences 15,000 protesters to death – as a ‘hard lesson’ for all rebels,” read the text on a now deleted infographic posted to Instagram on 12 November.
In just two days, the original post received over 315,000 likes and was reposted thousands of times through the Stories feature. Public figures including Justin Trudeau, Viola Davis, Elijah Wood, Sophie Turner and Peter Frampton reposted the message on Instagram and Twitter. The infographic continued to be shared and reshared in the days after it originally surfaced, viewed millions of times.
But its claim that 15,000 protesters were sentenced to death is not true. The original post has since been taken down, as well as most reposts.
At least five protesters have now been officially sentenced to death, according to the media centre for the judiciary, one for allegedly setting fire to a government building.
The viral posts cited a Newsweek article that itself is based on an article by Iran’s state-run media. The article says 227 of the 290 members of Iran’s parliament have signed a letter urging the judiciary to consider severe, unspecified punishments for protesters. The original headline made a bold claim – “Iran protesters refuse to back down as 15,000 face execution” – which was updated on 15 November.
The post that went viral contains an exaggeration of true elements. First, there have been terrible atrocities carried out against protesters in the past few months. The Norway-based Iran Human Rights group says at least 326 people, including 43 children and 25 women, have been killed by security forces in the two months since anti-government protests began. The 15,000 number may have come from a top United Nations official, as reported by CNN, who said that over 14,000 protesters had been arrested in Iran in the past two months. According to estimates from Hrana, more than 16,000 people are currently imprisoned because of protest activity.
Iran has a history of mass executions, most notably in 1988, when, according to Amnesty International, at least 5,000 political prisoners were killed.
Today, political prisoners are often beaten, threatened with rape by guards and tortured, and protesters are brutally treated and killed in the street by Iranian officials. On Tuesday, footage emerged of police opening fire at a Tehran metro station and beating women on a train. The reality doesn’t require sensationalization to be shocking.
This story is not the only piece of widely shared misinformation about political unrest in Iran. Other stories also cite reporting from Iranian state-controlled media, and some stories blatantly spread false narratives whose origin may be unclear.
Most foreign journalists have not been able to safely enter Iran to report on the protests, so western audiences and the diaspora abroad are reliant on unverified social media posts, first-hand accounts and Iranian media for information.
“Traditional media in Iran are heavily censored by the government – some are state run, and those that are not state-run are heavily censored,” said Shahin Milani, the executive director of the US-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
Joan Donovan, research director of the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and co-author of the 2022 book Meme Wars, said: “We get drawn into information that we think is being kept from us, and claims that involve numbers that are completely novel and outrageous do tend to travel very quickly on social media.”
She added: “People who are sharing this particular post about 15,000 people being sentenced to death are trying to do the right thing – are trying to stop political oppression from happening – but they may not realize that they’re being duped into spreading propaganda that doesn’t reflect the situation of protesters on the ground.”
Widespread protests in Iran began against Ali Khamenei’s regime following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September three days after she was detained by Iran’s religious morality police for allegedly not wearing proper hijab. Shortly after, TikTok videos of young women without hijabs speaking about life in Iran received millions of views. Videos of women without the mandatory hijab walking and marching through the streets of Iranian cities, despite the risk of arrest, receive tens of thousands of likes on Twitter. Montage videos set to traditional Persian music poking fun at government officials and religious leaders flood WhatsApp channels. Clips of a trend wherein often young anti-government Iranians knock the turbans off Muslim clerics in Iran reach far throughout the diaspora on social media.
For Iranians, social media is not only a window into the world beyond the Islamic Republic’s state-controlled media, but a powerful tool for reaching fellow citizens in a country where landlines are tapped, mobile data is severely restricted and all media are routinely monitored by a government unsympathetic to political dissidents.
More than 60 journalists have been arrested in Iran since the beginning of the protests, according to Amnesty International. Media control has been central to maintaining power for the Islamic Republic, and reporting that paints the regime in an unfavorable light is met with swift retaliation.
“This is where social media becomes a paradox. The same places that people would look for information about the protests are also going to be places where they’re going to find misinformation,” says Donovan. “It’s a free-for-all.”
Protests in Iran against the current regime are not a new phenomenon, and neither is the brutal treatment of protesters and political dissidents.
But the difference this time is the reception by the international community and diaspora, with social media being critical to generating such support and solidarity. Digital natives are driving the movement and this wave of protests.
On Wednesday, a new viral post was shared, arguing that factchecking the claims about who is sentenced to death is “just semantics” and including a slide saying “let’s not get hung up on technicalities”. But social media is imperative to sharing resources as well as accurate information. When state-controlled media can’t be trusted to report the truth, social media users must factcheck even well-meaning posters.
Taraneh Azar is an Iranian American freelance internet reporter with an emphasis on online communities and viral content. Azar has previously reported for USA Today Investigations and NBC News Investigations. Azar is currently based in New York


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