How a False Claim About Executions in Iran Spread Online

In recent days, social media posts providing alarming updates on protesters in Iran have been shared by tens of thousands of people online.

The posts, including senior officials and celebrities, falsely claimed that Iran’s parliament had voted to execute thousands of detained protesters.

A police motorcycle burns during a protest against the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic Republic’s ‘morality police’, in Tehran, Iran, September 19, 2022.

Wana News Agency via Reuters, FILE

The Iranian parliament does not pronounce sentences; it is a power that belongs to its judicial branch. So how did this inaccurate claim come about?

Protests in Iran have erupted following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died on September 16 after being taken into custody by “morals police” in Tehran for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

Nationwide protests in the weeks that followed were violently suppressed by the government, with Iranians demanding regime change. Internet blackouts and government crackdowns have made it difficult to circulate reliable information in Iran and abroad.

“We try to see everything with our own eyes because it’s the most real thing we can have access to,” one protester, who has not been identified to protect her safety, told ABC News from the week. ‘Iran. “The internet is so weak that we can’t access it easily.”

On November 6, 227 of Iran’s 290 members of parliament signed a letter urging the judiciary to impose tougher and faster sentences on protesters, as reported by the state-controlled IRNA news agency. Lawmakers have called for harsh punishment for those who incited the riots, calling them “mohareb” – which in Sharia means “enemy of God”. Some could face the death penalty if found guilty.

In the days following the statement, some media outlets incorrectly reported the developments, including Newsweek, which published an article on November 8 with the misleading headline: “Iran votes to execute protesters, says rebels need of a ‘hard lesson'”.

The article linked to a tweet from a Ukrainian news source that claimed Iran’s parliament had voted to execute protesters.

Newsweek eventually published a correction a week later, on November 15: “This article and headline have been updated to remove reference to Iran’s parliament voting for death sentences. A majority in parliament backed a ruling letter judiciary calling for tough penalties against protesters, which could include the death penalty.”

But by then, the article and other versions of the false claims had already been widely shared on social media, including by prominent accounts and celebrities who seem unaware of the inaccuracies. Among them were Viola Davis and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

PHOTO: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Twitter account has deleted a tweet regarding protesters in Iran.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Twitter account deleted a tweet regarding protesters in Iran.

ABC News Chart

“How this isn’t getting more coverage right now is beyond me, but that has to change now!” a since-deleted post on Davis’ Facebook account said.

“So the thing about misinformation – it’s not new, we’ve always had rumors and gossip. But we never had a mechanism that meant it could go around the world in a matter of seconds. seconds,” said Claire Wardle, a professor at Brown University who specializes in disinformation. expert, told ABC News. “And it happens even faster when you have celebrities and politicians with big followings who become those kind of superspreaders.”

The spread of false information by people who can be turned to for reliable information “has also complicated the situation”, she added.

A commonly shared infographic featured a close-up of a woman’s face drawn with red lines, apparently meant to look like tears of blood, alongside block text pointing out death sentence misinformation for thousands of protesters.

“It all plays into content that ticks all the boxes,” Wardle said.

Many posts were deleted, while those still online were eventually flagged as fake by Instagram and Facebook, limiting their spread. Twitter wasn’t so quick to call it fake, and overall ABC News calculated the lie had been shared more than 66,000 times on Twitter alone.

“All [this] sharing…didn’t help a really complex situation in Iran and it didn’t help Iranians,” Wardle said. “And so that’s what we have to recognize, the harm that this type of sharing causes.

Although reports of mass executions are not true, five people are currently facing the death penalty in cases related to the ongoing protests, according to the Iranian judiciary. At least nine other people have been charged with offenses carrying the potential death penalty.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have deployed violent tactics in an attempt to quell the protests. Civil society organizations monitoring the situation have reported to the UN Human Rights Office that at least 300 people have been killed by excessive use of force by security forces, including more than 40 children .

The number of protesters arrested and ultimately charged is unclear. One group, Human Rights Activists in Iran, estimates that more than 16,000 people have been detained since the protests began. The UN has determined that more than 2,400 people have been charged as of November 13, based on reports from state media and local officials.

For Wardle, it is important to recognize that those who inadvertently shared misinformation “wanted to do good” and raise awareness, as opposed to taking advantage of the situation or creating harm.

“But it reminds us that even when we want to do good, we have to stop and reflect because it has caused harm,” she said.

“We now live in a time where our attention span is so short that image and headline will do. And that’s why these kinds of issues are emerging,” she added.

ABC News’ Desiree Adib contributed to this report.

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