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Case Study 6.1: Tripped Up by Arabic Grammar

Tom Trewinnard is the research and communications manager at Meedan, a social technology nonprofit working on the Checkdesk project to develop collaborative verification tools online. He tweets at @Tom_El_Rumi.


M.SH. is a cofounder of the Shabab Souria (Syria Youth) News group, which he founded with friends after analyzing the dynamic between citizen media and mainstream reporting during the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in early 2011.


Shabab Souria (Syria Youth) is a network of Syrians inside and outside Syria who collaborate using online tools to verify and publish on-the-ground updates from across Syria. Working as a closely administered open Facebook group, members crowdsource verification of the hundreds of reports that emerge daily from official media and social networks. They then publish the verified content in Arabic and English using Checkdesk.

Checkdesk is an open source platform for newsrooms and media collectives to verify and publish digital media reports on breaking news events. Checkdesk was launched by Meedan in July 2013 with six leading Middle East media partners, all of whom have conducted a series of workshops within their communities to train citizens in media literacy, source awareness and digital verification techniques.

A good example of how Shabab Souria works to debunk and verify reports occurred on December 5, 2013. A person going by the name Sham al-Orouba posted a YouTube video to the Shabab Souria Facebook group. In the video, a bearded man was identified as a member of the Seyoof al Islam Jihadist group claimed the group had carried out attacks against the Christian community of Saydna and the Deir Cherubim monastery.

His narrative of the alleged attacks was interspersed with unclear clips apparently showing damage to a hilltop building and a statue of Jesus Christ. In submitting the video to the Shabab Souria network, Al-Orouba asked a simple question: “Confirmed or denied?”

Member Mohammad Fakhr Eddin (all members of the group use pseudonyms to protect themselves) responded quickly, noting that subtle grammatical inaccuracies in the presenter’s Arabic are atypical of a Jihadist. Based on their experience reviewing hundreds of videos and other content from Jihadists, the group often finds these people to be eloquent in their use of language.

Another user, Abu Nabil, agreed that the presenter’s weak Arabic betrayed him, signaling he is not who he says he is. Nabil added that Islam prohibits attacks on churches, and another user agreed that Jihadist groups generally don’t target churches in Syria unless there is a strong military reason to do so.

Shamya Sy and Mohammad Fakhr Eddin added another important piece of information about the source: they said the person who uploaded the video to YouTube — Nizar Nayouf — is notoriously unreliable. Their evidence was that Nayouf has in the past been responsible for pro-Assad regime propaganda aimed at defaming anti-Assad groups.

“This couldn’t be confirmed from any other sources,” wrote Abu Karam al-Faraty in a post to the group.

No one could locate other reports, images or footage of Seyoof al Islam, or other Jihadist groups, attacking Deir Cherubim or the Christian community in Saydna.

Over time, members of a group such as Shabab Souria develop their own areas of expertise, as well as a reputation for their work. Sy and al-Faraty are known sleuths: Through their record of diligently checking media, they have established themselves as credible experts on matters of verification. The fact that they were the ones to identify the source of the video as being unreliable added extra weight to the information.

In the end, it took less than three hours for the group to determine the video was fake. By bringing together the expertise of various group members, they were able to check to see if other, corroborating footage or reports existed; examine and question the credibility of the source; and analyze the content of the video and identify aspects that questioned its authenticity.

Seven different users collaborated to debunk the video. If taken at face value, the fake Jihadist report could have contributed to a continuing propaganda war that influences not only civilians inside Syria, but also policymakers abroad.

As one user in the thread wrote, “The problem is we know that this is false, but the Western media will pick this up as real.”

This all took place at a time when an international military intervention seemed a real possibility. It was therefore essential that the video be debunked — and also publicly noted as such via the social media that have become so crucial in the flow of information in the Syria conflict.



Published on: 28 January 2014
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