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Is Progress Possible? Misinformation in the Middle East

By creating and promoting Arabic content that teaches media literacy and critical thinking, Ideas Beyond Borders is "teaching a man how to fish" in the Internet age.

How do we create a society that isn’t susceptible to misinformation? Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder of Ideas Beyond Borders (IBB), is attempting to do just that in one of the world’s most circumscribed information landscapes: the Middle East.

Though there are over 400 million Arabic speakers worldwide, less than 1% of the Internet’s content exists in Arabic. By translating Wikipedia articles and books and creating anti-conspiracy, anti-misinformation content about topics like the pandemic, media literacy, and critical thinking, IBB is an organization that “teaches a man how to fish” for the modern age.

In this interview, Faisal, a Progress Network member, speaks to Executive Director Emma Varvaloucas about what lessons the US can learn from the highly polarized societies of the Middle East, the apocalyptic ideology that leads to extremism and how to prevent it before it takes root, and Faisal’s personal story of teenage activism under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Watch the interview in full above or read an extract below:

How does this all work? We have our flagship program, which is called the House of Wisdom 2.0, named after the first House of Wisdom in Baghdad. That used to be a translation center in the Middle East. All of our translators are based there, except we mostly do the project management here [in the United States]. But all of the people who are translators live in the region. Eventually, the people in the region are the ones who are responsible for their own communities. So the goal is that if we empower them enough then they will be able to create change from there without outside help.

In terms of programs, it’s divided into articles and books—short-form content and long-form content. We have an advisory board, mainly made up of people in the region, who advise us on which content is lacking in the region. There’s very little about even the history of the Middle East that is available in Arabic. There is very little science—actually science is one of the main things that we have a significant focus on, because the Arab world is one of the lowest producers of scientific research around the world, which is very, very sad.

We also run a lot of informal surveys within our very significant subscriber base, which is about 4.5 million, asking them what type of content they want to see translated. What is something that they have been searching for but they haven’t been able to find?

What kinds of things do they ask for? It’s very diverse, but a lot of it is science. When the COVID thing happened, even the basic stuff—what measles and vaccines are and all of that stuff—many of them in Wikipedia Arabic only had a sentence or two. People want to be more informed about these subjects.

We have a team of about 120 people in the Middle East and North Africa. They have a pretty good system now called The Engine. An article gets picked up, then somebody translates it, edits it, proofreads it, and publishes it. With that same planning we’re able to do roughly somewhere between 500 to 700 articles a month. And we’ve done about 15 books.

Our Wikipedia content has gotten 45 million views, and the video content we create, which is related to the translated articles and books, has received 35 million. So the demand is definitely there for such content, and the main thing that is lacking is the supply.

Just the sheer amount of eyeballs is one form of feedback. Do you ever hear from readers personally? We run surveys at the end of the year asking for feedback about the website. How can we improve it? Is this important to you? Do you think it’s important to our society? And the answers are pretty much all positive.

We have gotten some pushback, mainly from governments within the regions, that they see most of our content as a threat. We have received feedback from people who try to access the website in Syria or Egypt but can’t. So there is definitely that kind of internet censorship. We have also been working on internet circumvention, trying to get VPNs for people to be able to access censored websites.

Given that there are at least a few governments that seem to be aware of IBB and what you’re doing, what about the people who are working on the translations themselves? Is there any risk in them being involved in these projects? Definitely. The culture of conspiracy theories and misinformation is a fertile ecosystem for that. Mainly what some of the regimes and extremists strive to do is utilize this anti-imperialism, anti-colonial narrative to shut down any form of information coming from the outside in order for them to control the sources of information themselves.

Sometimes all that it takes is an accusation—with zero evidence—that somebody works for the CIA or a foreign agency. It’s one of these accusations that is very common against activists, against anybody in civil society, to connect you with a foreign country and say, “this is part of the agenda of the US.” And I’m over here like, where is the money? I mean, I’m getting the accusations already—I wouldn’t say no to the money [laughs]. 

I wouldn’t say this is a specific thing to IBB’s translators. For example, Egypt has banned most foreign organizations, they have banned many of their people from receiving any kind of funding or training from foreign organizations, whether it has something to do with journalism and the media or an NGO. 

The solution for that, from our end, is to establish local branches within these countries, starting first in Iraq, where we have most of our operations, including on the ground operations. It’s not that it’s going to change anything as far as these accusations, which come up very easily, as I said, but the main question is how we can engrain these ideas in the society so that people will not think of them as foreign. Subjects like critical thinking and media literacy should not be seen as an American or Western thing. The goal for us is to localize that information, make it applicable to the day-to-day life of everyday citizens.

This idea of having people understand the content as “homemade” or “local”—it’s of their own soil—is one flavor you’re trying to aim for. Something else that I saw on your website is that people who like to repress, disinform, and sensor information, you wrote, prefer a lack of positive content. Why? I’ll give you some examples of how some of these regimes and really most of the extremists operate. Mainly they operate as defenders of a community. For example, ISIS, which is the role model of terrorist groups, most of their content is “we’re under attack. The world is terrible. The Shias are trying to kill you. The Iranians are trying to kill you.” And that is how they get accepted within the mainstream population. One of the questions that always comes up about these terrorist groups is “why isn’t anybody speaking up?” “How are these people able to operate?” They’re able to operate because they have installed a lot of fear about the “other side.” People then do a simple cost benefit analysis. They see that ISIS are better defenders than the guys who are trying to kill them.

When people are fearful, they’re very receptive to misinformation and the propaganda that comes in from these extremists. It’s the same thing with a group like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in which really all they do is constantly run negative ads about the opposition—and not just ads, but channels and shows on a 24/7 basis that are about how bad the other side is, and how Assad is the savior.

When I was growing up [in Iraq], mainly in a sectarian civil war, most of what was told about the other sect was pretty much all negative things. One of the things the extremists tried to stop—it was Al-Qaeda back then—was any form of positive thing happening from that community. So if a Sunni and a Shia opened a restaurant together, this news became difficult to talk about, and they started persecuting people who were talking about good and positive things happening from the other side.

Obviously people should not say positive things just for the sake of being positive, but to provide the full picture and reduce the main drive that allows extremist groups to take over, which is fear and ideology. 

This is definitely one of the psychological reasons why we’ve seen so many conspiracy theories blooming during the pandemic, because of the global fear of this disease. Zachary, the founder of The Progress Network, says sometimes that if we weren’t in such an apocalyptic mindset—and this was even pre-pandemic—we wouldn’t have found it necessary to launch an organization that was connected through a constructive mindset. Like you’re saying, there’s not worth in saying positive things just because they’re positive. The idea is that if you sincerely believe you live in a world where what you do doesn’t matter, because anything the future holds is garbage, that is of course going to have effects. A hundred percent. This is the ecosystem, the combination of hopelessness and the idea that there’s something better in the afterlife, that allows most of these terrorist groups to operate. Many ISIS members are upper middle class individuals. They’re not the poor of the poor. People ask how this ends up happening, that you have a surgeon flying all the way from Europe to join ISIS. It’s mainly that apocalyptic ideology that “the Europeans hate us” and “there’s a war between the West and the East.” 

The extremist groups create targeted marketing campaigns, targeting people within these regions. For example, there was an ISIS video targeting Moroccan taxi drivers in France and Belgium, telling them “see, you’ve been living there for quite awhile. Nobody likes you. You’re still a taxi driver. This shows that they are the enemies of God.” And that’s where they start with appealing to the feeling of hopelessness—and then, we have the solution. Here’s our solution and our call to action: come join us. And technically, what do you have to lose? If you die fighting for the cause you’re going to go to heaven. If you spread the word about the cause you’re going go to heaven.

The Capitol thing to some extent is relevant to this because these conspiracy theories have been running for ages. They had somebody who gave them a call to action, and that was it. Really all you need is somebody who is charismatic enough to direct all of these ideas and all that information they’ve gotten before and give them a place to go to or something to do. That’s all it takes.

It’s interesting to think about the parallels between the work IBB does and what happened at the Capitol. It becomes easier, for one, to explain to people why this work you’re doing in the Middle East matters to us here. But it’s also interesting in that it’s dissimilar in the sense that people in the US do have access to a wide variety of content on the Internet. But you still see people falling prey to conspiracy theories and misinformation. The issue within the US is not accessibility. I mentioned at the beginning that there is very little factual content in Arabic. There is a lot more factual content in English than in Arabic. However, those who are, in effect, in the fact business or the fact world should do a better job to make their content more appealing than . . . that’s the genius we need, really, of how to make facts as exciting as engaging with conspiracy theories.

Raised in Baghdad, Faisal Saeed Al Mutar has firsthand experience with authoritarian regimes. An outspoken writer and activist, he survived the Iraq Civil War, the murder of his brother, and several kidnapping attempts... Read More