Conspiracy theories, fake reports and mudslinging - in Iraq, false news thrives and risks real-life consequences as authorities struggle to counteract its spread.

Misinformation about political, social, security and economic issues abound online in the country, said an official from the Tech 4 Peace collective, an Iraqi organisation that tracks "fake news".

"There are hundreds of pages circulating false information on Facebook and Twitter," the official told AFP.

"Iraq has become a virtual battleground of fake news" both in local politics and between major international players vying for influence in the tinderbox country, the official said.

"And it is a free for all."

The official pointed to an incident that happened in January as tense relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq were easing with the opening of a border crossing between the neighbours.

Radical groups loyal to Iran - regional rival of Saudi Arabia and heavyweight in Iraq - launched a campaign on social media accusing a Saudi national of carrying out a double suicide attack in Baghdad that killed 32 people.

His picture was published on Twitter and Facebook and widely shared, even though it was revealed that he had in fact blown himself up in a rare suicide attack in Saudi Arabia in 2015.

The Islamic State group eventually claimed the Baghdad bombing.

Monitoring team

In the restive country that has seen almost two decades of conflict and crisis, concerns over the impact of misinformation prompted the authorities to set up a "surveillance service" tasked with tracking information.

Staff from the interior ministry spend hours in an office full of computer and television screens monitoring endless streams of news on television and online.

"When a piece of information seems suspect, they raise the alarm" and an investigation is carried out to confirm or debunk the news, said General Nebras Mohammad, who heads the misinformation department, which includes the surveillance service.

About 25 million Iraqis use social media, according to DataReportal figures, but only 34,000 of them follow the surveillance service Facebook page, where debunked false news is posted.

The Tech 4 Peace official said that Facebook is "the main vehicle for false news in Iraq", and that there is a new trending fake story "almost daily".

Some of it is ultimately harmless, like recent widely shared posts claiming a young man from Mosul had married four girls in one day that was shown by Tech 4 Peace to be a promotion for a beauty salon.

But some cases are more insidious, such as using a blaze at a COVID-19 hospital in Baghdad in late April that killed 82 people to garner likes and follows by posting fabricated reports of more fires at other health centres.

Stirring up division

Sometimes misinformation takes on a more political slant, stirring up still latent sectarian tensions in the country.

"These are organised campaigns of thousands of pages, mainly via Twitter, with political objectives," led by both pro-Iranian factions and their opponents, the Tech 4 Peace official said.

"Millions of dollars are spent" on this, the official added.

In late August 2020, a rumour spread online that a man from the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit had been arrested with a car loaded with explosives in the Shiite-majority south.

Another version of events claimed the man was a member of the powerful Hashed al-Shaabi state-sponsored paramilitary coalition made up of Iran-backed groups.

Both stories were untrue but the heated sectarian rhetoric they sparked was very real.

Authorities said that while the man was arrested for having a car full of explosives, he had no political motives or affiliations.

Amid the expanding sea of misinformation, authorities have raised concerns over its impact in the lead up to general elections set for October, around which rumours are already swirling online.

Mohammad said the anti-"fake news" team has stepped up grassroots campaigns that include distributing leaflets and raising awareness of the legal consequences of spreading false information.

But the campaigns are in an uphill battle in a country where under dictator Saddam Hussein, the only source of news was state-run.

Many young plugged-in Iraqis, like 24-year-old student Abdullah, take it upon themselves to verify their sources of information.

"I don't trust news that I read at first glance, I first check the source, whether it's from the government or elsewhere," he told AFP at a Baghdad cafe.

Laws that criminalise the spread of false information have not been updated since 1969.

A new draft cybercrimes law is under consideration by parliament, but it has already come under fire from rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which said it "could be used to stifle free expression".

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