Fake News and Iran
Remember when the National Post published a fabricated story about Iran forcing Jews to wear yellow badges on its front page?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got international attention yesterday for tweeting out disinformation that Iran was on the verge of executing 15,000 political prisoners.
What actually happened was Iranian legislators signed a letter calling on the country’s judiciary to “show no leniency” to those arrested during protests against the Islamic Republic’s gender apartheid.
This was based on a viral Instagram post, which became a story in Newsweek, conflating the amount of political prisoners in Iranian jails with the number of people set to be executed.
If you like the work I do, please consider a paid subscription to The Orchard.
Since the parliamentarians signed their letter, one person has been sentenced to death, which is one too many, but getting the number wrong by 15,000-fold is egregious — especially for the prime minister of a G7 nation.
As Passage managing editor Davide Mastracci pointed out, Trudeau’s disinfo has been described in the media euphemistically as “sharing false information.” Disinformation is only what enemy states — like Iran — do.
As bad as Trudeau’s Iran disinfo was, it’s hard to beat a piece of fake news that made it on to the front page of the National Post in 2006, headlined “IRAN EYES BADGES FOR JEWS.”
The piece claimed Iran was forcing religious minorities to wear colour-coded badges, with Jews being forced to wear yellow ones.
"This is reminiscent of the Holocaust," Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in the piece. "Iran is moving closer and closer to the ideology of the Nazis."
The article cited “Iranian expatriates” who “confirmed reports” that the Iranian parliament had imposed a strict Islamic dress code, including “special insignia to be worn by non-Muslims.”
The only Iranian expatriate named in the piece was Ali Behroozian, who insisted the law would go into effect in 2007.
"There's no reason to believe they won't pass this," Rabbi Hier said of the legislation that was purported to have already been passed. "It will certainly pass unless there's some sort of international outcry over this."
The piece quotes Bernie Farber, who at the time was the president of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, saying he was “stunned” by the imaginary policy.
"We thought this had gone the way of the dodo bird, but clearly in Iran everything old and bad is new again," he said.
The story was a complete fabrication, NatPo editor-in-chief Douglas Kelly acknowledged in a half-assed apology:
We acknowledge that on this story, we did not exercise sufficient caution and skepticism, and we did not check with enough sources. We should have pushed the sources we did have for more corroboration of the information they were giving us. That is not to say that we ignored basic journalistic practices or that we rushed this story into print with no thought as to the consequences. But given the seriousness of the allegations, more was required.
The issue was first brought to the attention of Post editors through a column from Iranian exile Amir Taheri. “We tried to contact Mr. Taheri, but he was in transit and unreachable,” Kelly said.
The Post then reached out to the Wiesenthal Centre’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who said it was “absolutely true,” before speaking with two Iranian exiles, including Behroozian, both of whom said “they believed it to be true.”
Rather than wait for expert confirmation, the editors made a clearly-ideological decision to run with the story anyway, because they “felt confident” it was true.
“The reaction was immediate and distressing,” Kelly wrote. “Several experts whom the reporter had tried unsuccessfully to contact the day before called to say the story was not true.”
The moral of the story is that when it comes to claims about enemy states, no skepticism is required. Disinformation is what they do; we just make honest mistakes.