How fake news on Facebook helped fuel a border crisis in Europe

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BRUZGI, Belarus – After more than a week of sleeping in an icy encampment on the Belarus-Poland border, and an aborted foray across the border repelled by pepper spray and police batons, Mohammad Faraj abandoned this month and retired to a cozy hotel in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

Shortly after, however, he watched with surprise and enthusiasm a video report on Facebook claiming that Poland was about to open its border and urging anyone who wanted to enter the European Union to assemble at a station. -service near the encampment that migrants nicknamed “the jungle.”

Mr Faraj, a 35-year-old Kurd of Iraqi descent, rushed to the squalid camp he had just left, traveling 190 miles from Minsk to the gas station just in time for the border opening to begin. November that he had heard about on Facebook.

The Polish border, of course, remained hermetically sealed and Mr Faraj spent the next 10 days in what he described as “like something out of a horror movie”.

The European Union, offering strong support for Poland’s tough stance against migrants, blamed the traumas of recent weeks at its eastern border on Belarusian authoritarian leader Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

Belarusian authorities have certainly helped fuel the crisis, offering easy tourist visas to thousands of Iraqis and making their way to the border with Poland easier.

But social media, especially Facebook, have also provided Mr Lukashenko with vital help, as an unpredictable accelerator of the hopes and illusions of people who have fallen prey to empty promises of internet profiteers and charlatans.

Some were there for money, promising to smuggle migrants across borders at high fees; some seemed to take advantage of the attention they received as online “influencers” to share information; others seemed motivated by a sincere desire to help those in pain. There is no evidence to suggest a campaign coordinated by Mr Lukashenko to target migrants with false information online.

Fake news on Facebook, said Mr. Faraj, who was moved last week from the border camp with 2,000 other inhabitants of “the jungle” to a nearby giant warehouse converted into a detention center for migrants, ” mud on our heads and destroy our lives. “

Since July, Facebook activity in Arabic and Kurdish linked to migration to the EU via Belarus has “skyrocketed,” said Monika Richter, head of research and analysis for Semantic Visions, a intelligence company. who followed social media activity related to the crisis.

“Facebook has exacerbated this humanitarian crisis and now you have all these people who have been led in and explicitly misled and ripped off,” Ms. Richter said.

The researchers said the smugglers openly shared their phone numbers and advertised their services on Facebook, including video testimonials from people who allegedly reached Germany successfully via Belarus and Poland. In a message, a smuggler announced “daily trips from Minsk to Germany with only 20 km on foot”. The trip, a writer warned in another article on Oct. 19, is “not suitable for children due to the cold.” Another smuggler with the Facebook user name “Visa Visa” organized trips to Germany from Belarus via Poland. The smuggler said the trip would take 8 to 3 hours, but added a warning: “Do not call if you are afraid”.

Last Friday, despite the bitter experience of so many promises on Facebook that turned out to be false, a wave of excitement swept through people shot in the warehouse after reports on social media that it was still possible to enter in Europe – for anyone who wants it. to pay $ 7,000 to a guide who claimed to know an easy route across the Belarusian-Poland border and through massive ranks of Polish soldiers and border guards on the other side.

Rekar Hamid, a former math teacher in Iraqi Kurdistan who had previously paid travel agents around $ 10,000 in Iraq for a “package tour” supposed to bring him, his wife and young child to Europe, but only locked them in a warehouse. , mocked the latest offer as another scam. “They keep saying the door is opening, but look where we are all now,” he said, gesturing to a mass of people curled up on the concrete floor.

Musa Hama, another Iraqi Kurd confined in the warehouse, lamented that no fact-checking would prevent people from grasping the glimmers of hope provided by Facebook. “People are desperate so they believe anything,” he said.

The stampede of migrants to Belarus in the hope of entering the European Union began earlier this year when the authoritarian former Soviet republic eased strict visa policies for some countries, most notably Iraq. The easing was ostensibly an effort to boost tourism at a time when most Westerners were on the sidelines following a brutal crackdown by Lukashenko in response to a contested presidential election.

Sensing a lucrative business opportunity, travel agencies in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan began to advertise on Facebook and other platforms on the availability of visas for Belarus. The smugglers have used social media to portray Belarus as an easy back door to Europe.

Since July, Semantic Visions has identified dozens of Facebook groups created to share information on migration routes and used by smugglers to advertise their services. A private group titled “Migration of the Powerful from Belarus to Europe” has grown from 13,600 members in early September to around 30,000 today, according to Semantic Visions. Another group, “Belarus Online”, has grown from 7,700 members to 23,700 during the same period. On Telegram, a messaging and chat platform, channels dedicated to Belarus as a route to Europe have also attracted thousands of members.

“Social media platforms – especially Facebook – have been used as a de facto smuggling market in the EU,” Semantic Visions concluded in a statement. recent report which circulated among officials of the European Union.

Facebook, now officially known as the Meta after a corporate name change, said it bans material that facilitates or encourages human trafficking and has dedicated teams to monitor and detect related material. to the crisis. He added that the company was working with law enforcement and non-governmental organizations to counter the flood of fake news about migration.

“Trafficking in people across international borders is illegal and any advertisements, posts, pages or groups that provide, facilitate or coordinate this activity are not permitted on Facebook,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it. “

But events in Belarus have shown how, even after Facebook experienced a similar abuse of its services during the European migration crisis in 2015, the company still struggles to keep banned content off its platform, by especially in languages ​​other than English.

“Facebook does not take its responsibility seriously and as a direct consequence of this we see desperate people in the cold, in the mud, in the forest in Belarus, in a desperate situation, all because they believe in disinformation provided to them by Facebook, ”said Jeroen Lenaers, Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands and leader of the Legislative Committee on Migration Issues.

It is not known what steps Facebook has taken, if any, to deal with the misleading and potentially dangerous information.

A Kurdish-German influencer widely known online as Karwan Rawanduzy is a popular figure among would-be immigrants to Europe, but his online videos and other reports often promote fake stories, such as the claim that Poland would open its border in early November.

Mr Rawanduzy’s live posts to a Facebook page named Kurdisch News had more than 100,000 subscribers before it was disabled in November after the Kurdish-German influencer said a Polish politician had it publicly accused of having contributed to fueling the crisis. The page also featured videos sent by hungry and cold migrants trapped along the border.

Reached by telephone in Hamburg, Germany, Rawanduzy said he was repeating information about the pressure on Poland to open the border which he said had been reported by German media. He blamed smugglers and countries, including Poland, for the misery migrants face and that he was simply trying to help asylum seekers.

Mr Rawanduzy, 42, describes himself as an immigration activist and former refugee who left Iraq in 2009, two years after a suicide bomb attack in Erbil injured him.

Mr Faraj is still furious at having followed the advice of Mr Rawanduzy, widely known by his first name, Karwan, in rushing from Minsk to the border. “Everyone knows him and everyone is following him,” he said. He added, “Karwan tricked us all on Facebook. “

Mr Rawanduzy, who also owns a restaurant, said it was “not for me to feel bad or guilty” about people persuaded by his messages. “It’s up to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to feel bad for all the reasons people want to escape.”

Andrew Higgins reported from Bruzgi, Belarus, Adam satariano from London and Jane arraf from Erbil, Iraq. The report was provided bySangar Khaleelfrom Erbil, Macha Froliak from New York, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.

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