2015: A year of debunking fake 'news'


In 2015, the Observers team debunked more fake “news” relayed on social media than any other year. From claims that Saudi Arabia bulldozed bodies in Mecca, to using photos of innocent people and describing them as the Paris attackers, a huge amount of misinformation was circulated on social networks – and some of it was even repeated by news outlets. We take a look at just a few of the most striking cases.

Conspiracy theories following the Charlie Hebdo attacks

After the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris, conspiracy theorists had a field day on social networks. Their goal: to show that the truth was being hidden, either by the authorities or by the media.

A few hours after the first amateur images of the Charlie Hebdo attack started to circulate, conspiracy theorists started “analysing” them. Among the details they used as “proof” of a conspiracy, one was particularly popular: the “inconsistent” colour of the rearview windows of the car used by two of the attackers, the Kouachi brothers. As they brothers fled, several people managed to film their car, a black Citroën C3 of the model Sélection.

On the top image, which is a screengrab from the moment the brothers were readying to kill a police officer near the Charlie Hebdo offices, their car’s rearview mirrors appear white. Whereas in the image below, which is a photo of the car after the brothers abandoned it in the north of Paris, the rearview mirrors appear black. Several Internet users claimed that this proved that these were two different cars, and not the same car, as the media and the police had reported. But the truth is simple: the rearview mirrors on this model are chrome-plated, meaning that they reflect light and thus can change colours depending on the angle of the photograph.

This is evident in these two photos of the same car taken in the same location, but photographed from different angles.

"For all those who believed the stupid conspiracy about the rearview mirrors - they're metallic gray, the coulour changes according to the light..."

Fake news that spread fear of migrants

Tens of thousands of migrants, many of them fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, arrived in Europe this year. Far-right groups and their sympathisers were quick to start spreading false information about them. Their goal: to influence popular opinion so that European countries would stop taking in these new arrivals.

This video, filmed at the border between Greece and Macedonia, was relayed by the French-language site “Riposte Laique” last August. The site, which is close to France’s far-right, presented these images as proof that the migrants refused to accept any food that was not halal. While the video is real, its description is totally false.

A spokesperson for the Red Cross explained that in fact, the migrants had refused the food as a sign of protest, since they had been blocked under the rain by security forces for the past day. All they wanted was to cross the border. Their refusal had nothing to do with whether the food was halal or not.

Below is another attempt at misinforming the public. The image was posted on the Facebook page of Pegida UK, a self-proclaimed branch of Pegida, Germany’s anti-migrant party. It shows several very muscular men arriving disembarking from boats, accompanied by text suggesting that they are not real refugees.

Photo published on the Facebook 'Pegida UK'.

However, these photos were not taken in Europe. They were taken in 2013 on Christmas Island, in Australia. This is evident from the police’s blue uniforms, which are inscribed with the logo “Australian Customs and Border Protection”.

The photo below was shared by many Internet users – including a member of Belgium’s parliament – who described it as “6,000 illegal immigrants arriving in Italy in 48 hours”. But a quick Google Search reveals that it was taken in 1991, when the “La Vlora” ship brought thousands of Albanese immigrants to the port of Bari in Italy.


Rumours and fake images in Burundi

On May 13, 2015, Burundi’s General Niyombare attempted to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza. But the general failed, and as protests raged in the streets of the capital, loyalist soldiers attacked the country’s private radio stations to keep them from broadcasting. This resulted in a vacuum of information, in which rumours spread like wildfire. For example, many Internet users relayed the photo below, on the left, which supposedly showed the general after he was “beaten in prison”.

Contacted by FRANCE 24 at the time, his lawyer explained: “This photo is of a man who looks like him, but it isn’t him. People think they’re helping him by showing that he’s been mistreated, but there is no benefit to my client in spreading fake images.”

Fake photos amid tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The deadly stampede that took place near Mecca on September 25 provoked an all-out communications war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where more than 400 of those killed hailed from. Iranian newspapers repeatedly accused the Saudi authorities of being incompetent, and Saudi media found a way to lash back.

They relayed these images showing a crane that had collapsed in Tehran, and claimed this incident was recent. In addition, they accused the Iranian authorities of enforcing a media blackout around the accident.

But in reality, these images date back to incidents in June 2013 and June 2014. A Saudi Twitter account specialised in verification was the first to pick up on this lie.

The photo below, meanwhile, was circulated widely on social networks in Iran a few weeks after the stampede. On Twitter and Facebook, it was described as showing “bulldozers clearing out victims’ bodies…"

Internet users that relayed the image were outraged that victims would be treated like this, some even calling the Saudi authorities “Satanic”.

However, upon verification, it turned out that this photo was part of a series of photos published after another stampede back in 2004.

In addition, the quality of the photo is such that it is impossible to see exactly what the bulldozers are removing, but it looks likely to be detritus, since it appears similar to the detritus in the foreground of the photo.

The fake Paris terrorists

Following the November 13 attacks in Paris, media outlets from around the world scurried to uncover scoops, especially about the suspects.

This race led some to flounder, like a Belgian newspaper who published the photo of a Brussels resident, wrongly describing him as one of the suicide bombers, Brahim Abdeslam.

The victim of this error, Brahim Ouanda, quickly published a video on Facebook to denounce the newspaper.

PARTAGER: Voilà encore une fois ..on tape au hasard dans la jeunesse..l’identité d'un jeune du quartier usurpé par les médias .Un SCANDALE... mais nous saluons l accueil des policiers qui ont essayer de faire le nécessaire malgré un accueil virulent. On lâchera pas. bienvenue dans le monde de la stigmatisation au 1080

Posted by Tchen Brahim on Monday, November 16, 2015

Another victim of this media frenzy was a woman in Morocco, who, on November 19, discovered a photo of herself in a bathtub splayed on the front page of the Daily Mail.

The British tabloid described her as being Hasna Aït Boulahcen, one of the accomplices in the Paris attacks, who was killed during the police’s assault on the attackers in Saint-Denis. The bath photo was widely circulated on social media, forcing the victim to record a video to correct the error. In the video, she explains that a former friend of hers sold the photo to a journalist…

To learn to spot fake images circulating on social media, check out the Observers’ verification guide.