How fake images of Uighur persecution are hurting their cause

There are quite a few photos and videos purporting to show violence against the Chinese Uighur Muslim minority that are circulating on social media. It turns out that many of these photos tell an entirely different story.
There are quite a few photos and videos purporting to show violence against the Chinese Uighur Muslim minority that are circulating on social media. It turns out that many of these photos tell an entirely different story.

Numerous videos that claim to show members of China’s Uighur Muslim minority being mistreated, arrested and tortured have been circulating on social media over the past few weeks. Although there is proof that the Chinese government is persecuting the Uighurs, quite a few of these videos are downright false or have been taken out of context. Uighur activists say the circulation of these fake images has provided fresh ammunition for Chinese nationalists, who claim that the persecution of Uighurs is just one big hoax.

Warning: Some readers may find the following images shocking.

In mid-December, a German Instagram account shared a video showing three men being whipped viciously as they lie on the ground. They are wearing hardly any clothes. The post implies that the men are Uighur. "Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are being tortured and killed in internment camps," it reads. Before it was deleted, the video garnered more than 200,000 views.

Screengrab of a video posted by @das_erwachen on Instagram on December 10. The publication has since been deleted.

However, it turns out that this video was actually filmed in Indonesia in 2017. It’s hard to know exactly what was happening, but several Indonesian media outlets reported at the time that the footage shows the beating of three teenagers who were suspected of theft.

That’s just one example – social media is full of other videos and photos that have also been taken out of context, like a photo that was widely circulated on Twitter by people who believe it shows a Uighur woman being tortured.

People on Twitter thought this video showed a Uighur woman being tortured. It turns out that she was taking part in a protest in Chicago to denounce the torture of members of Falun Gong by the Chinese government.

However, it you put this photo through a reverse image search on Tineye (check here to see how), then it will pull up several articles in Chinese and English that include this photo as illustration. It turns out that this image was taken in 2004 during a series of protests against the torturing of members of Falun Gong by the Chinese government. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement whose members have been persecuted by the Chinese government since 1999.

At the protests, some of the activists acted out scenes of torture. The woman in the photo is just acting.

These photos also show activists acting out scenes of torture to protest against the Chinese government's policies.

Videos taken out of context

Some of the videos that have been circulating aren’t downright false but they are misleading because they’ve been taken out of context. That’s the case for the tweet posted below.

The person who shared the video claimed that it shows a reunion between a man who was just released from a Chinese internment camp and his family. The man is moving very slowly and seems to be frightened by any quick movements.

Translation (from French) of tweet by Twitter user @ayoub_grb: This man was just liberated from a concentration camp in China. He can barely walk. He doesn’t recognise his own family and he is frightened by any movement.

However, that's not actually the truth behind this video, though. The man in the video, Zharqynbek Otan, was detained for eight months in an internment camp in China back in 2016. However, a lot happened between that time and the moment when the video was filmed.

After his time in the camp, Otan spent a year under house arrest before he was finally liberated in October 2018. It’s still unclear why Otan was arrested in the first place. He’s a Chinese national and practising Muslim who was living in Kazakhstan and was arrested when he came back to China to renew his passport.

After his release, he went back to Kazhakstan. However, in January 2019, Otan disappeared for 24 hours. His wife posted frantically on social media, asking for any information about his whereabouts.

Zharqynbek Otanâ’s wife posted a call for any information about her husband on January 23, after she realized that he had gone missing.

Eventually, he did turn up and this video was filmed when he was reunited with his family. He told his friends and family that he doesn’t remember what happened to him.

Translation (from French) of a tweet by the France 24 Observers team: This post, which has been shared more than 13,000 times on social media, deserves some clarification. This man really was incarcerated for eight months in a camp in #China in 2016. His name is Zharqynbek Otan (photo below), but he was released in October 2018, not recently.

Another example is this photo that was shared many times on Facebook and Twitter. Most of the posts assume the child is Uighur.

This photo wasn’t taken in China, although it does involve the Uighur community. It turns out that it was actually taken in Turkey in 2018, during a rally in support of the Uighur community. If you run a reverse image search, you’ll pull up articles from 2018 about the protest that are illustrated with this photo. They credit it to the AFP.

"These posts hurt the Uyghur cause"

Uighur activist Alfred Erkin frequently tweets about the videos that are circulating online. He tries to establish which ones show actual cases of torture and which ones have been falsely attributed to the Uighur crisis. Erkin himself left Xinjiang, where his father is imprisoned, and now lives in the United States.

It’s easy for China to use these false photos and videos for their propaganda. It’s happened where someone posts a video of a man being beaten up and says the victim is Uighur and it turns out, he wasn’t. That’s been picked up by the Chinese media, who then accuse the West of spreading fake news.

Chinese nationalists often spot these false or misleading images and then use them to discredit the people who share them and the Uighur cause more widely.

In the exchange below, a Reddit user has posted a photo that he presents as a pro-Uighurs tweet that has been circulating on social media with a modified picture. It apparently shows Chinese forces killing Uighurs. (UPDATE 13/01/2020 : The Observers team couln't confirm such tweet was posted.)

In this post, one social media user condemns fake and misleading publications about the Uighurs, which he says amounts to anti-Chinese propaganda. This post was shared widely on social media in China.

In reality, this video shows the aftermath of a car crash in Indonesia. A truck that was transporting syrup was involved and its cargo spilled all over the ground, which explains the red marks. If you do a reverse image search, this photo and the story behind it come up quickly.

Erkin says it is extremely important to pay attention to what is being shared online.

We have enough real images to show the world what is going on. The fake images that are circulating online might give people the wrong idea. Sometimes the level of cruelty shown in these false videos far exceeds what is actually going on.

Moreover, people confuse the Uighurs, the Hui and the Tibetans. When people confuse us in their posts, it is like they are denying our separate identities when the Chinese are already trying to eradicate us.

Recently, the hashtags #Chinazi and #China_is_terrorist have been widely used on Twitter by people who want to denounce China’s policies towards minorities. Often these hashtags are shared along with photos and videos. But Erkin says it can often be difficult to distinguish the true from the false:

Some Uighurs left the region a decade ago or more. Sometimes they share false images but they really do think that they show the current crisis. It’s even hard for me to tell what’s true and what’s false. There are also lots of trolls who also pick up our hashtags and then flood us with content.

Erkin knows that he can’t debunk all of the fake publications floating around online. But he uses his Twitter account to share verified videos and photos, to show the world what is going on in the region.

According to the UN, close to a million Uighurs are currently being detained in internment camps throughout Xinjiang. The Chinese government has been carrying out a ruthless campaign of repression on this Muslim minority group.

Article by Marie Genries (@mariegnrs)