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How fake Facebook news helped fuel a border crisis in Europe




BRUZGI, Belarus After more than a week of sleeping in a cold camp on the border between Belarus and Poland and a failed cross-border attack repulsed by pepper spray and police sticks, Mohammad Faraj gave up this month and retired to a warm hotel in Minsk. , the capital of Belarus.

However, shortly afterwards, he saw with surprise and excitement a Facebook video report claiming that Poland was ready to open its border and urging anyone wishing to enter the European Union to gather at a gas station near the camp. that the migrants had nicknamed him. jungle.

Mr Faraj, a 35-year-old ethnic Kurdish from Iraq, hurried back to the miserable camp he had just left, traveling 190 miles from Minsk to the gas station just in time for the border opening in early November. listening on Facebook.

The Polish border, of course, remained tightly closed and Mr. Faraj spent the next 10 days in what he described as something from a horror movie.

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

Belarusian authorities have certainly helped fuel the crisis by providing easy tourist visas for thousands of Iraqis and easing their journey to the border with Poland.

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

Some were in it for money, promising to smuggle migrants across borders for fat tariffs; some seemed to have received the attention they received as influencers on the Internet for sharing information; others seemed motivated by a genuine desire to help people who were suffering. There is no evidence suggesting a coordinated campaign by Mr Lukashenko to target migrants with false information online.

Fake news on Facebook, said Mr. Faraj, who last week moved from the border camp along with 2,000 other jungle dwellers to a nearby giant warehouse turned into an immigration detention center, pouring mud on our heads. and ruined our lives.

Since July, Facebook activity in Arabic and Kurdish in connection with migration to the EU via Belarus has skyrocketed, said Monika Richter, head of research and analysis for Semantic Visions, an intelligence firm. tracking social media activity related to the crisis.

“Facebook has exacerbated this humanitarian crisis and now you have all these people who were explicitly brought in and deceived and robbed,” she said. Richter.

The researchers said the smugglers openly shared their phone numbers and advertised their services on Facebook, including video evidence of people allegedly successfully arriving in Germany via Belarus and Poland. In one post, a runner advertised day trips from Minsk to Germany with only 20 km walking distance. The trip, a writer warned in another post on October 19, is not suitable for children because of the cold. Another smuggler with the Facebook username Visa Visa made trips to Germany from Belarus via Poland. The runner said the trip would take 8 to 15 hours, but added a warning: Do not call if you are scared.

Last Friday, despite the bitter experience of so many Facebook promises that turned out to be false, a wave of excitement engulfed desperate people gathered in the warehouse following reports on social media that it was still possible to enter Europe for anyone who wanted to pay $ 7,000 for a guide claiming to know an easy route across the Belarus-Poland border and through numerous queues of Polish soldiers and border guards on the other side.

Rekar Hamid, a former math teacher in Iraqi Kurdistan, who had already paid about $ 10,000 to travel agents in Iraq for a tour package that was supposed to take him, his wife and child to Europe, but only locked them in a warehouse, mocked. in the last offer as another scam. They keep saying the door is opening, but look where we are all now, he said, pointing towards a crowd of people gathered on the concrete floor.

Musa Hama, another Iraqi Kurd locked in a warehouse, complained that no amount of fact-checking would prevent people from seizing the straws of hope offered by Facebook. People are desperate so they believe everything, he said.

The influx of migrants to Belarus in hopes of joining the European Union began earlier this year when the formerly authoritarian Soviet republic eased tight visa policies for some countries, notably Iraq. The relaxation was ostensibly an attempt to boost tourism at a time when most Westerners were staying away after a brutal blow by Mr. Lukashenko in response to the contested presidential election.

Feeling a lucrative business opportunity, travel companies in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq began advertising on Facebook and other platforms related to visa availability in Belarus. The smugglers used social media to present Belarus as an easy door to Europe.

Since July, Semantic Visions has identified dozens of Facebook groups created to share information about migration routes and used by smugglers to advertise their services. A private group entitled The Migration of the Powerful from Belarus to Europe exploded from 13,600 members in early September to approximately 30,000 currently, according to Semantic Visions. Another group, Belarus Online, grew from 7,700 members to 23,700 over the same period. In the Telegram, a messaging platform and chat rooms, channels dedicated to Belarus as a road to Europe have also attracted thousands of members.

Our findings reveal the extent to which social media platforms, particularly Facebook, have been used as a de facto market for smuggling into the European Union, Semantic Visions concluded in a last report which has circulated among European Union officials.

Facebook, now officially known as Meta after a corporate name change, said it banned materials that facilitate or promote human smuggling and has dedicated teams to monitor and detect crisis-related materials. He added that the company was working with law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organizations to counter the influx of migration-related fake news.

Smuggling of people across international borders is illegal and advertisements, posts, sites or groups that offer, facilitate or coordinate this activity are not allowed on Facebook, the company said in a statement sent by email. We remove this content as soon as we hear about it.

But events in Belarus have exposed how, even after Facebook experienced a similar abuse of its services during the European migration crisis in 2015, the company still tries to keep banned materials off its platform, especially in non-English languages.

Facebook is not taking their responsibility seriously and as a direct result of this we see people desperate in the cold, in the mud, in the woods in Belarus, in a desperate situation, all because they believe in the misinformation given to them through Facebook. , said Jeroen Lenaers, a member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, who is a leader on the legislative committee dealing with migration issues.

It is unclear what steps Facebook has taken to deal with misleading and potentially dangerous information.

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

Mr Rawanduzys’s live posts on a Facebook page called Kurdisch News had more than 100,000 followers before he was deactivated in November after the Kurdish-German influencer said a Polish politician had publicly accused him of helping spark the crisis. The site also contained videos sent by hungry and cold-blooded migrants stranded along the border.

Contacted by phone in Hamburg, Germany, Mr Rawanduzy said he was repeating information about pressure on Poland to open the border, which he said had been reported by the 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 fled Iraq in 2009, two years after a suicide attack in Erbil wounded him.

Mr Faraj is still furious that he followed the advice of Mr Rawanduzy, popularly known by his first name, Karwan, rushing from Minsk to the border. “Everyone knows him and everyone follows him,” he said. He added: Karwan deceived us all on Facebook.

Mr. Rawanduzy, who also owns a restaurant, said it is not up to me to feel bad or guilty about the people convinced by his posts. It is up to the Iraqi and Kurdish governments to feel bad about all the reasons why people want to flee.

Andrew Higgins reported by Bruzgi, Belarus, Adam Satariano from London and Jane Arraf from Erbil, Iraq. Reporting was contributed bySangar Khaleelfrom Erbil, Masha Froliak from New York and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.




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