Meta, the parent company of Facebook, has removed two popular Kurdish Facebook pages accused of spreading misinformation that helped convince thousands of Kurds to mass along the border of Belarus and Poland late last year.
The two accounts, one from a Kurdish lawmaker with 143,000 followers and another belonging to a Kurdish journalist with nearly 270,000 followers, were spreading misinformation that falsely claimed Kurds who went to the Belarus-Poland border would be allowed into the European Union.
There was no such immigration plan. Instead, frustrated crowds clashed with border guards and thousands were later deported.
The false posts were among many seen by Kurds who traveled to the border area and were interviewed by VOA.
"We followed the crowd towards the Polish borders after rumors on Facebook. It resulted in nothing more than adversity for this destitute people," said Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a Kurdish migrant in Belarus.
But the accounts on Facebook continued to publish widely read posts until earlier this month when VOA contacted Meta asking if the pages were violating the company's policies.
"Meta has decided both pages violated our policies for misinformation under Violence & Incitement Community Standards, and both have been taken down," a spokesperson from the company told VOA in an email.
The episode illustrates how the social media network continues to struggle to police even well-known spreaders of misinformation who are involved in high-profile news events, especially when misinformation is being published in languages other than English.
The Belarus-EU border crisis began last July and worsened by November, when thousands of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan, attempted to cross into the EU from Belarus.
In mid-November, violence broke out at the Polish border when security forces used tear gas and water cannons to prevent migrants from breaking the border fencing. Polish police at the time reported several injuries in their ranks from migrants throwing stones at them.
At the time, Facebook told news outlets that it was working to shut down information about human trafficking in the region.
But two prominent Kurdish Facebook pages continued to traffic in misinformation about the situation at the border until earlier this month.
Sirwan Baban, a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament, and Ranj Pshdary, a Kurdish journalist based in Greece, used their pages on Facebook to tell their followers in early November that the EU and Germany had decided to open their borders to let in migrants stranded on a Belarus-Poland border point.
It was a claim denied by EU officials at the time, but thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, still stormed the Polish border fence and clashed with police.
VOA interviews with officials in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Kurdish migrants in Belarus confirmed that misinformation on Facebook, including from Baban and Pshdary, helped to lure thousands of people towards the Polish border.
Hersh Saeed Ahmad, a 36-year-old Kurd from Sulaimani province, is among those migrants who, after reading posts on social media, took his wife and 4-year-old child to the Polish border in November.
"Our situation after the storming turned from bad to worse," he said. "Our admission by Germany was nothing more than lies and rumors on Facebook."
Another migrant, Bahadin Muhsin Qadir, said they were told the Polish security at the border had announced through loudspeakers that they will be transferred through buses to Germany.
The standoff at the border during extreme weather conditions left more than a dozen people dead, according to human rights activists, who say the total number is likely higher but hard to confirm due to restricted access to the area.
Ari Jalal, the head of Kurdish foundation Lutka for Refugees and Migrants, told VOA that his group registered two deaths among the Kurds at the border. He said about 4,000 migrants have since returned to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, with about 1,100 people remaining in Belarus camps.
"In addition to bodily and material damage, the Kurdish migrants are also psychologically broken down completely," said Jalal, while expressing his frustration at "how gullible Kurdish youth can be manipulated by livestream videos on social media."
Working with independent experts, Meta says it works to detect and remove harmful false claims that could contribute to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm — such as claims in Arabic and Kurdish that either the Polish border is open to migrants or Germany is sending buses for the migrants to the border.
In November, The New York Times reported that an account belonging to a Kurdish-German influencer widely known online as Karwan Rawanduzy was disabled on Facebook for frequently promoting bogus stories that fueled the crisis.
In early December, Meta released a threat report saying it removed 38 Facebook accounts, five groups and four Instagram accounts linked to the Belarusian KGB that were inflaming the migrant crisis. It also reported taking down 31 Facebook accounts, four groups, two Facebook events and four Instagram accounts that originated in Poland and targeted Belarus and Iraq.
Despite those high-profile takedowns, the social media giant missed other far-reaching pages that were still being used to mislead migrants.
False claim of open border
In the case of Sirwan Baban, a lawmaker, and Ranj Pshdary, who calls himself a journalist, both with thousands of followers, Facebook for months served as their main medium to encourage migrants to amass at the Polish border.
Pshdary, 32, from Iraqi Kurdistan's Qaladza town, has gained recognition in Kurdish media for his role in covering the Belarus crisis. On November 13, he went live on Facebook to tell migrants "the great news" that the EU was going to open its doors to let them in. In the video, viewed and shared by thousands, people claiming to be migrants in Belarus or their relatives, joined Pshdary's call in encouraging the migrants to prepare to cross into Poland "in the next couple of days."
"The Polish border will be opened to migrant on November 15 and the migrants will be sent to Germany via buses," Pshdary said.
Three days later, thousands of migrants, mostly Kurds, headed from a Belarus forest to the Polish border, anticipating a crossing into Poland. They clashed with the Polish police, but no migrants crossed over.
Pshdary, in another live Facebook video titled "I confess that we failed," admitted he had intentionally misled people.
"I don't want to conceal from you that I was the organizer of the crowd. On Friday, [Nov. 12, 2021], I met with the representatives of the migrants... Seeing that the Belarus police were torturing a lot of young migrants, there was no option but to encourage those people to cut the barbed wire fence so that those young people can be seen as perpetrators and violated against [by the Polish security]."
Pshdary said in his Facebook Live he believed that falsely saying the border was open would have created a spectacle with women, children and older migrants out in the cold, thus embarrassing EU politicians and forcing them to open their doors on a humanitarian basis.
When reached by VOA, Pshdary insisted that his plan was "good intentioned" and aimed at helping the migrants who desperately reached out to him for a way out.
Lawmaker resigns from diaspora committee
Lawmaker Sirwan Baban, who served as a member of the Kurdistan Regional Parliament's diaspora committee at the time of the crisis, gave similar false hopes to migrants on Facebook and on TV.
On November 8, he appeared in a live interview with the Kurdish media network Rudaw, which was streamed live on Facebook with 755,000 views, claiming he had access to a "proclamation" from the EU: "It says the migrant situation in Belarus has escalated and become tragedy and a global issue. Therefore, the European Union has met tonight, telling Poland, 'Let Belarus continue its dictatorship. You open your borders and allow the migrants in. Once in Poland, we will distribute them among other European countries.'"
In an interview with VOA, Baban denied coordinating his false information about border openings with Pshdary, claiming that he had received reliable information that the EU's refugee committee and some German officials had made a "recommendation" to let in the migrants. However, he declined to share the source of his information with VOA.
"This issue is portrayed this way in Kurdistan only to implicate me," he added.
In addition to using his Facebook page, Baban also went live on several Facebook groups and other social media pages to promote the story which — at the time — was also denied by Kurdish Foreign Relations officer Safin Dizayee in an interview with VOA Kurdish Service.
Among videos Baban posted of alleged migrants celebrating and thanking him for his efforts to influence EU officials is a young girl introducing herself as Saya and saying, "Mr. Sirwan Baban, the parliamentarian, thank you very much for such a great news … I will see you in Germany."
The Kurdistan Regional Parliament's diaspora committee in an urgent statement on November 11 accused Baban of spreading misinformation "that pushes the youth into harm's way."
The head of the committee, Rebwar Babkai, told VOA that Baban has since been forced to resign from the committee due to his role in spreading the misinformation.
"I hope this is a lesson to all of us holding a public position to feel the responsibility of our jobs," Babkai said, adding it was unclear if his region's government was going to take further action against Baban.
Limits of Facebook's enforcement?
Some social media observers say Facebook's failure to detect those pages after months of misinformation shows "a gap" that needs to be filled particularly in non-English content.
"I think Facebook needs to do more when it comes to content in local languages," said Dlshad Othman, a Kurdish cybersecurity expert based in Washington.
Othman said the social media company has improved over the years in moderating content in major Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic, often at the expense of languages for smaller populations like the Kurds. A Facebook representative declined to answer VOA questions about how many Kurdish-literate moderators the company employs.
Moustafa Ayad is the executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a research group that monitors online extremism and disinformation. He told VOA that while Facebook's technical advances such as the development of artificial intelligence have been helpful in countering disinformation, the company needs to do more.
"I believe all of these issues can be fixed with effective moderation in those languages," he said. "It is not only just language skills but also an understanding of what is happening in those countries in a geopolitical and social level."
Facebook says it works with law enforcement, academics, non-profit organizations and others to detect and remove harmful false claims, ads, posts, pages and groups about people smuggling over international borders, and did so during the crisis in Belarus. It uses technology, human review and "reports from our users and trusted partners to detect and remove such content," said a Meta spokesperson in an email to VOA.
"We remove this content as soon as we become aware of it regardless of who posts the content," the spokesperson said.
While their pages were removed, the journalist and lawmaker still have a presence on Facebook.
As of January 19, Pshdary, the journalist, has a personal account with 3,600 followers.
The lawmaker Baban's personal account has over 15,000 followers. On a recent post, he invites viewers to like his new page created on January 22.