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How one journalist is going after false news on Syria

A Syrian journalist recently launched Verify, an online platform correcting and validating news on Syria.

ALEPPO, Syria — Since the outbreak of the revolution in Syria five years ago, various Arab and international media outlets naturally began publishing daily reports about the various political, military and humanitarian developments in the country. Amid the great number of news flashes and articles, the amount of incorrect, distorted and groundless information became noticeable. This gave ​​Syrian journalist Ahmad Primo the idea to launch the platform Verify. Primo spoke to Al-Monitor about the purpose of the platform — “giving the reader correct information that is free of lies and distortion.”

Primo holds a degree in programming and web development and has been working in online media for seven years. He explained that there are many reasons that lead to the spread of false information in the media. Chief among them, Primo said, “Media outlets rush to spread news about Syria. In the absence of censorship, they publish news based on the copy/paste technique without following professional standards to verify whether the news comes from official or reliable sources.”

Verify's slogan is “Responsible Journalism.” Four volunteer journalists staff the platform's management and editorial team to correct, confirm and refute news items. Each journalist works from his or her place of residence in Syria, Turkey and Germany. Eight additional journalists monitor suspicious journalistic articles and submit them to the editorial team for verification. Visitors to the platform, however, play the most important role in the monitoring process, submitting the largest percentage of corrected news items.

“We are happy that social media users are hugely interactive with us,” Primo said. Dozens of items are being sent to us on a daily basis for verification, and when the article is correct, we inform them that it is correct. But when it is wrong, we publish a correction after finding a source refuting the validity of the article.”

Although the platform was launched less than two months ago, on March 21, its social media accounts are attracting a large number of users. The website's Facebook page has attracted more than 32,000 likes, a good number compared with other recently launched local Syrian pages.

Journalist Mustafa Muhammad, who writes for Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, said that the popularity of the platform’s pages is normal given “followers’ desire to know the truth.” Muhammad told Al-Monitor, “Today we are in dire need of such a platform in order to provide people with correct news at a time when social media outlets are riddled with distorted news.” 

Asked if Verify is reliable, Muhammad replied, “Yes, definitely, because this platform uses professional standards and proven evidence in its assessment of the news’ validity.”

Primo explained that his team validates news by searching for the main source of the article. The platform does not publish corrections until “proven documents” are found. These can be images, videos, testimonies or official statements.

The number of corrected pieces thus far is about 250. Verify corrects news published by opposition and regime media outlets alike. It is unbiased, is not affiliated with any political party and does not receive foreign funding for salaries. Primo said, “We are only biased in favor of the truth. Our sole goal is to correct the news for the reader.”

On April 1, a Facebook page published a video that the page claimed was an air raid in Syria. The video got more than a million views, but Verify checked its validity and found that the strike had been in the Gaza Strip and that the video had been published on YouTube two years ago.

Verify also refuted the validity of a photo published April 29 on a Web page close to the regime. The photo reportedly showed the bodies of civilians, killed in opposition bombing, laid out in Al-Razi Hospital in Aleppo. The platform managed to prove, however, that the photo had been published on the internet four years ago. It did not specify the location. Al-Monitor found that the image is of victims of the Houla massacre, which ensued when regime security and armed forces stormed the town of Houla on May 25, 2012, killing 108 people according to Human Rights Watch.

In addition to identifying mistakes by local media outlets, Verify has also corrected news and articles published by international media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Russia Today and the BBC, and has presented some of its findings in English.

“Our attention is mainly focused on Syrian affairs, but we correct any news related to Syria,” Primo said. “For example, we denied widely spread reports whereby Turkish authorities had abolished entry visas for Syrians. Our future plan is to correct any news published on the internet regardless of its content.”

The platform team said work is currently underway to launch an English version of the website and a mobile application. According to Primo, media outlets have been responsive to the platform. Some outlets apologized for having published false information, and others corrected their content, including BBC Arabic, which apologized for publishing footage of opposition areas in Aleppo as being regime-controlled areas.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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