Lessons for journalists and social media users alike

One of the fundamental lessons journalists are taught, whether in the classroom or in the field, is to always question

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

One of the fundamental lessons journalists are taught, whether in the classroom or in the field, is to always question. However, the same should apply as much to news consumers as purveyors.

The former often forget that the latter are businesses like any other, with a product they have to market aggressively to attract customers and advertising in a highly competitive industry. Without revenue, these organizations cease to exist - as such, I wonder why people are still surprised that news can be sensationalized.

My 16 years as a journalist has shown that people are often far too willing to blindly accept what they read, hear or see, particularly if it corresponds to their pre-existing viewpoints. This has become much more common in the age of social media, as dissemination of information and misinformation has never been wider, faster or easier.

Particularly since the Arab Spring began, people seem happy to suspend critical thinking altogether - all that matters is their sense of validation. Since the summer, attention has shifted considerably from Syria to Egypt, but that has not stopped the flow of misinformation and conspiracy theories regarding the former. There are too many examples to list, so I will highlight three of the most recent ones that have been doing the rounds on social media.

Palestinian fighters and Syrian refugees

On Dec. 15, the BBC published an article by reporter Yolande Knell, entitled “Gaza fighters head to Syria as refugees flow in.” There is nothing new or even particularly newsworthy, certainly not in relation to the unnecessarily alarmist headline.

The article referred vaguely to “recent videos” of Palestinian militants training, a message recorded by a Gazan “earlier this year,” the death of a militant “about a year ago,” and another Gazan travelling to Syria in June. So much for the “new” in news.

If social media users are going to rail against media bias and political propaganda, they should be careful not to become tools for their dissemination, unwittingly or otherwise

Sharif Nashashibi

Crucially, it is only in the 12th paragraph that we are told: “Since the war in Syria started in early 2011, it is estimated that about 30 Palestinian militants from Gaza have headed there.” That is just 30 in almost three years. By what journalistic logic is this newsworthy, particularly when there are many thousands of foreign fighters on both sides of the conflict in Syria?

However, it does not stop there. “Dozens of Syrian refugees have headed here since the war started, as well as hundreds of Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria.” So again, we are talking dozens and hundreds over almost three years, when there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in other neighboring countries. That does not exactly sound like refugees are “flowing in” to Gaza.

Why, then, was this article published now? Why was it published at all? Judging from social media users, the only purpose it seems to have served was to further rouse the indignation of regime sympathizers who push a sectarian and “foreign-conspiracy” agenda.

Syria’s chemical weapons

An article in the London Review of Books by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in which he attributes the chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta to rebel forces, has been widely distributed on social media by those who share his view. The problem with the article is it relies on anonymous sources.

Of course, anonymity is often crucial to obtaining sensitive information that would otherwise remain secret. However, it is also open to abuse, as sources can - and often do - have their own agendas, and are sometimes even fictitious. Anonymity makes either of these scenarios, and thus the credibility of the content, difficult if not impossible to verify, so articles that rely totally on such sources must be treated with caution.

A stark example of this is an article in The Times several years ago, in which a correspondent who was quite open about his pro-Israel sympathies wrote an article based purely on anonymous sources who claimed that Hamas had developed chemical weapons. Of course the allegations were completely false, and to this day I wonder to what extent the journalist and his sources collaborated in formulating this piece of fiction.

“With anonymous sources, it’s hard for readers to know why they agreed to talk and whether they have any axes to grind or scores to settle,” wrote Brian Whitaker, The Guardian’s former Middle East editor. “That’s a judgment the reporter should make, though when presented with a juicy quote it can be tempting not to probe too deeply.”

The irony is that many of those distributing Hersh’s article were very vocal in condemning the use of anonymous sources by those trying to prove that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It seems that suspicion is often simply based on whether the source says what the reader wants to hear.

Social media users were also quick to spread Russian media reports quoting Carla del Ponte, a member of the UN commission looking into alleged chemical weapons attacks, as saying that “evidence provided by eyewitnesses and people who suffered from” the Ghouta attack “obviously points to the fact that the neuro-paralytic gas sarin was used there by the paramilitaries of Syria’s irreconcilable opposition.”

However, those same users were rather quiet about the revelation that no such statement existed, even though the mistake was acknowledged by Russian news agencies ITAR-TASS and Interfax. That is because, once again, the truth was inconvenient to those who just have to believe, and make others believe, that the Syrian regime is innocent.

If social media users are going to rail against media bias and political propaganda, they should be careful not to become tools for their dissemination, unwittingly or otherwise. Always question, check and think critically, even if your preconceptions are challenged. People rightly expect accuracy, ethics and accountability from such institutions, but social media users - all of us - who publicize content must also think and behave responsibly.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.