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Monday, August 15, 2022

In Europe, fake news on Facebook had a role in fueling the current border crisis

Earlier this month, Mohammad Faraj surrendered after more than a week spent sleeping in a frigid encampment on the border between Belarus and Poland, as well as an abortive attempt to cross the border that was foiled by pepper spray and police batons, and he was taken to a warm hotel in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, for treatment.

Soon after, however, he was taken aback by a video report on Facebook claiming that Poland was about to open its border and urging all those seeking to enter the European Union to gather at a gas station near the encampment that the migrants had dubbed “the jungle.” He watched the report with surprise and excitement.

After trekking 190 miles from Minsk to a petrol station in time for the border opening in early November, Mr. Faraj, a 35-year-old ethnic Kurd from Iraq, returned to the dismal camp he had just left, barely making it in time for the border opening that he had read about on Facebook.

The Polish border, of course, remained closed, and Mr. Faraj was forced to spend the following ten days in what he characterised as “something out of a horror movie” conditions.

The Belarusian authorities have undoubtedly contributed to the escalation of the issue by issuing simple tourist permits to thousands of Iraqis and facilitating their passage to the Polish border.

Mr. Lukashenko’s efforts have been aided by social media, notably Facebook, which has acted as an unanticipated accelerant to the dreams and illusions of individuals who have fallen victim to the hollow promises of profiteers and charlatans on the internet.

Some appeared to be in it for the money, promising to smuggle migrants across borders in exchange for large sums of money; others appeared to be basking in the attention they were receiving as online “influencers” for sharing information; and others appeared to be motivated by a genuine desire to help those who were in need of assistance. There has been no evidence to imply that Mr. Lukashenko was behind a systematic attempt to target migrants with false material posted on the internet.

After hearing on social media that it was still possible to get into Europe — if you were willing to pay $7,000 to a guide who claimed to know a simple route across the Belarus-Poland border and through massed ranks of Polish soldiers and border guards on the other side — a ripple of excitement swept across the despondent people huddled in the warehouse on Friday, despite the bitter experience of so many promises on Facebook that turned out to be false.

A former math teacher in Iraqi Kurdistan who had previously paid over $10,000 to travel brokers in Iraq for a “package tour” that was intended to transport him, his wife, and their small kid to Europe but instead landed them in a warehouse laughed at the current offer, calling it “yet another fraud.” It was a swarm of people huddled on the concrete floor, he pointed out. “They keep saying the door is opening, but look where we all are right now,” he added.

It was earlier this year when the autocratic former Soviet republic loosened strict visa requirements for select nations, most notably Iraq, which triggered a surge of migrants to Belarus in the goal of entering the European Union. According to the official explanation, the relaxation was implemented in an attempt to increase tourism at a time when most Westerners were staying away after Mr. Lukashenko’s ruthless crackdown in reaction to the contentious presidential election.

Following a corporate name change, Facebook, now officially known as Meta, said that it prohibits anything that aids or encourages people smuggling and that it has specialised teams to monitor and identify information relevant to the problem. It went on to say that the corporation was collaborating with law enforcement authorities and nongovernmental groups in order to combat the influx of false information linked to migration.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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