Bill Gates is dressed as Joker. Her hair is fluorescent green, her face painted white, and her elongated smile is cut into her face. In his hand is a large needle filled with clear green liquid. The Facebook post has been shared over 700 times and viewed by thousands of people. Below, a caption teases Gates’ “horror plan”. It’s a baseless conspiracy theory that has torn Facebook apart throughout the pandemic. But this post is different. It’s in Arabic – and that’s just one example of a much bigger problem.
Across dozens of Arab pages and groups, pandemic conspiracy theories are racking up millions of views and likes. New research from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), which was shared with WIRED, shows vaccine lies are spreading rampantly in Arabic on Facebook. Sophisticated disinformation operations have racked up millions of views on videos promoting vaccine disinformation and hundreds of thousands of followers. And while Facebook has been repeatedly criticized for not addressing this issue in English, little attention has been paid to the scale of the problem in Arabic, a language spoken by more than 400 million people.
Between January 1 and February 28, ISD researchers found 18 Facebook pages and ten groups sharing disinformation and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic in Arabic. They had a combined following of over 2.4 million people. “It was far too easy to find this content,” says Moustafa Ayad, ISD’s executive director for Africa, Middle East and Asia. Facebook’s popularity in the Arab world has skyrocketed in recent years, with over 164 million monthly active users reported in 2019.
To get a feel for the scale of the Arabic disinformation problem on Facebook, Ayad and ISD analyst Ciaran O’Connor created a list of keywords related to the pandemic and searched for pages and groups that found them. were using. Using CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool, they then produced a snapshot of the largest communities, including groups with up to 100,000 members and pages with up to 650,000 followers.
Some of them are cheeky: The group names, when translated from Arabic, included phrases like “Corona lie,” “Covid-19 conspiracy,” and “No vaccine Corona has not end.” The posts on these pages contain false claims about the ingredients, production and deployment of vaccines. They have also been spreading baseless conspiracy theories claiming the world is about to end and the pandemic was fabricated as a way to control people.
Amid this mud of lies and false truths, Gates emerges as a common theme. The Microsoft founder is a central figure in Western conspiracy theories around the pandemic and those same lies have been translated into Arabic, with text or voiceovers added to videos and images. One page, which has more than 134,000 likes, broadcast a video about Gates’ “horror plan”, baselessly accusing him of wanting to depopulate the planet and make money from vaccines. (There is no proof it’s true.)
Other Gates-related conspiracy theories that have gone viral in Arabic on Facebook include suggestions that people should “prepare for the Hunger Games.” Another video shows him with his lips sewn together. Many videos have been shared hundreds of times. “I’m talking about videos with millions of views of Bill Gates blocking the sun, where Bill Gates plans to put the mark of the beast in individuals through an injection,” Ayad says.
The videos are so absurd and blatantly fake that it should be easy for Facebook to proactively identify and remove them, ISD researchers say. Their report says Facebook’s moderation of disinformation in Arabic is not as effective as in English. “You can’t just solve it in a part of Facebook,” Ayad says. “You need to reach out to communities at all levels.”