While the rest of the world worries about the impact of fake news on elections and referendums in the United States, United Kingdom and most recently France, emerging democracies are facing the same threat.

Fake news has come to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region with a vengeance and it is eroding trust between the three pillars of society: democratic institutions, a free and fair press and citizens themselves.

This is not an imaginary threat, but a clear and present danger. To see this, one only has to look to the ongoing protests in the northern town of Al Hoceima in Morocco. The death of a fisherman during an altercation with local authorities over contraband catch in October 2016 spurred anonymous online reports claiming the death was a deliberate act intended to send a message to the working class from elites and not a tragic accident. Further video testimonials and rumors have circulated condemning the ensuing justice process as being compromised by “deep state” interference.

Denouncing protest leaders as authors of “fake news,” local authorities publicly stand by a series of arrests, trials and consequent prison sentences that have rung hollow in a region that has a deep sense of social and economic marginalization. The online battle over the past six months has created an environment where neither the local authorities nor the protesters are believed to be acting in good faith. The concept that justice can be rendered has become almost irrelevant. A potentially incendiary combination.

The MENA region is particularly vulnerable to the threat fake news poses. The region is experiencing a rapid shift from traditional state-owned and controlled media environments with little or no free independent press towards unfettered access to Facebook, YouTube, and other social media networks. New netizens are easily lured into dangerous radical echo chambers that create the perfect environment for recruitment by religious and criminal organizations. Low levels of education and media literacy in the region further results in a population ill-equipped to question the motivation and authenticity or resist the appeal of nefarious online content.

As extremists move online governments in the region have followed them, mounting extensive online monitoring strategies to identify, denounce and sanction those who create fake news and misinformation. This is an inevitable part of the fight against radicalization and recruitment. But used too broadly or abused in the name of preserving national security, this power risks giving states carte blanche to crack down on any and all reporting they disagree with.

If taken too far, this surely hurts citizens who were asked to place their faith in nascent democratic institutions. Over time, citizens risk being stripped of any confidence in government communications and the news media not knowing what information is fake, manipulated or just absent.

Around the world, IRI works with governments, civil society and citizens to ensure they are equipped to counter extremist messaging. IRI programs provide the tools to identify misinformation, resist recruitment and engage in peaceful political participation. In Morocco, IRI has focused on increasing civic education regarding the rights and responsibilities Moroccans have under the 2011 Constitution. Citizens who truly understand how their political system functions are able to defend democratic institutions and reject the destabilizing effects of false allegations and manipulated information.

It will take a coordinated effort and loud voices from all parts of society to resist the threat posed by fake news. IRI is actively engaged in programs throughout the MENA region that encourage open and honest dialogue between governments and citizens.

From local citizen protests in Morocco to municipal elections in Tunisia and legislative elections Lebanon later this year, the threat of fake news must be taken seriously. By defending and reinforcing democratic principles the entire region can continue moving towards free, prosperous and peaceful development.

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