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HBKU professor highlights misleading headlines around Qatar


Author and Middle East expert Dr. Marc Owen Jones

Doha: Author and Middle East expert Dr. Marc Owen Jones has dismissed the inaccurate representations by several Western media on death figures associated with the construction of FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 infrastructure.

In a series of tweets on his official handle, Dr. Jones, an Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU) cited the Guardian UK article for misleading information.

One of the most pervasive and re-occurring pieces of disinformation about Qatar has been the figure that 6,500 migrant workers have died in connection with the World Cup. I wanted to do a thread on how this piece of news has been transmitted on Twitter over the past year. The figure 6,500 comes from @guardian - a usually reputable British publication. The original Guardian headline heavily implied that 6,500 deaths were connected to World Cup. According to my analysis, this has been the MOST RETWEETED article about the Qatar World Cup in English.

The Guardian later amended the headline to make it clear the figure of deaths was over a ten-year period. Nonetheless, the original allusion still stood - with the headline still heavily implying the deaths were anomalous and connected to the World Cup, Dr. Jones tweeted.

Dr. Jones said he downloaded all tweets mentioning Qatar and 6500 (filtering out false positives where possible). He disclosed that his research noted that the figure 6500 resurfaced constantly and has been tweeted about over 400,000 times since February 2021 when the Guardian article was published.

Like everything on Twitter, most content is retweets and recontextualized information. The predictable thing about misleading statistics is a misinterpretation. Within 24 hours the original Guardian headline was interpreted to mean 6500 died on construction sites. This is a great lesson on how misleading information becomes false information very quickly. In fact, in this case, the original headline was sensationalist precisely because it wished to invoke such misinterpretations. Otherwise, why publish the figure? Dr. Jones shared a series of tweets from various influencers/politicians/journalists over the past three months that have understood the 6,500 figure as deaths on construction sites which is false information.

However whats also interesting about this network is that at the centre is the Guardian article. Essentially the Guardian headline has become the centre of a multilingual evidentiary claim about deaths in Qatar. I emphasise headline because for many thats all they read, and the content of the article even clarifies that the number is all workers, and not construction deaths (after an addendum).

He stressed that much of the outrage around Qatar is held together by a sensationalist newspaper headline using misleading statistics.

Although we can lambast people for not being critical, newspapers are abusing the trust of their readers by engaging in such sensationalism and disinformation. Another sad part is that I wonder if the Guardian would get away with publishing similar stats closer to home. One of the reasons that coverage of the World Cup has been as it has is partly because there is less nuanced coverage about the Middle East and/or the Global South.

This is a long-standing issue of Orientalism. Countries outside zones of privilege become caricatures, often of their most negative traits, and people are primed to believe figures like 6500 deaths because many are also primed to believe that the Global South is a barbaric and less civilised place. I wont get started on why also reducing 6500 South Asian workers to construction workers is also racist. Neither will I go into the various interests at play behind these disinformation campaigns. Safe to say, disinformation is disinformation, and it takes on a different quality when it is aimed at places outside usual zones of privilege (would be an interesting study actually).

Dr. Jones emphasised despite the misrepresentation and misunderstanding, it does not negate very real human rights issues but theres no need to lie about them when theyre real.

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